Opinion: The SU’s campaign against in-person teaching is ill-considered and unwise

The mental health impacts of the campaign against in-person teaching have not been considered, and we were not given our say

So something quite unexpected happened a couple of days ago. I was standing in the snaking queue for Pret eagerly awaiting my free thimble of a flat white when two near-identical messenger push notifications appeared. The first was from a Magdalene Tory and the second was from a keen Labourite.  What did these two dissimilar individuals have in common? Both, alongside countless apolitical students, were somewhat miffed about the SU adopting a policy on our behalf without asking us first.

So a few of us started to ask questions. What were the pros and cons of this new policy? Would more nuance be advisable? Was it in the interest of vulnerable students? Fairly innocuous stuff.  The response was fast and furious. Sweary tweets were forthcoming.  We were told that this policy was in our interest and we did not have a right to an opinion.  (It is always nice and not patronising in the slightest when we are told by others what is and is not in our interests). A former Vice President of Oxford’s SU addressed disengaged students with the words: “Every single Student at Cambridge has the right to vote in the SU elections either use it or shut the fuck up” – a great way of bolstering turnouts I’m sure you’d agree. 

Were these charming individuals right? Luckily the SU released a more edifying and lengthy statement clarifying the rationale behind the move. There was a valiant attempt made at retrospectively offering an explanation as to why it was issued. Why it was only published on the 19th October after the campaign had begun remains a great mystery.

Mental health matters

For far too long we have been denied ‘parity of esteem’  for mental health. The most heart-wrenching moment of my week was looking at a loneliness survey that charted the emotional toll isolation had taken on a group of freshers. I am not alone in thinking we’ve got something disastrously wrong.

We must contend with the reality that now that students have been brought back to Cambridge, the lack of human contact has been devastating. The punitive approach adopted by many colleges has heightened the anxiety of many. Whilst the ability to ‘opt-in to in-person teaching’ might not seem like a priority, for some, it would mean the difference between remaining alone in their room all day or getting out.

For years we’ve been told that our mental health matters as much as our physical health, but don’t those words seem hollow? Of course vulnerable, at-risk students should be endowed with all the online resources, books and other support they need – and shouldn’t be made to return to campus if they don’t wish to. We must acknowledge that mental and physical health matter equally. For an approach to truly ‘minimise risk’ it must account for all aspects of students’ health.

Democracy – who is she?

When you look at the response to this policy change, it becomes clear that students were not properly consulted. Putting aside the many angry reacts, heartfelt FB comments and quote tweets (sorry ’bout that), behind closed doors very moderate, apolitical JCR apparatchiks are understandably quite upset.

An initial survey conducted by the JCR of one central college found that 76% of students opposed the new pledge, 204 students or 51% of the JCR in question took part in the survey. Following the release of the SU blog post, a subsequent poll found that 83% of students now opposed the pledge. Similar figures can be found at several other JCRs and I’m not aware of a single poll at J/MCRs and their equivalents that has a majority backing the SU’s U-turn. At the start of next week, a motion before the SU Council will lay all of this out in clear terms and argue for a reversal of the SU’s reversal. (Tune in or speak to your J/MCR to ensure they know how you feel.) 

Camfess reads like a book of Lamentations these days


But SAGE says…

The SU offers three reasons why they are soldiering on with this policy. The first – the claim that this move ‘limits the risk of transmission’ cherrypicks from the SAGE minutes of 21st Sept. It is questionable to call on our university to adopt one bullet point from a package of measures SAGE said should be ‘considered’ by the UK Government, one month ago on a national level. Here the SAGE advice itself is instructive: “Evidence for the effectiveness and harms related to individual interventions is difficult to ascertain as packages of interventions are usually implemented together…”.   

 When considering how the Government should implement a package of measures, the SAGE minutes recommend: “Consistency. If policies appear to promote contradictory goals, this will at best confuse the public and at worst degrade trust and adherence.” If the SU believe the University’s situation is analogous to the country’s position last month, then they should be consistent. It makes little sense for them to be campaigning for spaces for ‘safe socialising’ whilst arguing that students and supervisors opting in to small, ‘non-essential’ often one-on-one group teaching ought to be banned for the foreseeable future. 

This ain’t about CUSU bashing

Between you and me, I don’t share some of my co-travellers’ fervent animosity towards the SU. I recognise the valuable work undertaken by many Sabs particularly in giving voice to marginalised students. I’ve often had polite disagreements with SU folk, yet with they’ve always treated me with respect. That’s why I was so surprised by this policy announcement and the manner in which it was communicated.

Given the previous president’s brilliant work on student loneliness in Cambridge, I would’ve thought the SU would, in keeping with this tradition, adopt a meaningful and consultative approach. We may not like the end product, but it would at least be legitimate. Instead, they have decided to act unilaterally. Real consultation helps them just as much as it helps us. If this process had been followed, Sabs would not have to shoulder the burden of defending this policy alone. Alas, this has not happened.

You may, of course, disagree with all of this. Either way,  your opinion matters and you should have your say. Email your J/MCR, get involved and offer the SU your opinion even when it’s not sought – chances are it won’t be.  

A counter-petition to the SU’s one has been launched. You can sign it here.