Whose University?

Last year, students at Cambridge campaigning for a living wage for staff were told by a senior official that their college was ‘a business first, a home second’. A few months later, King’s College hosted George Osborne and others at an international economics conference. Students were hauled before the dean for singing a protest song as Osborne walked past them in the bar. One of the things they were angry about was that the conference had taken over the student coffee shop – part of their home – for its corporate hospitality.

It’s a familiar experience at universities across the country: at the end of each (short) term, students are booted out of their rooms and conference guests move in. Universities are often financially fragmented, with colleges, faculties and administrative divisions billing each other in an internal market. The revenue from such events is very welcome. Students who question the practice are told that conference dues ‘subsidise’ their termly rent. The rent is still rarely lower (and often more) than £100 a week; outside the south-east, you can often find a room in a shared house for less.

Most students get by, their parents providing the full removal service on the allotted day. But as the founders of a campaign at Cambridge called ‘Whose University?’ say , the colleges’ insistence on this makes a lot of assumptions:

We want the university and colleges to realise that the idea of a ‘home’ to return to each vacation is not a privilege that everyone here is able to access. Not everyone can or wants to go home… Some people might need to stay in Cambridge for other reasons: they need to be here to access libraries and do the work expected of them over the holidays; they need to continue to access the mental and physical health provisions they have established access to over term.

At some universities students have the option of staying through the Christmas and Easter breaks, but they have to pay extra for it. Appeals to stay are often judged on a case-by-case basis, but testimonies published by ‘Whose University?’ suggest the system often doesn’t work. ‘There is such an assumption among supervisors, tutors, nurses and directors of studies that everyone comes from the typical middle class stable family – and they are utterly clueless when it comes to familial issues,’ one anonymous student wrote.

At the end of last term, ‘Whose University?’ set up a ‘holiday help out’ system at Cambridge. Generous students at more generous colleges offered space in their rooms to students from other colleges who needed it. But then the lay dean at King’s sent an email to students saying they were ‘not allowed to store anyone else’s belongings’ in their rooms. Any property that ‘clearly [does] not belong to the student to whom the room was assigned’ would be removed; disciplinary action would follow. At least one lecturer then offered to let students use her academic office to store their belongings over the holidays.

Shelly Asquith, the student union president at University of the Arts London, says students feel locked out of universities’ new ‘flagship sites’. ‘These buildings have a lot of security,’ she told me. ‘Booking rooms is a long bureaucratic process, they are unwelcoming to students with children and any event requires a 10-page risk assessment. They no longer feel like student spaces, more like corporate show homes. How much is being spent on the build and upkeep of these “flagships” when it could be spent on the delivery of education?’

Last year students at UCL and other campaigners fought off a proposal to build a new campus on the site of the Carpenters estate in Newham; 318 council homes would have been demolished. UCL announced that it would instead develop a new site on the edge of the Olympic Park: ‘Options under consideration include a new centre for culture and heritage, a design school, a new biotech hub and an educational technology centre, as well as a space for entrepreneurs.’