Borders, physical or not: should they be on the way out?Wikimedia Commons

Borders and inequality lie at the heart of Cambridge. For one, there’s the injustice of which people get to study here – class and race inequality among home and EU students is well-documented, while painfully high fees for international students mean they too tend to be well-off.

We are co-opted into a site of exclusion. Academic work is venerated to the exclusion of all else. Cambridge becomes synonymous with narrowly-defined academic success; this creates a sense of superiority over Anglia Ruskin, other universities, tourists and the town. In every sense, Cambridge students are the in-group.

This is essential in the formation of Britain’s detached élite, summed up in the persistent idea of great minds (usually male) doing the thinking while ‘lesser’ minds (usually female) clean their room or cook their food.

It also erases the huge numbers of cleaners, waste collectors and others whose work forms an integral part of the University, yet who are denied membership of the institution. The ‘town vs. gown’ dynamic is not only elitist, it is also bullshit. It denies the role of the people who carry out the reproductive labour without which the University would fall apart.

“The University operates under a dynamic of gatekeeping, where everyone knows their place. The feeling of being above others stops us questioning a system which degrades us”

This is part of a broader undemocratic system in which the bureaucracy reigns supreme. Representation for students on the University Council is disproportionately low, and for non-academic staff non-existent. Every day students are faced with an out-of-touch elite, who understand next-to-nothing of the experiences of disabled, BME or otherwise marginalised students. The recent scandal around colleges hosting queerphobic groups demonstrates how distant our masters are from the actual lives of queer students, and how little they want to know us. While workers at the lowest rung struggle by on the breadline, the new Vice-Chancellor defends a £400,000 salary.

Cambridge breeds alienation as well as inequality. Students struggle for time to be politically active, pursue hobbies or generally relax. We are separated from each other and the town we live in. The University operates under a dynamic of gatekeeping, where everyone knows their place. The feeling of being above others stops us questioning a system which degrades us. The goal for a social university should be to end these restrictive roles.

In 1968, the year of revolt, an Antiuniversity was founded in East London, based on principles of co-operation, common ownership and non-hierarchism. The Antiuniversity was open to all, believing we all had something to learn from each other. Compartmentalisation was smashed in every sense – anyone could take part and the strict teacher-student dichotomy was abolished. In the BBC report on the short-lived phenomenon, the journalist asked "what’s it all for?", given that attendees received no qualifications or degrees. The answer: the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, rather than as a route to employment.

The mantle of 1968 has been taken up by the modern Antiuniversity Now movement, which provides an alternative to our hierarchical, exclusive and costly higher education model. Using public spaces, people of all backgrounds, both academics and autodidacts, give talks on a huge array of topics. The institution is shaped by its participants.

How might we apply this model to Cambridge? The perennial difficulty for high-minded reimaginings such as this column is this: who cleans the toilets? My answer: we all do. The German philosopher Theodor Adorno once said that in a planned, just society he would be more than happy to spend two hours every day as a lift attendant.

We would each contribute to the running of the University according to our abilities. The categories of student, fellow and worker would be abolished. We should also re-evaluate what we value, so that academia is just one strand of knowledge, and the pursuit of knowledge just one strand of life.

We could study one week, and play sports the next. Some of us would clean more, some of us would cook more, some of us would read more. The progression of technology would free us from more menial tasks. We would all learn and all teach, if we wanted to. The division of labour would be a fluid affair. Everyone would be able to do everything.

Similarly, everyone would have everything. The new Vice-Chancellor, his University Council, Deans, Masters, Senior Tutors and Regent House would, sadly, no longer be needed. There would no longer be any hierarchy of position: communities would self-organise. Decisions would be taken democratically, by the groups concerned.


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Finally, we should interrogate that ‘everyone’. In a world where oppression and inequality have been ended, the whole world should be a member of the University of Cambridge, indeed of every university. Anyone who wanted to could come here. Students would no longer be undergraduates preparing for the job market, or graduates preparing for academia. They could be young or old. And their time here wouldn’t be fixed, but would depend on their needs and the needs of others.

This University is bordered in who it lets in, bordered in what roles we play, even bordered in terms of time. Let’s end those borders. Working together on equal terms, we can unleash the potential of every individual. Everything for everyone

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