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Cambridge in decline?

Censorious tendencies have not conquered the university yet

Artillery Row

Responding to an old news article on Suella Braverman’s involvement with the Cambridge University Conservative Association, Cambridge Professor of History Nicholas Guyatt tweeted:

Genuinely if you work at Cambridge you know that the villainous students are massively outnumbered by the wonderful students, but SO MANY of the villains graduate into prominence, power and uber-villainy

Many students, particularly those on the right of Cambridge politics, responded asking the lecturer if he thought they were “villainous” and whether this might colour his ability to mark and supervise the work of those he teaches with neutrality.

Stranger still, these same professors seem intent on mollycoddling us

This is certainly not the only instance of a Cambridge fellow rounding on their students. Last year, in response to changing editorial direction at Cambridge’s independent newspaper, Varsity, Prof Priyamvada Gopal accused a group of undergraduates of deliberately victimising her. She insisted that two Jewish students had “hijacked” the paper to “launch both false stories and personal attacks’”, most likely motivated by her vocal criticisms of the University’s adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-semitism — somewhat ironically ignoring that one author was actually a vocal opponent of the definition. She even went on to speculate about one editor’s “powerful familial connections to the liberal media”.

These two incidents represent a strange development in political thought at Cambridge. Certain academics seem to have started to vilify their students. Stranger still, these same professors also seem intent on mollycoddling us.

In my first year at the university I was surprised to find the following content warning for the Medieval literature reading list:

Some of the literature we will consider contains themes that might be distressing to some readers. Please be advised that the Wife of Bath’s Tale contains references to rape, and the Prioress’s Tale contains strong anti-Semitic themes.

I wondered what one should do if they were distressed by themes of rape and anti-semitism. Could these unpleasant aspects of mediaeval society be expunged from one’s experience of the paper?

This approach is not limited to reading lists. Back in 2021 the university published a list of microaggressions which academics should be wary of, offering an anonymous reporting link for students who felt offended by their supervisors. In my first year, Dr Arif Ahmed, the new Free Speech Tsar for Higher Education, introduced an amendment to the University’s Statement on Free Speech to replace the obligation on students to “respect” alternative viewpoints with a call for “tolerance”. The UCU swiftly condemned this, “encourag[ing]” members “to reject the amendments” and thus preserve the right to “object to” invited speakers. In fact, they condemned the entire project, claiming the university’s desire to update its statement on freedom of speech at all was “respon[ding] to political pressure”.

It seems odd that the likes of Gopal and Guyatt simultaneously believe that Cambridge is threatened by a group of villainous undergraduates, capable of destroying them in the national press, whilst also expressing concerns that the same students couldn’t possibly cope with unpleasant themes on reading lists or unrestricted offensive speech on campus. After losing the Regents House vote on free speech, Gopal complained of the consequence of affording “unrestricted speech rights” to “racist/transphobic bigots”. Similarly, Guyatt has been critical of Ahmed’s attempts to protect freedom of speech in higher education.

The root cause seems to be a fundamental shift in the identity of the student. Since the 1998 introduction of tuition fees, they are paying customers; as such they’re able to make demands of the institutions they attend. University is a rite of passage for the majority of school leavers. The choice isn’t whether to become a student; it’s simply which city one wishes to spend three years in, avoiding the responsibilities of adulthood. It is through this process that Cambridge has lost much of its charm.

Universities are now commercial ventures ruled by market forces

Even as recently as the 1980s, there was a clear sense of student life as a distinct subculture. The TV sitcom The Young Ones immortalises the sort of eccentric young person who once favoured the unusual path of academia. Students comprised around 19 per cent of the population then; today they make up 50 per cent. Now, universities are commercial ventures ruled by market forces. As such, they’ve been pushed towards content notes, micro-aggression lists and policies intended to limit free speech. Furthermore, students have also become a point of resentment for many academics. Prof Guyatt recently accused students of trying to “starve out the staff” with regards to pay negotiations. As they are now the consumers and source of income, there’s a real fear of persecution by students alongside the need to pander to their every whim.

This change in university life has dominated the headlines over the past few years. We should give far more attention to the much larger contingent of students and academics who support debate, however. They view university as a place where their perspectives ought to be challenged. When I invited Kathleen Stock to the Cambridge Union, national papers reported extensively on the protests outside the building. Given far less attention were the 247 students who voted with her and in favour of the right to offend, a number that far outsripped that of the brawling students outside. Whilst academic opposition to free speech might be loud, it has been proven time and again to represent a minority. Stephen Toope, the former Vice Chancellor, was forced to retract a “microaggressions” list, acknowledging it was a mistake after widespread pushback from academics. Regent’s House, the university’s governing body, supported Dr Ahmed’s amendments. Only 13 per cent of academics took any notice of the UCU’s calls to reject the change.

We should take comfort that the tide at Cambridge isn’t actually turning and that intellectual culture is alive and well. My time at the university has been an overwhelmingly positive one: I’ve met students keen to enter into open debate over views they strongly disagree with, and I’ve almost exclusively encountered academics strongly supportive of freedom of speech. Ironically, Guyatt is actually right. The “villainous” students and academics are “massively outnumbered” — they’re just not on his side.

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