Recent staff strikes have catalysed a wave of student activismMathias Gjesdal Hammer

Alcatraz, 1969; Tiananmen, 1989; Tahrir Square, 2011. History has known many great acts of political defiance. Listening to the rhetoric of some activists, you would be forgiven for thinking that our sleepy city had become the latest to join that list. Angus Satow writes: “Activists are occupying what is in effect the fortress from which our rulers dictate unpopular policies to us.” Except – putting aside the absurdity of comparing the Old Schools with some sort of despot’s lair – by all accounts this five-day occupation was actually a bit of a jolly: there was free access for people and supplies and an open “Radical Partayyyy” each night at 21:00. According to an ‘Overheard in Cambridge’ post, 35 pots of hummus were consumed in just one day.

Alongside this characteristically entertaining hyperbole, a march took place in solidarity with the occupiers and the CUSU President visited to express her support. For Angus – and no doubt a number of others – it was the culmination of a term of “unprecedented resistance and insurrection”, showing the emergence of ‘a common vision for the socialist university’. It’s hard to disagree that this was a sort of culmination – though perhaps, rather, the apogee of the silliness and self-indulgence of some student activists. What Lent term has shown us is just how large the divide between the activist left and the majority of students has become.

“If activists genuinely want democratisation, they should work to build a proper consensus beyond their narrow bubble”

The strikes over pensions have done most to bring this division into focus. For most students, they have been frustrating – but few would direct their annoyance at the strikers; it’s a difficult, complicated situation. Conversely, the zeal with which the activist left has embraced the strikes has been extraordinary. They refuse to attend even those lectures which are still on. Of course they’re quite within their right to do so, but why? If train drivers were on strike and the train company were running only a limited service, would you refuse to get one of the trains that was running? There would surely be a much stronger case for doing that – if it meant not buying a ticket, so depriving the company of your fare – than refusing to attend lectures and use library facilities when you have already committed to pay £9000 and have no right to a refund. ‘Offer our lecturers fairer pensions or we’ll prepare less for our exams’ is an odd sort of threat. That it is also the official position of our Students’ Union is stranger still. The strikes look set to continue into Easter term, increasing already high stress levels and disrupting exams. If they do, the reception student activists get when encouraging others to follow their lead – sometimes from the picket line itself – will doubtless become less sympathetic.

However, over the course of the week the occupation transformed from being about pensions to a whole host of grievances about the University. It is admirable that Stephen Toope, who took a charitable stance towards the occupiers, agreed to face up to these concerns in person at his open meeting. Both his answers and his letter to The Times put paid to the idea of it being a rebellion against nefarious, selfish management – notwithstanding mistakes that may have been made, such as on the submissions to UUK on pensions and wrongly banning a speaker due to Prevent last term.

I worry, though, that in the format of discussion the Vice-Chancellor has initiated it could be only the loudest voices which are heard. The problem with the narrative of an activist-left consensus emerging across the student body is that we had the opportunity to elect a CUSU President from that group earlier this month. We declined.


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As our students’ union, CUSU must now take the lead in ensuring that there is a genuine consultation with all students – and not just the 21% engaged enough to vote. The questions which the Vice-Chancellor began to address last Friday are thorny ones. On divestment: what would the impact be, both on the fossil fuel industry and on the funding for our education and research? On decolonisation: which areas have seen a systematic overlooking of BME writers, and which are simply ‘male and pale’ because – as with some of the History of Political Thought papers I have taken – to be otherwise would be intellectually false? And on the change to the burden of proof in cases of sexual harassment and assault: does a ‘balance of probabilities’ rather than ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ standard risk students losing their place at the University on a 51% chance of guilt, or could a change be more nuanced?

The activist left may end up doing well in these arguments. On some points, I am personally quite open to persuasion. But they won’t do it with the same old streams of jargon about a ‘liberated university’ which most students frankly don’t understand or care much for. If activists genuinely want democratisation, they should work to build a proper consensus beyond their narrow bubble

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