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Eyes wide shut – Cambridge University’s response to occupation

December 4, 2010

When the Government announced it had opted for an upper limit of £9,000 for tuition fees a statement from Cambridge University welcomed the changes and reiterated its commitment to ensuring their education was available to all.

Since then students from across Cambridge have taken to the streets three times in protest at tuition fee rises and cuts to higher education funding. These students – who will not be directly affected by the cuts – have been joined by academics and, more importantly, school and college students – the people who will really affected by the possibility of £50,000 degree.

So far, this is all fairly predictable. What was not predictable was the week-long occupation of the university’s Old School. And herein lies where the university has exposed itself – the detached, patronising treatment of the students. The refusal to speak to the protesters, the immediately-sought injunction, the cowardly bury-your-head-in-the-sand approach.

After Monday’s injunction, obtained without so much as a word from management regarding Cambridge Defend Education’s demands, and the groups defiant stance it became clear CDE were not seeking to grab headlines to disrupt university business, they wanted to hear what their university had to say about how they were going to protect the future of higher education.

While some of the group’s demands were a little wayward – asking the university to declare it will never privatise, for example – the others demonstrated an intelligent, concerned, understanding of what these cuts and rises might mean.

They felt they had been betrayed by the Liberal Democrats who promised not to raise tuition fees and so, as Cambridge would otherwise promote such guidance, they turned to their university. They turned to the paternal body which is giving them the education they are worthy of – not just a degree but an education.

Instead of coming out and explaining their position, engaging the group in debate, arguing their side – which presumably is based on thorough decisions they believe to be right – they turned their back on the students. They turned their back on the students that give them life, their raison d’etre.

Vice Chancellor Leszek Borysiewicz, despite numerous attempts from CDE to talk to him, remained silent.

He shut his eyes very tight and ignored them, hoping it would all go away.

He delegated the worry to his bailiffs.

He knew they couldn’t stay there for ever, and once they were gone, he’d open his eyes again and his stubbornness would prove no matter what they did, he could just shut his eyes again.

It’s true the students could not protest for ever. They were not criminals and he knew it, and they knew it too. He knew if he ignored them they could only escalate so far before they could not go any further and they would go home. It is not time yet to judge whether this is a successful tactic.

Regardless of its success, it is pathetic. It is disgusting the Vice Chancellor of one of the most respected educational institutions in the world would turn a blind eye to the cries of his own students about something History may well prove changed the way education works in this country.

More than 250 academics from within the university, CUSU, colleges, 1,000 people from around the world including some renowned political thinkers, and many more have come out in support of CDE, but if Mr Borysiewicz keeps his eyes closed tight, it doesn’t make a difference. One ignored voice is as futile as 1,000 ignored voices.

Now, Mr Borysiewicz may well come out and debate with the highly-organised and respectful CDE in the near future, in which case, I can retract a small percentage of these words. It would not change the damage already done to the university’s image.

“We will teach you how to argue, how to respect, and how to analyse, but we will not listen once you’ve learnt how.”

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