Students and staff protesting against planned pension changes at Cambridge UniversityMATHIAS GJESDAL HAMMER

When the pensions strike started, I texted one my friends: “What is a picket line, and what would it mean for me to cross it?”. Perhaps the only good thing that Theo Demolder’s article does is to capture the fact that the message – promoted both by striking teaching staff and student activists – that students should not attend teaching on strike days caused confusion, debate and some anger in the wider student body.

I think that there are two reasons for this. Firstly, it was unclear to most why students should miss teaching, even when they wanted to support the strike. After all, if the way lecturers can indirectly affect the management is by not teaching us, do we not undermine their efforts by agreeing to the disruption they’re imposing on us and supporting it?

Secondly, there was originally a failure to publicly acknowledge the ways in which missed teaching disproportionately affects some groups. This may be students with learning disabilities, or even STEM students, who generally need to have been to a lecture in order to do the corresponding supervision work, unlike humanities students. Students who fell into those categories, even more so than others, may have been angered by student activists telling them to miss lectures, and may have felt like those groups were removed from their concerns.

Now, why did student activists recommend that students miss teaching? Generally speaking, the greater the number of people striking, the greater the impact of the strike. If students do not go to their teaching on strike days, it means more people are supporting the strike action, be it in a direct or indirect way. If students miss their lectures, the strike therefore has more impact. This is the answer to Demolder’s startled “Why?”, asking why people would miss teaching which is still on: it is to support the strike which, as he rightly points out, has become an action premised on a certain vision of higher education, rather than being just about pensions. But clearly, Demolder disagrees with the view promoted by strikers, the students supporting them and even the Vice-Chancellor, as he assumes that it is fine to treat students as customers when writing that students “have no right to refund”.

“It is well-known that activism is essential to the proper functioning of democracy, and student activism in Cambridge has been no different”

Moreover, Demolder’s article misportrays the ways in which student activists reacted when they realised that their discourse and actions seemed alienating to some students. Unlike what he suggests, student activists did work towards building consensus beyond their own groups. On 4th March, Cambridge Defend Education published a pages-long document answering FAQs about the strike, aiming to show that it was possible to support to support the strike in various ways, and to various degrees. One of the questions was “Without missing my lectures/supervisions, how can I express my support for the striking staff?”. Demolder fails to acknowledge that activists were also the ones who put time and effort into devising such documents, which only aimed to inform people of the current situation, and the actions they could take in accordance with their personal opinions.

The other main worry expressed by Demolder is that we are gravitating towards a future where ‘only the loudest voices’ are heard – namely the activists’. First, it is worth remembering the fact that the activists he refers to are University students as well, and that not all other students may be in disagreement with them as he seems to imply. Then, one may reflect for a moment on what the occupation of the Old Schools, which Demolder dismisses as the frivolity of some radical hummus eaters, has achieved. This activist-led action, supported by a number of students who aren’t typically involved in activist causes, called for and obtained an open meeting with University Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope in Great St Mary’s Church, which was attended by over 600 people last Friday. This was an incredibly democratic moment, where the University’s civil society at large had the chance to keep its management accountable. It happened thanks to the activists of the student left. Yet their voices were not privileged in this meeting; on the contrary, anyone could attend and all voices could be heard.


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Recent student activism has been an apogee silliness and self-indulgence

Rather than worrying about the fact that activists’ voices may be given the most attention, we should be grateful that they have used the attention they received to call for a situation where all could speak, rather than one where their particular group interests would be taken into account. CDE did not occupy the Old Schools and call for Toope to meet them; they called for an open meeting. They put in the effort, time and labour by sleeping in the Old Schools for five days, and everyone reaped the benefits by being able to ask Toope their questions directly.

It is well-known that activism is essential to the proper functioning of democracy, and student activism in Cambridge has been no different. As such, to call student activism an “apogee of silliness and self-indulgence” is not only unfair; it is anti-democratic.

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