From 2010 to 2015, Cambridge received £26 million from fossil fuel companiesAoife Hogan

In every debate around higher education today – from ‘free speech’ to Prevent – one idea tends to be taken as given by all sides: the value of the university in society. The battle between left and right is for control of the university as an institution – all hold it up as an idealised site of critical thinking and the pursuit of knowledge.

Cambridge cultivates this image. The first line of its mission statement emphasises its contribution to society, and its fundamental values include freedom of thought and “a questioning spirit”. Situated at the apex of national and international academia, Cambridge is widely seen as a paragon of human excellence, selflessly pursuing the common good.

It’s time to call bullshit on that. For all its academic glory, the University of Cambridge is uniquely bad at questioning itself. This column seeks to change that. But before we set out a vision for a genuinely social university, we need to work out who it serves today.

Cambridge’s mission statement also prescribes concern for sustainability and the environment. Yet the University Council has repeatedly refused to divest from fossil fuel companies, despite the ever-growing horrors of the climate crisis. It even ignored a divestment motion from the governing body, Regent House.

It’s not hard to work out why. The Council has referred to worries over sponsorship of its research programmes. In many ways, Cambridge exists not for public good, but for private profit.

"The idea of universities, or of Cambridge, as utopian oases loftily considering human progress, divorced from the realities of capitalism or social oppression is an utter myth"

From 2010 to 2015, Cambridge received £26 million from fossil fuel companies, including over £10 million for research programmes. Take a stroll down Madingley Road and you’ll find the BP Institute, selflessly established by a £22 million donation from… BP. Its director has explicitly boasted how the partnership has “reaped immediate benefits for BP”.

What’s more, the University has a research agreement with Shell, who recently congratulated the PhD students they fund on their work tackling “current and ongoing business challenges”.

Cambridge isn’t just taking these companies’ money. It is a vital component of fossil capitalism, producing invaluable research for Western corporations. The focus here has been on the fossil fuel industry, but one could make similar arguments for many different areas, such as the pharmaceutical industry. There is no doubt Cambridge produces and disseminates knowledge at a grand scale – the question is what knowledge, and for whom.

This relationship isn’t limited to the sciences. Humanities may not always directly benefit capitalism, but that’s not to say they stand apart from the system. The government’s recent higher education reforms judge universities based on graduate employment, while deregulating to open up the sector to new providers. The effect of this will be to create a race to the bottom, as the pursuit of knowledge is shunned in favour of good ratings. Students will focus solely on honing themselves for the workplace, obsessed with increasing their employability in these learning factories.

This isn’t an aberration, rather an exacerbation of the status quo. In her recent attack on the government’s HE reforms, the general secretary of the University and College Union emphasised the benefits of higher education for the creation of “a highly skilled workforce” to serve “future growth”.

The idea of universities, or of Cambridge, as utopian oases loftily considering human progress, divorced from the realities of capitalism or social oppression is an utter myth. In fact, there is a convincing argument that the primary purpose of the university in general, and Cambridge in particular, is the restriction of knowledge to particular social groups. After all, knowledge is power.

Cambridge’s historic function was not just to keep institutional knowledge to an upper-class, white male élite but also to alienate it from the rest of society. Women were excluded from the institution for its first 600 years, and restricted to the private sphere (my second-year house, I’m informed, was once a brothel for use by college members). Similarly, the siloed, unequal relationship between university and town served a class function. At all stages, the structure of the university worked to maintain dominant social relations.


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In fact, we can place the British university as a key site of colonisation (continued today by the British state and corporations with whom Cambridge is intimately entwined). In his famed Discourse on Colonialism, the Martinican intellectual Aimé Césaire railed against Western philosophers– they were the colonial enemy, he argued, as much as governors or policemen. He unveiled the brutal hypocrisy of Enlightenment humanism, which preached universalism and the betterment of humanity, but used it as a tool to justify colonialist violence against an non-European Other.

In this vein, the philosopher Geoffroy de Lagasnerie has argued recently that the university does not act against state power but in concert with it. He has suggested, and this is especially true for Cambridge, that the University “holds a quasi-monopoly over the formation of mental attitudes within society”. Thus, it is, in a deeper sense, the University which controls the parameters of ‘free’, or acceptable, thought. All this it does in complete disjunction with the wider world - the ‘Cambridge bubble’.

We need a university revolution. It will need to deconstruct borders within the University as well as without, disentangle higher education from the web of capital, and be accompanied by much broader social changes. Radical transformation is the only path to Cambridge serving societal good.

This will be the aim of this column in the coming weeks – not to set out an immediate manifesto for change, but rather to start a conversation about what a free Cambridge might look like