Monday’s rally saw students standing in solidarity with academicsMathias Gjesdal Hammer

Have pity on anyone actively involved in student politics at Cambridge – it isn’t supposed to be this hard. In years to come, children will look up at their wrinkled ex-JCR president parents, and ask: “What did you do in the strike war?”

Last night, CUSU Council took one of its occasional dramatic turns, debating a burning issue: should students be refunded for teaching lost during the ongoing staff strikes?

At its best, it was celebration of almost everything you might want student politics to be like: open debate, a wide mix of opinions, JCR presidents who had actually spoken to their constituents (or had their constituents speak to them), and compromise.

With everything concluded, however, it was an incredible waste of time and an utter failure to mandate the student union on strike refunds.

The current staff strikes are easily the biggest political event to have occured in Cambridge in recent years, and a vital test of CUSU’s ability to act as a credible democratic institution that represents students.


Mountain View

CUSU Council fails to set strike refund policy after debate splits students

The motion which was proposed, and eventually pulled, was a weird one: the petition it called for CUSU to support has very few signatures, especially when compared to an earlier, and much larger petition. The latter has over 1,100 signatures: the kind of numbers that CUSU should be looking at with a huge level of seriousness.

At the moment, it’s not entirely clear where the money not being paid to academics is going. Cambridge UCU say: “Cambridge have agreed that docked pay will go into to [sic] the student hardship fund” – the nature of which is not fully known, though it may refer to the University’s Bell, Abbott and Barnes fund.

However, the University’s stated stance remains: “If, at the conclusion of the industrial action, students believe that, notwithstanding mitigating action the University has taken, they are entitled to compensation, the position will be considered at that point” – meaning that CUSU’s stance may well prove absolutely relevant, as it will be taken as being that of the student body at large.

Responding to questions from Varsity today, UCU branch secretary Dr Waseem Yaqoob said: “Cambridge UCU supports any measures taken by students to pressure the university; we don’t believe it is our place to tell students how to respond to the disruption of their education. But when asked informally – at very short notice – whether we would prefer docked pay to go into refunds or into the student hardship fund, where it will reach those who need it most, we stated a preference for the latter. We have no wish to fix the response that students decide to pursue”.

In short, this is the students’ decision to make.

People are looking to CUSU for leadership. After last night, they may look away.

Council was raring for debate, and it came in floods: as well as a solid turnout from the JCRs and MCRs, attendees from various campaigns and from the Conservative Association (CUCA) ensured that all the sides of the argument were getting aired.

Debate peaked around the proposed amendment, which would have essentially tied CUSU into supporting the hardship fund option that Cambridge UCU says is occurring. It would, by default, have killed any question of direct refunds.


Mountain View

Students rally in solidarity with staff again as strikes continue

That was following a friendly amendment by the proposer herself, which would have made CUSU’s stance contingent on Cambridge UCU’s support. That would have been a bizarre position for the student union to have got itself into, so it just as well that the motion, as it stood, was withdrawn. If CUSU prostrates itself entirely to the staff union, then it is by definition incapable of representing students.

After the initial motion was withdrawn, however, Daisy Eyre, CUSU’s president, should have read the emotions in the room, and proposed an emergency motion to take some kind of stance on refunds. To do so would require quick thinking, but, when your main policy-making body is a Council, as a leader you have to be able to make it work.

The situation would have been made better if Eyre hadn’t made her apparent unwillingness to act on behalf of students quite so clear. She told Council she “would definitely be uncomfortable” asking the University for the money to go to students instead of into a hardship fund – the questions over what the University’s stance is notwithstanding, it seems bizarre for Eyre to state that she wouldn’t feel comfortable carrying out Council policy.

The room felt split – we will now never know how it would have voted. If there is one thing that is sure, however, it’s that combination room presidents are going to be less likely than CUSU to take a purely ideological stance on refunds: after all, they would have to actually go and explain to their fellow students why they voted the way they did.

Students needed a vote on this: as things stand, a student union which is constantly claiming it can represent students effectively just blew its opportunity to do so, and a president who has made improving Council engagement a key policy just squandered the most switched-on Council since the NUS controversy two years ago.

  • Update (9:16am, 6/3/18): This article was updated to include Cambridge UCU’s response