Cambridge: ripe for change?Louis Ashworth

It seems like nowadays we do too much talking about talking. Debate itself has become the focus of debate recently, particularly in relation to this newspaper and how fully it represents students’ views. That’s important, of course. But I worry that those whose views differ from the ‘Varsity Comment consensus’ spend too much time complaining and not enough getting stuck into the debate themselves. 

That debate has been at its most colourful and impassioned, recently, with the ‘Reimagining Cambridge’ column. Its author, Angus Satow, has been a key figure in Cambridge student politics: he was the runner up in the 2016 CUSU presidential election, and was this year elected as one of our five NUS delegates. What I admire about Angus’s column is that he does more than complain – he’s willing to offer solutions; solutions which should get each of us thinking about our own ideas facing up to the challenges Cambridge faces.

"Each of us in our few short years here does, however, have the chance to help shape it for the better"

Some passages really do stand out. Here is an excerpt from his vision in his second column, entitled ‘Everything for everyone’: “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… We would all learn and all teach, if we wanted to.” 

Where to start? No, this isn’t satire. The ideas in the column  deserve to be taken seriously, as hard as that can sometimes be. Perhaps it is fairer to engage with  the broader arguments he is making. What that passage does capture is an underlying sense – which I’ve heard elsewhere too – that Cambridge would be a better place if people didn’t work so hard. It might, for many, be more enjoyable. All of us struggle with a year’s worth of teaching being crammed into as few as 16 weeks, and many are fighting their own battles besides. But no, I’m sorry, it would not be a better place. Yes, more should be done on mental health, access, intermission – absolutely. But ultimately a heavy workload is what we signed up for. 

At this time of year, I often get an email from a Year 13 at my school who is applying – asking for advice. It’s a reminder that not so long ago all of us were frantically swotting up for an interview, spending a Christmas holiday waiting uncertainly, and finally, in January, getting ‘the news’. It’s also a reminder that things could quite easily have been different: unlucky with interview questions, missing a few marks in an exam – in many cases, frankly, not having had quite so many opportunities in life. And so it’s a crying shame to see people complaining quite so stridently about a place at which so many others would give so much to be. It always seems a great irony that those who claim to be most aware of their privileges are often also quickest to deny what a privilege it is to be here.

Of course, the University is not perfect. The big problem with Angus’s solutions, though, is that he wants “an end to all exclusivity”. In many cases, these are simply incoherent; he complains, for example, about property prices in Cambridge and then advocates opening up University membership to all residents – with no acknowledgement of what that would do to house prices. More importantly, what Angus seems to want to end is merit – what he sees as “the feeling of being above others” – with his idea of no longer having fellows, and membership and teaching having no preconditions. 

The question Angus opens his column with is ‘who is our university for?’ It’s the same question which moved the ‘Whose University?’ campaign in 2014/15. Thinking about that question might raise important areas in which Cambridge needs to improve, but the answer is not that it is ours. 800 years of history have not been just one long prelude to this cohort’s time here. It is a staggering arrogance, worthy of the worst Oxbridge-student stereotype, to believe we have the right to rip apart the fabric of this great institution to indulge an ill-advised flirtation with reheated Marxism.


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Each of us in our few short years here does, however, have the chance to help shape it for the better; to ensure that those who follow have a better student experience, and that the benefits of the thinking that is done here spread further than they ever have done before.

There are glimmers of great ideas in Angus’s writing. Why shouldn’t the staff who clean our bathrooms and cook our meals be allowed to join us in lectures which interest them, where there is space? And although the University does bring great economic and cultural benefits, we could certainly do more to break down that ‘town/gown’ divide. My own college has started hosting talks to which both students and local retirees are invited, for example; it would be great to see more initiatives like that. Indeed, the story of Geoff Edwards – who went from sleeping rough and selling the Big Issue on the streets of Cambridge to earning his dream place at Hughes Hall this year – should prompt us to ask what more the University can do to help the most vulnerable in our society. 

While it may not quite be ‘our’ university, we do all have a stake in it. And with that, a responsibility: a responsibility which Angus is right to recognise. But we need to think – and debate – more seriously if we are to have any hope of living up to it


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