The first time I really realised that my "home" - King's College, Cambridge - was truly a business first and a home second was during last year's Easter holidays. I had stayed in college over the break to work on my Part I dissertation, and to begin my revision.
I was tired, stressed, anxious and, at times, depressed. The only place I felt comfortable doing my work was in the King's Coffee shop - a popular student workspace. But I arrived one morning to find it inaccessible, taken over instead by the catering department to serve as a cloakroom for a conference. They'd kept open the part where you can buy a coffee and an overpriced panini - god forbid they miss an opportunity to make money - but closed the part where people could work.
It might seem minor, but to me, in the state that I was in - and, believe me, I was in a state - it was anything but. I spent the rest of the holiday trying to find somewhere else to work and squeezing in between conference guests who were predominantly wealthy, white men in suits - whose very presence I found both alienating and intimidating - each time I wanted to eat dinner or have a drink in my bar(which is, supposedly, also my "common room").
I should have realised before this. I should've realised when in my first year college were reluctant to pass a comprehensive sexual harassment policy. I should've realised when in second year I had a huge, newly-refurbished kitchen which contained only a fridge, a toaster and a microwave - presumably so I would spend money I didn't have on buying the food college sold to me in the canteen.
Once I realised, though, I saw it everywhere. Not just in my own experiences, but in those of students all around me.
Fast-forward six months and I found myself in a meeting of the Women's Campaign. We were discussing domestic violence. Someone suggested that we needed to consider how it could affect people when they are made to leave Cambridge over the holidays. And there it was again: student welfare being put at risk, students themselves being pushed out and made potentially unsafe, to make space for conference guests.
We went on to talk about the University Counselling Service. We noted that waiting times can often take almost a whole term, meaning that it is difficult to access as students reach the top of the waiting list just as they have to leave Cambridge for the holidays. The problem was also raised that the default assumption made by the university, its colleges and its services is that everyone has a "home" to go to that is safe, supportive and contributes positively to their emotional wellbeing - you'll feel better, they say, when you go home for the break.
But this isn't the case. Such a "home" is a privilege. And to act on the assumption of privilege is to perpetuate the oppression of the already marginalised. This is what Cambridge persistently does. They assume that everyone has access to the privileges of mental health, of feeling comfortable in bars filled with men in black tie, of not feeling the need for protection from sexual harassment in their home, and of being able to return every eight weeks to a nice family who live near a well-stocked library and are happy to support them in spending the holiday doing their required academic work.
The assumption of privilege is only half the story. The other half is written by the marketisation of higher education and the scourge it has brought upon students: the neoliberal university.
The neoliberal university is the one in which students are paying £9000 per year to be there; in which education is framed as a financial investment, not a public good; in which degrees are the products we purchase and we pursue the safe line of thinking rather than the interesting one in order to secure the degree of highest "value"; in which students are seen as customers, and are thus able to be "out bid" for their own spaces by other "paying guests".
Of course, it is not Cambridge's fault that it is trapped within this system. It is not even their fault that they need to hold conferences to be able to support students. But the manner in which Cambridge carries this out at the moment is causing active harm to the students it is supposed to protect.
The assumption of privilege combined with the marketization of the university has rendered students vulnerable and perpetuated the many forms of oppression many of them already face.
This is why we have made the "Whose University?" campaign. We want to do our best to reverse that marginalisation first by giving a voice and a platform to those who experience it
and then by working to reclaim a space for them in our university.Suggest a correction