Response to "'Whose University?’ dislodges Cambridge University's mask of humanity"

The claims of the "Whose University" campaign are ill-informed and tendentious.

Paul Ryan
19 December 2014
King's College Chapel

King's College Chapel. Wikimedia/Christian Richardt. Some rights reserved.

The Whose University? (here, WU?) article contains so many errors, of both fact and interpretation, that it should not go unanswered. I would like to correct the more important mistakes and then offer some general remarks. My observations will concern mostly the colleges of Cambridge University, and in particular King’s College, against which many of the criticisms are directed.

An immediate error is the statement that students living in King’s are required over the Christmas vacation to “empty their rooms of themselves and all of their possessions”. That is certainly not the case for post-graduate students (whose existence WU? appears to have overlooked); nor is it the case for those undergraduates who have opted for a long-duration rental, which entitles them to keep their possessions in their room until the end of the teaching-cum-examination year, even when they have to be out of residence themselves. The requirement does apply to undergraduates who choose the short-duration option. They are required to clear their room during most of both the Christmas and the Easter vacations, in order to make space for other uses. During the Christmas vacation, on which WU? concentrates, that space is needed, not for conference business, which is not accepted at that time of year, but for the (this year, 854 strong) sixth formers who come to the college for admissions interviews, many of whom require overnight accommodation.

It is also incorrect to state that any undergraduates who need to remain in college accommodation during the vacations are required to leave. The tutorial system operated by Cambridge colleges grants permission to individual undergraduates who show a valid reason  – whether to do with finances, family situation, disability, mental health (especially those who come to university from social care services) – to remain in residence during vacations. Concerning mental health, current students registered with the University Counselling Service or NHS services can expect permission to remain in residence if they request it. It is extraordinary that the WU? group, whose members are themselves presumably students within this system, describe it as ‘not providing for their needs ... leaving them vulnerable, open to abuse, and sometimes homeless ... nowhere ... is there space for students to be human beings with human needs’. These generalisations are unsupported and invalid.  

What has not been found acceptable by King’s is an unrestricted right for all undergraduates to remain in residence, such as that apparently envisaged by WU? Permission to remain during vacations is granted only on an individual basis, to students whose academic work (e.g., a third-year dissertation) or extenuating personal circumstances make it necessary. No generalised undergraduate right to remain in residence, e.g., to pursue one’s social life while relieved of the academic demands of term time, has commanded support. 

WU? appears to be unaware that colleges such as King’s exist for a multitude of purposes. Education, religion, learning and research are stated explicitly in the King’s Statutes; to them should be added the performance of music and the handling of tourism. No particular group, including undergraduates, is entitled to claim ownership. The college has a Governing Body, constitutionally charged with reconciling these varied objectives. The student representatives who sit on it are free to seek augmented residence rights, as demanded by WU?, should they view that as a priority.

WU? errs also on the direction of change. The contemporary trend has been the liberalisation, in King’s at least, of permission to undergraduates to remain in residence – not the increased restrictiveness postulated by WU? Not so long ago, before the requirement for a final-year dissertation became general, few undergraduates received permission to stay up; nowadays, many do, particularly over the Easter vacation. Indeed, the choice between short-duration rental contracts and the long-duration ones that bring rights to residence during more of the Christmas and Easter vacations, as currently enjoyed by King’s undergraduates, was introduced relatively recently, in response to requests by student representatives.

A smaller issue, which appears to have triggered the WU? piece, concerns the message circulated recently by myself as Lay Dean to King’s undergraduates, reminding them not to let non-members of the college store belongings in their rooms over the coming vacation. The message was sent out following the issuance of invitations by some King’s students to members of an internet-based social network, which potentially includes non-members of the college, to do just that. Both practices are forbidden by college rules, for reasons that can readily be imagined: notably, the increased risk that student rooms will contain materials that are banned, dangerous or damaging when items are stored in them by non-members who may themselves be strangers, partial or total, to the host student. In any case, no disciplinary action has been taken, nor was any threatened, simply for making those offers, as is alleged by WU?

A copy of the circular message is appended below for readers who care to delve further. WU?’s characterisation of the message as ‘a paroxysm of authoritarianism’ is an exaggeration. The message was a standard reminder of the existence of an established college rule, and of the sanctions that might follow from breaking it.

Turning to the wider issues, WU? is correct to argue that the commercialisation and marketisation of British higher education should cause serious concern. The error here is to treat those forces as if they were just as powerful – behind a deceptive liberal facade – in relation to undergraduate life in Cambridge as elsewhere. In fact, Cambridge, like Oxford, is a collegiate university, in which the importance of undergraduate education, in terms both of intensive teaching in small supervision groups and of feedback on individual academic work, remains unmatched elsewhere. This teaching system is comparatively well protected by the endowments and fund-raising capabilities of both the colleges and the university. The colleges devote considerable funds to student services and student welfare. Charges for accommodation and food have indeed risen in Cambridge, alongside the rising cost of living in the city, but still compare favourably, in publicly available statistics, to those in other universities. Were a college like King’s to abandon the outside events that help finance the high cost of its educational provision, charges to undergraduates would have to be much higher than at present.

More generally, Cambridge colleges are not, nor are they likely in the foreseeable future to become, a locus for the profiteering denounced by WU? That trait does indeed disfigure other parts of higher education, particularly its growing for-profit component. WU? appears unaware, however, of how favourable is the position of its student members, and how well protected it is, compared their peers in many British universities.

The case presented by Whose University? is both ill-informed and tendentious. The piece reminds me of Mark Twain’s injunction: never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Dr Paul Ryan

Lay Dean, King’s College, Cambridge


Addendum: circular e-mail message to King’s undergraduates, 5.12.14
To King's undergraduates

It has been brought to my attention that several King's students have been offering publicly to provide storage space in their College rooms during the coming vacation to others, including students of other Cambridge colleges. 

I would like to remind you that, as stated by the Accommodation Officer in an earlier email today, whether or not you hold a long rental contract, you are not allowed to store anyone else's belongings in your room.

The reasons for the rule concern security (personal knowledge of and responsibility for possessions left over the vacation) and housekeeping (reducing the obstacles encountered while cleaning rooms).

I will take disciplinary action against any student who is found to have ignored the rule.

I will also ask Housekeeping to remove any items that clearly do not belong to the student to whom the room is assigned.

Dr Paul Ryan

Lay Dean

King’s College 

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