Opinion: The University of Cambridge’s selective solidarity for Ukraine must be interrogated

Cambridge hasn’t offered nearly as much support to students of colour impacted by conflict

Britain has watched the crisis unfold in Ukraine, aghast. It has given support, issued boycotts and reprimanded Russia in the name of human rights.

The University has followed suit with two statements from the Vice Chancellor. In the first, it unequivocally condemned Russia’s actions, recognised Ukraine’s right to autonomy, and offered Ukrainian students mental health support. 

The second, issued on 23rd March, pledges to – amongst plans to support Ukrainian students – “review” ties to the Russian Federation.

Good job Cambridge University. In the face of oppression and human rights abuses, Cambridge should make a stand. Right? Right?

The University never fails to surprise me. 


Despite being home to leading intellectuals, and having a legacy that spans hundreds of years, the actions it takes continue to be insensitive, provocative, and totally lacking in nuance of the wider context it operates in.

How can Cambridge unflinchingly support Ukraine after its traditional position of political neutrality? With no explanation as to why it has suddenly changed its attitude after staying silent on countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Yemen? And with no repercussions from a student body who, largely, passively accepted its unprecedented support?

Admittedly, Cambridge is not unusual in its actions; it appears to have complied with the general obligation to condemn Russia and offer Ukraine support. 

Nevertheless, Cambridge cannot selectively choose to support one people’s human rights and entirely ignore another’s. Its decision to be neutral in other crises is bad enough as it is, but the decision to selectively and performatively break neutrality for one country is even more so.

A problematic decision

For it highlights that the university can choose to care about human rights and take subsequent action, such as in the form of boycotts. It can choose to care about injustices, oppression. Violence, bombing and occupation. 

But it feels like it simply chooses not to.

Particularly, it feels like, when those subject to the above are people of colour, have unfamiliar cultures, or oppressors who are allies, rather than enemies, with Britain. 

Considering the active demonisation of those people in the media, Cambridge’s decision to simply swim with the tide, purposefully or not, perpetuates the harmful rhetoric and grotesque double standard espoused by the media.

“I feel pissed off in how they’re trying to suggest that Ukraine is civilised and we are not. It’s very colonial, very imperialist and I hate it.” – Khalida (Afghan student)

These countries are equally deserving of their rights to autonomy and human existence as Ukrainians, and the university has been asked to support this and show solidarity. Notably, Palestinian Society has lobbied Cambridge for a statement of solidarity, such as during the 2021 bombing offensive in Gaza. Cambridge sent an individual (not university wide) email to the society, simply expressing a wish for a ceasefire.


“When you’re Palestinian your identity becomes inherently political. For some people, your identity is inherently inflammatory.” – Ali 

As a leading university, Cambridge must show that human rights violations are unjustifiable everywhere, in addition to Ukraine. Refusing to extend the same solidarity to others dehumanises those people, thus turning their very struggles and rights into something controversial.

“It doesn’t matter what people say to me directly, I’ll always be wondering.” – Ali (Palestinian student)

Devaluing student lives 

As an institution, Cambridge owes a pastoral duty to treat its students with equal care. 

It is difficult enough to be student from a marginalised community thanks to racism, religious discrimination, and the isolation from being one of the few from your community who are able to make it to Cambridge.

“It didn’t even occur to me that the same care could be extended to people like me. For countries of historical oppression, it’s just the norm for them to be forgotten.” – Anonymous student

The worth of life is dependent on skin colour. Some people are disposable.” – Anonymous Somali student

All the students interviewed say they have experienced racism or microaggressions on either a social or academic level. 

Supporting Ukraine 

None of this is to say that Ukraine and Ukrainian students should not get the support they have been afforded at the moment. They should. I am so glad that Cambridge is doing right in that sense.

 However, other, more “politically contentious” people deserve that same support.

“Some people’s lives are lives, and for other people’s lives s just a matter of contention, or too political to discuss” – Anonymous Somali student

Cambridge’s actions and statements have been administered as if in a bubble. 

Its colleges and buildings have been set aflame in colours of blue and yellow. Why is it, we must ask, that the red, green and black of Afghanistan have never touched its walls? 

The University of Cambridge was contacted for comment.

 Feature Image Credits: Vedika Mandapati