DEBATE: Should we have the right to influence our tripos courses? NO

Image credit: Flickr User Thomas Helyen

First of all let’s talk about the immediate context: the recent student-led campaigns to prevent the Philosophy faculty removing Marx from the second year curriculum.  I want to make it clear that I am not a fan of Marx. At the same time,  neither am I a fan of excluding him from the Philosophy Tripos – not least because I don’t want Adam Smith or John Stuart Mill to be excluded from it in the unlikely event of a Marxist dis/utopia ever happening. If an author is important to the development of a discipline, they should be studied. And, whether one likes it or not, Marx is quite a milestone.

However, campaigning to change the course, a Tripos, or to prevent a change from happening is not the same as dictating the contents of the Tripos . It is an example of the student body working alongside academics to come to a consensus and develop a better curriculum, and the  University actually already has structures in place to facilitate this dialogue. Every Department and School has a variety of student representative roles, which often include attendance of various Tirpos-content related committees. I can only speak for the faculty I worked with from first-hand experience, but I can assure you, students’ feedback is taken quite seriously, it’s not just a token thing they have to do but would rather not.  For example, my faculty, History, has been criticised for the lack of non-European history offered. Regardless of whether these criticisms were well-founded or not (and that’s a separate conversation), the Faculty put an extra effort into remedying the situation and created 16 new non-European lectureships, including Cambridge’s first permanent lectureship in Ottoman history. Moreover, these new resources are used to create the new World History M.Phil.

Changes of this scale are difficult to achieve from administrative and budget perspectives, and they don’t happen overnight. Due to various practical considerations reorganising any Tripos takes years, which means that the students who dictated the supposed change would never stay in the University as undergraduates for long enough to appreciate it. Thus, any serious change should not be a whim of a particular group of students, but a considered decision made by academics as a result of concerns flagged by student bodies. Changes should  be based on the long-term benefits that they would bring for successive generations of students to come. Moreover, undergraduates constitute only half of the student body of the University. Any Tripos is ultimately dependent on the resources of its faculty, and those resources both depend on, and provide for, not only undergraduate, but graduate students, as well. Thus, if the undergraduates deem a particular resource wasteful, but it is useful for graduates, undergraduates don’t have a right to dictate what to do with that resource.

I do believe, while collaboration is very important, it should be the academics who make the ultimate decisions. Students, especially undergraduates, do not have enough experience either of their subject or the administrative aspects of running a department to bluntly dictate the contents of their Tripos. Academics, every single one of which is a former undergraduate of a university, have spent their entire careers working in their respective disciplines. Thus, they well placed to appreciate both sides of the issue and to participate in a dialogue with the current students.

‘But undergraduates pay!’ – some would exclaim. Yes, they do (as do the graduates, but let’s put that aside for a moment). However, paying for a service, in my opinion, gives a right to a better service, not what the service actually entails (whether education should be viewed from such a consumerist perspective in an entirely different debate). I strongly support more contact hours and better stocked libraries, as we do pay a lot for our education and are entitled to good quality. However, I do not support students who believe if they shout loud enough they should be able to dictate the contents of their Tripos. If you are so unhappy with what it entails, why not invest your student loan into a more suitable program elsewhere? 

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