‘Don’t worry,’ Cambridge says

Conrad Landin

Cambridge University promises its students ‘a supportive environment’ and ‘specialist assistance should you need it’. ‘Students who are struggling with a particular problem or feeling a bit lost won’t go unnoticed,’ it reassures us. ‘Don’t worry.’ But when the Guardian revealed last week that Cambridgeshire police have attempted to infiltrate student activist groups and record the names and details of protesters, the university declined to comment, saying the case was a matter for the police.

The police officer who invited a Cambridge-based activist for a friendly chat revealed that a key focus would be ‘student-union type stuff’. He also singled out Unite Against Fascism and the tax justice pressure group UK Uncut, as well as the English Defence League. When asked if the police would be interested in Cambridge Defend Education, a group that campaigns against education cuts (I’m a member), the officer said: ‘That’s the sort of thing that we would be looking for.’

You might expect an educational institution to be concerned by solid evidence that the police are gathering information on its law-abiding students. More than 130 academics have called on the vice-chancellor to condemn the police actions. But the university has form when it comes to collaborating in the crackdown on student dissent. Last year, a group of us protested against a visit from the universities and science minister David Willetts. One of our number was hauled before the authorities and ‘rusticated’ (suspended from his degree) for seven terms. After much outcry and an official appeal, this was reduced to one term.

Last month, I stood on a picket line alongside striking lecturers. A private security guard muscled into us, throwing a student to the ground. We still don’t know who hired him; the university won't comment.


  • 19 November 2013 at 4:50pm
    Paul_S says:
    Yes, well, regarding that little protest against Willetts two years ago, here's another take:

    The Cambridge student ('extreme') left, under the banner of CDE, has a rather annoying habit of claiming that they are dealing with a repressive state/university apparatus, and then being appalled and upset when that apparatus represses them for their disruptive activities. And then cries that it's not fair. Yeah, well, duh.

  • 19 November 2013 at 11:34pm
    Harry Stopes says:
    Are you saying that students shouldn't be surprised when they are oppressed by state and university (arguably correct), or that they are wrong to suppose such oppression exists (clearly wrong, as this article demonstrates)?

  • 20 November 2013 at 12:41pm
    Paul_S says:
    No, I'm saying that they can't try and have it both ways, and then not come across as intensely annoying and childish.

    Of course such oppression exists in the interaction between authority and subordinate groups contesting that authority's decisions and power. Welcome to politics. That's what happens when interests collide: power exerts itself. Students of the CDE stripe claim that they are dealing with oppressive institutions, and point to this as a justification for certain kinds of behaviour they undertake which is disruptive and provocative to those institutions. But they then express apparently sincere shock and outrage when they succeed in disrupting and provoking the oppressive institution which then kicks in with its oppression. I find particularly irritating the cry of "it's not fair! they're not being nice!" Well, yes. Wasn't that the original point?

    More generally: you can paint the university as a craven agent of a mad government which intends only evil. That's good for narratives of self-justifiation and warm feelings of self-righteousness. Alternatively, you can see the university as a complex institution caught in a complex and difficult situation (because yes, in part, the government is kind of mad and it may not intend evil, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions, etc etc). For the university it's just obviously not true that the demands of CDE should simply be deferred to. And indeed, from whence to CDE get their moral and political authority, their right to dictate? Or is the purity of their conviction all that is required? One might want to be careful here. The track record of purity in politics is an extreme oscillation between farce and horror.

    Better alternatives: accept that the university is not a simple tyrant, and that real politics means not always getting your way, and that more constructive forms of engagement might be found than shouting "tyrant!" in a self-righteous tone when your provocation predictably brings responses.

    Or: go on accusing the university of being simplistically evil, but then stop crying when it does the sorts of things (following provocation) that you'd expect form a simplistically evil organisation. At least the Trots of old had this much sorted. They expected violent repression as part of the necessary cause of revolution, but for the most part didn't respond with a cry of "it's not fair, why won't you just do what we say?", but rather "fine, we'll kill you then". I'm glad the Trots are mostly gone, but at least they were relatively consistent and not so nauseatingly whiney.

  • 20 November 2013 at 2:02pm
    Conrad Landin says:
    Paul - saying that the university's collusion with the authorities in suppressing dissent merits proportionate responses (though this seems to be your argument, not mine) does not mean one cannot also condemn management's behaviour.

    Many of us have been outraged by the actions of the police and the university in recent years. But I never claimed to have been surprised. Nor did CDE in its collective statement (, which begins "Cambridge Defend Education is not surprised to find itself the subject of police surveillance."