“Tendentious” and “ill-informed”: war of words over Whose University? campaign

Colm Murphy 16 December 2014

The Lay Dean of King’s College, Dr Paul Ryan, is set to publish a strongly-worded statement lambasting criticisms of King's from Whose University? (WU?).

This comes after the group encouraged Cambridge students to offer college space to others over the vacation, and highlighted a number of corporate events on college property during the applicant interviews period.

Room sharing

The WU? campaign, established in November, aimed “to draw attention to the times when colleges and the university fail to prioritise students, their needs and their welfare over their business interests.”

Drawing attention to the fact many undergraduates were forced to vacate their rooms over Christmas, they created a room-sharing facebook group earlier this month, 'Cambridge Holiday Help Out' for students who wanted to stay in Cambridge. The description said: “This will work a little like the May Ball Marketplace but this time for room space/floor space/storage space or even things like sharing cars/busses/trains home so that people can help each other carry stuff or simply have some going-home solidarity!”

'Cambridge Holiday Help Out' facebook group. Credit: Colm Murphy

In reaction, Ryan sent an email on December 5 to King’s members warning them that this broke college rules. “I would like to remind you that […] you are not allowed to store anyone else’s belongings in your room. The reasons for the rule concern security (personal knowledge of and responsibility for possessions left over the vacation) and housekeeping.”

“I will take disciplinary action against any student who is found to have ignored the rule.”

The email prompted an article from trainee history teacher at the University, Adam Robertson, on Open Democracy. Robertson argued that King’s prioritised business interests over King’s students, and that vacation residence may be required because of financial circumstances, or a requirement for mental health access, saying: “nowhere in this model is there space for students to be human beings with human needs.” He claimed that WU? had “provoked King’s College into letting the mask of its humanity slip, revealing the ugly face of its neoliberal ideology”.

Lay Dean’s statement

However, Ryan has attacked the article and a number of WU?’s arguments. In an article set for publication on Open Democracy seen by The Cambridge Student, he says: “[the] article contains so many errors, of both fact and interpretation, that it should not go unanswered.”

He stresses that, during the Christmas Vacation, the space which most undergraduates create by clearing their rooms is used “not for conference business … but for the (this year, 854 strong) sixth formers” who stay for interviews.

According to Ryan, the tutorial system gives permission to individuals who had a “valid reason”, such as finances or mental health, to stay during the vacations, thus it is “incorrect to state that any undergraduates who need to remain in college accommodation during the vacations are required to leave.”

He disputes WU?’s core argument that, because of ownership in the sense of “who has a right to feel at home in these spaces” belongs to the students, the college should “make students the priority.” Ryan said: “WU? appears to be unaware that colleges such as King’s exist for a multitude of purposes. Education, religion, learning and research are stated explicitly in the King’s Statutes; to them should be added the performance of music and the handling of tourism. No particular group, including undergraduates, is entitled to claim ownership.”

Finally, Ryan claims that events such as corporate fundraisers are vital to the college: “Were a college like King’s to abandon the outside events that help finance the high cost of its educational provision, charges to undergraduates would have to be much higher than at present.” He ends his response to the original Open Democracy article by labelling WU?’s case as “both ill-informed and tendentious.”

Whose University? statement

WU? gave TCS a brief statement in response to the Lay Dean’s comments. They say that Dr Ryan is “explicitly, if not wilfully, missing the point of Whose University?” and “he is working to deny the lived experiences of students.

“It is not for the privileged to define or deny others’ experiences of marginalisation, that only serves further to marginalise them. We as WU? will continue to give a platform to these experiences and try to reclaim a space for the student voice which Dr Ryan appears so eager to silence.”

Corporate Controversy

The campaign has recently publicly denounced corporate events staged at King’s and Murray Edwards colleges during interviews week, arguing that they prioritised profits over access.

Posting on their facebook group, the activist group criticised King’s for hosting a corporate drinks in the college bar on 11 December while applicants were staying there for interviews. They claim this was “in direct contradiction of explicit promises from management and catering.”

 “Access officers across our university work tirelessly to change the perception of Cambridge as an exclusive and privileged institution […] Last night King's showed that they cared more about the profits they could make from selling off that space than the welfare and comfort of those for whom it was created.”

Later, King’s College Student Union put up an announcement on the bar’s noticeboard, saying: “Apologies to any interviewees who felt uncomfortable in the Bar last night due to the presence of corporate dining guests. It was supposed to only be open for you and King’s students. We are sorry!”

Notice in King's Bar from KCSU. Credit: Whose University?

In a further statement to TCS, Ryan said: "The current practice in King's is for the student bar to off limits to those attending external dinners in the hall (there are no conferences in this vacation) from Sunday to Thursday of admissions week".

He added that "a more sensitive view than WU?'s would recognise this incursion as having been a mistake, made in the early stages of a new policy toward the use of the bar, which was adopted last month in response to student demands for just that, and not some commercial assault on undergraduate priveleges."

WU? criticised Murray Edwards for hosting a “huge formal dinner” for an external company, with a live band playing until midnight. Whose University? claim that this shows a “complete disregard for the welfare of interviewees.” Murray Edwards's Access Officer was unavailable for comment.

However, some have questioned the campaign’s anger. Commenting on one of their facebook posts, Junior Research Fellow Paul Sagar said: “I find it quite hard to believe that candidates who are going to be made offers in the coming weeks will decline those offers because on one night there were lots of people in suits hanging around.”