CUSU has organised several protests in solidarity with strikers this weekMathias Gjesdal Hammer

Low election turnouts. JCR disaffiliations. CUSU has suffered a rumbling legitimacy crisis for years, and there’s little hope that this year’s executive elections will alter this. But CUSU also contains the seeds of its own renewal: the autonomous campaigns (for women, BME students, disabled students, international students, and LGBT+ students) have proven well-liked and effective. Why does the perception of CUSU’s different elements vary, and what should the next CUSU exec draw from this?

CUSU is caught between two systems. One is the old executive committee system, the other a participatory system, currently exemplified by the autonomous campaigns. Channelling Foucault for a second, executive committees resemble government cabinets, which resemble pantheons. Non-overlapping thematic spheres of responsibility are each presided over by one person, with minimal hierarchy between members save for one, a first among equals, responsible for the overall functioning of the committee. Low turnouts at elections are not just symptomatic of CUSU’s problems; the elections to the executive committee are themselves partly to blame for them.

“CUSU can’t let itself be perceived as alien”

Whether the executive committee or the participatory system is better for a modern student union is shown by what it means to be a student union. It is more than just a few people employed by the student body for its welfare. It is the organisation of the student body to enable collective action. Accordingly, when CUSU’s legitimacy is in crisis a question mark hangs over its ability to achieve its aims. When negotiating with the university or any similarly powerful institution, CUSU’s strength is not its ability to act as a collection of private individuals for the student body’s sake, but its ability to act as the student body.


Mountain View

Tough fight ahead in battle for CUSU presidency

This presents candidates with a dilemma. We are considering two different kinds of representation: to act for somebody, and to act as somebody. It’s the difference between passivity and activity, being the object of representation or acting through a representative, between a group of friends having a pizza delivered or nominating one of their number to fetch it. This goes a long way towards explaining the differing perceptions of the CUSU exec and its autonomous campaigns.

For CUSU to act as the student body, the most important thing is that the student body must identify with it. CUSU can’t let itself be perceived as alien. Ordinary students, not just JCR reps and Varsity writers, must engage with CUSU’s functions. At the moment there’s no reason for them to – there’s little opportunity for useful engagement with CUSU, engagement which can be put into practice, beyond the autonomous campaigns. Dry and ponderous CUSU Council meetings are not enough. The opportunity to contribute to the execution of CUSU functions must be opened to the student body. Until engagement has the opportunity to be put to use, it is pointless.

Now we see that whoever wins the elections will be confronted with a game rigged against them. Whatever they do, however hard they work, revitalising CUSU is beyond their power. It is something we can only do together. But the exec does need to give us the opportunity to do so. The autonomous campaigns are bold, successful steps in the right direction, and the same principles need to be extended to CUSU’s functions more generally, to the greatest practicable extent. The image of a new kind of candidate presents itself: a skilled organiser, with an ability and above all a willingness to open up their role and involve others. Until such change occurs CUSU’s wings will remain clipped, regardless of the exec’s personal merits, and CUSU runs the risk of appearing alien, ineffective, and illegitimate

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