‘Whose University?’ backlash: who got it wrong?

 There’s bitter division in the ranks at the Tab Cambridge over that pernicious question: Whose University is it anyway?

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On Tuesday I spent almost two hours raging at my Tab colleagues’ article on the Whose University? meeting.  (Incidentally, I think I’ll stick with the question mark myself).

When WU? was created last term, my first response was relief. Here, finally, was an organisation that aimed to change a university that systematically oppressed and dismissed student needs, in a way that I had come to experience first-hand.

I found the previous article to be a massive mischaracterisation of WU? aims and methods. It was a pretty shocking piece of ‘journalism’.

Who was this university even built for?

Journalistic Integrity

The previous article on Whose University? was crude and frankly lacked integrity. There is a way to give a critique that engages with the issues under discussion and can lead to positive change. The article did not do that.

Take for example, its treatment of WU?’s decision not to engage with colleges at this point. This did not detail or explain any of the reasons behind the decision and try to respond to them, but just rubbished the idea.

Crucially, that meeting was a safe space that allowed students to share their experiences without fear of ridicule or attack. My colleagues violated that principle. Instead they mocked and mischaracterised those experiences in their article. They did that without the permission of the people who voiced them, or consideration of the personal impact of doing so.

Using terms like ‘infiltration’, and telling people to ‘get a grip’ – an especially problematic phrase when you’re talking about mental health – is  inappropriate and unpleasant when you’re discussing a safe space.

The authors had a total lack of understanding of the topics under discussion, and were therefore entirely inappropriate candidates to be writing on them.

Organisation and Democracy

The article’s main complaint seemed to be that two hours is too long for a campaign meeting.

The running of ‘WU?’ is key to its aims, popularity, and strength. Countless experiences have shown us that Cambridge frequently ignores, shuts down, and dismisses the feedback of students.

In response, this movement allows everyone a voice. It is vital that the movement is guided not be a few individuals, but by all the students who it intends to speak for. There obviously needs to be ample time in order for everyone to have their say.

Not being able to stay in College over the vacs is a serious issue for some Cambridge students

Let’s talk about testimonials

The campaign rightly focuses on testimonials and lived experience. These allow a voice to students and an opportunity to use something negative to contribute to a wider movement seeking change.

The previous article branded these ‘petulant complaints’. It argued that because students eat in ‘banquet halls’, in ‘one of the most privileged and nurturing places’ in the country, they shouldn’t be making complaints. Those claims in themselves rest upon some pretty heavy assumptions, such as that everyone can afford the food in said ‘banquet halls’. As for claiming the university is ‘nurturing’, the writers ignore strong evidence to the contrary, such as insufficient welfare provisions and a lack of support for those from less privileged backgrounds.

This is exactly the way that Cambridge shuts down students again and again: by telling us we should be ‘grateful’, that just because it’s ‘Cambridge’, there’s nothing that can be discussed, nothing improved.

Missing the point: just because we eat here, doesn’t mean we don’t have mental health problems

This doesn’t engage with the actual student experiences at all, but simply writes them off.

There is the same difficulty with articles that try and say that ‘just because I’ve had a good experience, this is all rubbish’. One positive testimony cannot speak for everyone. And while I’m very happy that such experiences do exist,  it does not mean there are not countless incidents where this is not the case.

There are many shades of experience, from the positive, to those that have experienced a series of small but not insignificant examples of the university not prioritising its students, to those who have actually been forced to leave because they have been so badly mistreated. To say that one experience is more valid than another is disrespectful and gets us nowhere.

It is unhelpful to frame the argument on the comparative that either everything’s rosy or everything’s grim, or to compare banquet halls with mental health provisions. Simply because the university has some positive aspects, does not mean we can’t critique it. The student media has repeatedly treated WU? in this manner and as such, has totally missed the point.

It might have all started when a coffee shop temporarily closed, but WU actually stands for a range of really serious issues

Whose University? has the sensitivity, focus, and grassroots student support to draw together numerous issues within Cambridge, from problems with intermitting to conference guests. The issues are emblematic of a wider problem which WU? is trying to tackle.

My first two years at Cambridge were marred by a variety of mental health problems that were mishandled by my college, which led to me changing subject. I am of course not the only one.

WU? has been a long time coming, and they have been brave to speak out. Cheers WU?.

All views expressed in this article are the author’s own and it does not intend to speak for or on behalf of ‘Whose University?’.