Do JCRs have enough autonomy?

Amelia Oakley 5 November 2015

It became apparent this week in the light of bop cancellations at Queens’ that the relationship between college JCRs and higher authorities is increasingly fraught. The decision by the college Dean to suspend bops for the remainder of Michaelmas was met by staunch opposition from certain individuals, who questioned how much autonomy the JCR Committee have over decisions affecting the college. Admittedly, I myself as a member of Queens’ JCR Committee am becoming increasingly sceptical of our ability to instigate change and represent the student body effectively.

This bop cancellation is not an anomaly. Queens’ is swiftly becoming notorious for its failure to host the events without scandal, and the Dean clearly wished to exert his authority to prevent further damage to the college’s reputation. It’s a sure enough example of the JCR being overruled without negotiation.

Yet I don’t think we should allow this fairly trivial case to cloud our understanding of the many important areas the JCR work on to combat the often archaic nature of this University, primarily regarding access and equal opportunities for women, ethnic minorities and LGBT+ students. It is here where I think most effort should be focussed and we should be questioning whether these roles are merely ticking a box or a real position of responsibility with the potential to erase deeply embedded injustices.

My experiences thus far in my role have been mixed. Disillusioned by the regional and educational homogeneity of the Queens’ intake I applied for Access Officer to combat these disparities. Yet thus far I have been blighted in my efforts by a bureaucratic system that often places financial gain above its commitments to equal representation. This was most clearly evident when the college Bursar announced an increase in room prices despite protest from myself and others that this would be detrimental to access.

Moreover, my attempt to establish a residential event aiming to increase intake from Bradford, one of Queens’ College’s link areas, is now only on offer for students from Kent due to transport costs; proving completely counter-productive from an access point of view given the already high intake from the South East.

I realise these issues are specific to Queens’ and in particular my position as Access officer. Yet I think they highlight quite strongly the difficulties JCRs face when pitted against the bureaucratic nature of Cambridge colleges. Many committee members quite rightly seek to involve themselves in University-wide groups such as the Women’s Campaign and FLY to instigate change more effectively. Whilst the colleges are to be commended for their desire to give students a voice on important issues, the credibility of the JCR depends on more than this. Giving us a voice is all well and good but if it continues to fall on deaf ears then the JCR will remain tokenistic.