Giving in on class lists shows Cambridge’s failure on student democracy

Jack May 2 April 2016

By the time it gets around to mid-June, you can bet that at least 60% of those sauntering up to the class lists outside the Senate House will be ‘tired and emotional’ in some way other other, whether through horrendously cheap Sainsbury’s Cava, or the sheer horror of the hangover currently clouding all five of their senses.

The end of the Cambridge year is an enormously amicable time. Friends giggle merrily at each other as they cycle side-by-side over Orgasm Bridge, you actually almost mean it when you say ‘don’t worry it’s fine’ to whomever just spilled Pimms’ on your trousers, and there’s a chance you even manage to break a smile as you saunter past the token college homophobe.

There is, naturally, a minority of the student population for whom this time causes immense distress focussed squarely on the issue of results. For these individuals, the publication of class lists outside the Senate House is genuinely distressing, and we should not cast aside their concerns lightly.

That being said, for the vast majority of the student population the Senate House experience is harmless, amicable, and nicely quaint, which makes the University’s move towards abolishing the practice a little confusing.

What seems most surprising is that a University founded on tempered thinking and painstaking long-term research should have rushed into a decision without sensibly considering what other options might be available. It’s undeniable that the publication of class lists is an outdated archaism, and that it’s something that a modern university should be trying to find alternatives for, but that doesn’t mean that scrapping it entirely is the only answer.

The modern and intelligent university that Cambridge strives to present itself as being would come up with another path – a ‘Third Way’, if you like. The easiest thing to do would be to hugely simplify the process of ‘opting out’, making it as simple as an email to your DoS with no questions asked and no medical or other reasons needed. Alternatively, it could be a checkbox at the point at which you confirm registration for your exams on the University’s internal systems, so you don’t even have to deal with your DoS at all.

Going one step further, you could even have a checkbox on CamSIS by which you opt in to the system, so nobody can complain of being flummoxed by technical confusions. Combine this, of course, with a modern approach alongside the extant tradition. An email landing into your inbox is one thing, but what if everyone got a text from the University with their results in – a bit of clever programming wouldn’t make it that hard to do, and the enjoyment of seeing horror on graduands’ faces the likes of which haven’t been seen since that text from ‘NHS-No-Reply’ last week would be well worth the technical kerfuffle.

If they really wanted to commit to modernity, why not invest a few hundred thousand to build a comprehensive University app – downloadable to your smartphone with your lecture timetable, hermes email system, exam timetable and results notification all rolled into one. There are certainly enough vaguely benevolent CompScis rattling around the alumni network to find somebody to do it without splurging the entire contents of the ‘Dear World… Yours Cambridge’ coffer.

Fundamentally, it comes down to a boring old argument about democracy. The campaigning group who started the whole thing – ’Our Grade Our Choice’ – has seen active participation from only a very few students, as with most of these things. The petition they started has done reasonably well when looked at in isolation, with 1,300-odd signatures at the last count, but when you make that a percentage of the total current student body – let alone a percentage of all current and future students affected by this move – it’s a fairly small proportion.

CUSU’s President, meanwhile, didn’t mention anything about publication of class lists in the manifesto on which she was elected (with a surprising mandate by CUSU’s standards), and has merely jumped on the bandwagon that the campaign has offered, leaping aboard as it trundles haphazardly down the optimistic yellow brick road to relevance.

Losing the old quirk of public class lists is no great devastation to the vast majority of people – in a way that I know for a very small minority, their continuation as was would be – but depriving the majority of students a quintessential hallmark of the Cambridge experience for the sake of a few loud voices sets a dangerous precedent for the way decision-making works at this University.

It’s likely that such fringe views will continue to dominate student politics, as they have done in the past. It’s just a shame that the University hasn’t clocked that just because they shout the loudest, doesn’t mean they speak for all of us. It’s an even greater shame that the greatest minds behind the institution of great minds can’t bash their heads together and work out a middle way that keeps what’s special about the tradition whilst protecting the wellbeing of those for whom it is an unnecessary additional anxiety.