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Cambridge chancellor elections: protection, progression, and protest

October 16, 2011

Though a four-way contested election for the position of chancellor of Cambridge University is in itself ‘History’, the result will now become just another addition to the long list of Lords, Dukes, Earls, and Princes who have held the post. It is clear from Brian Blessed’s second place – taking some 400 more votes than third place Michael Mansfield QC – this election was never going to produce the kind of shift in university politics some had been hoping for.

At his hustings on Tuesday, Mansfield, the self-described “radical lawyer”, spoke to audience about a third of the size Blessed pulled in on the Monday. When Blessed was asked on Monday how he was going to widen access to the university, he replied “I haven’t a clue” – yet he polled second place. Mansfield spoke confidently and with determination about how he thought Cambridge University needed to change. But his pragmatism fell largely on deaf ears outside the Union chamber. He suggested short-term five-year chancellorships and a look at the automatic conferment of Masters degrees. He spoke of the need for broader learning, a move away from commercially-tailored degrees, a fight back against the market forces of education. He was the real contender to Lord Sainsbury, the university’s proposed (and preferred) candidate.

At the gates of the Senate House on Friday as voting took place, I was told Abdul Arain, the Mill Road shopkeeper, was a “protest vote”, Blessed, a wasted vote, and Mansfield, the only real alternative to more-of-the-same. Yet, Blessed took 400 more votes. If those eligible to vote – a topic of discussion in its own right – really wanted the university to reassess its values in the light of the commercialisation of education, Mansfield would have been the right vote. Arguably, had it been a two-horse race between the lawyer and former supermarket chairman, Mansfield might have stood a better chance. Add up the votes of the losers and Sainsbury still comes out on top, just. But, I met at least three people outside the gates of the Senate House who abstained – one at protest of who was eligible to vote, another at the farce the election had become. Obviously, that’s a tiny percentage but it adds some weight to the idea those interested in protecting the university were much more unified than those who wanted to progress.

The same commentary can be made many protest/reform movements – from the Chartists to those who took to the streets last year over tuition fees. Had the same number turned out to hear Mansfield speak on Tuesday as had for Blessed, the election would have had some legitimacy, some purpose, but as it was, I doubt a majority of those who watched any of the hustings were even eligible to vote, perhaps especially on Monday night. In my mind, this shows the election was not taken as seriously as it could/should have been.

Interestingly, Cambridge Defend Education and the protest groups at the centre of last year’s marches and occupation did not involve themselves in the election. Had they, there might have been a more unified approach to stand against the university’s proposed candidate. As we saw from the vote of no confidence in David Willetts which narrowly failed, there is opposition within the university to higher education politics, but there is much more consolidated power in the group who believe Sainsbury is the “sensible option” – I believe those who opposed the vote of no confidence and those who voted for Sainsbury are not so far apart.

This election should have represented more than just who would be the new figurehead for the university – remember the real power resides the vice chancellor and the university council. Mansfield told the Union he admired those who occupied the Old Schools last November. He said he would have gone down there and spoken to them, opened a dialogue. This starkly contrasts with the policy vice chancellor Leszek Borysiewicz used – a wall of silence.

The conflict between a 800-year-old institution and the need to modernise is extremely complicated. Mansfield said the university should have led a fight against tuition fees – it didn’t. He said the automatic conferment of Masters is archaic – it is. He said the question of eligibility to vote in chancellor elections needs to be looked at – it probably won’t. Yet another chance to look at progressing the politics of the university has fallen by the way side.

I have no doubt Sainsbury will be a good chancellor (Mary Beard’s views on Sainsbury as chancellor). He has supported the university financially (some £127 million, I think), he has a suitable title befitting to follow Prince Philip, and he has more business contacts than you could shake a stick at. But where is the fight, edge, and progression needed in a one of the most important institutions in the world? As last year showed, it certainly will not come from Borysiewics, if the Willetts vote is anything to go by, it has not taken hold in the Senate, so where?

Tomorrow Cambridge Defend Education will meet to discuss its tactics for the coming academic year. It must build on the momentum of last year, it must work with CUSU – and new president Gerard Tully – if it is to repeat the victory it had over student bursaries, it must remain visible, it must not isolate itself as anarchic or dangerous, it must have clear targets and a sensible agenda, it must call upon Sainsbury to address its concerns, and it needs to remind the university of its position at the forefront of education.

We need to move on from this election and not lament a missed opportunity to highlight the real issues the university needs to tackle. Mansfield might have been able to shake things up, but just as likely he might have been sidelined as a figurehead, Blessed, to quote a just-voted, was “full of hot air”, and Arain’s moment will come shortly as the Mill Road Sainsbury’s application comes to a head.

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