Why I Support the Degrading is Degrading Campaign

Sunday, December 4th, 2011. 9:34pm

Screenshot of Varsity Article

On the 4th of November 2011 Cambridge student newspaper Varsity reported the launch of a “Degrading is Degrading” campaign.

Having read the article I responded immediately by Twitter to express my support.

While I had no particular knowledge or experience of the process of “degrading”, the Cambridge terminology for being allowed to take a year off from working towards a degree, I did recognise some of the wider problems raised by the article, and agreed that they ought be tackled.

The article describes how academics in Cambridge colleges make enormous decisions about students’ and researchers’ lives in short appointments, just a few minutes long, almost certainly without access to all the relevant information and without being able to give matters due consideration.

It is not just in “degrading” that Cambridge college tutors have huge power over the lives of undergraduates, masters students and those working towards PhDs. Almost all interactions with university authorities require the authorisation of a college tutor and colleges hold a veto over the award of degrees. Tutors also often have a disciplinary role, and can be empowered to hand down summary justice, even to students who protest their innocence. Tutors sometimes even have a role in deciding how much, if any, rent a student pays for their rooms.

While anyone can just cut their losses and walk away from a university; how they are run is important as they are public institutions and they control access to not just academia and publicly funded research grants, but many other professions which require university degrees. I think we all have a duty especially to young people from the UK as well as others who are paying increasingly high fees to study at universities, to ensure that our universities are fair, just and meritocratic places.

The way in which academics take decisions about people’s lives is much more haphazard and careless then is seen elsewhere. The due process which goes into handing down even a £100 fine in the magistrates court is far in excess of that which within a university might typically go into a decision which could render much if not all someone has spent many years working for worthless, and deny access to a profession or field of work. In my experience academics have a much more aloof and callous attitude to those whose lives they’ve influenced than say Ministers who have to adjudicate on appeals relating to an individuals’s circumstances or even people who have served on juries.

The campaign reported by Varsity and supported by Cambridge University Students Union’s Education Officer Morgan Wild calls for an end to the vast discrepancies of support offered between colleges. Both while a graduate student, and since, I have lobbied for minimum standards which I think the University of Cambridge should require from its colleges (see the section on colleges in my application to be an external member of the Cambridge University Council).

While the Varsity article talks of tutors being intimating and impersonal I think sometimes their actions may actually cross the line into criminality. The offences may include misconduct in public office as well as perhaps harassment and bullying related offences. Where tutors’ actions lead to suicides, or attempts, their roles ought be investigated. I would like to see, in Cambridgeshire Police, a force willing and able to deal with matters raised within the university, which gives students and others the confidence that any matters reported to them will be dealt with appropriately. I do not think that appointing a PCSO, rather than a senior constable, as the university liaison officer sets the right tone (I’ve made an FOI request to find out who the current office holder is). I’ve personally reported a tutor acting in an inappropriate and intimidatory manner to the master of a college, but with no apparent effect, had I had more confidence in the police I may have approached them too. On a related but more general point I think the police and university ought generally review what matters are appropriate for dealing within internally within institutions and which ought be referred to the police.

Where the taxpayer funds students, such as research students funded via the research councils, I think they ought require some basic standards be in place. This is something I’ve written to the BBSRC to suggest and I have more recently asked the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, about their Grant Funding Agreements for the Research Councils, I think this is the level at which action needs to be taken and Martin Donnelly, the Permanent Secretary at BIS ought bring these agreements up to date and stop the research councils from throwing money away without due regard to what is being obtained in return for it. I think it is reasonable for those who are funded by the taxpayer to expect some degree of basic checks to have been carried out. Currently those being funded by research councils don’t have anything like the same backing as those funded by a rich uncle, the institutions know this and private money therefore buys more than taxpayer’s does.

I have also been lobbying Cambridge’s ex. Conservative Parliamentary Candidate Nick Hillman, who is now a special advisor to Universities Minister David Willetts. I have specifically been pushing for an empowerment of students, including by strengthening of students’ unions. This is something which was touted as an inevitable consequence of the initial £1000/year fees, but hasn’t yet happened. The “Putting students at the heart of higher education” white paper in June 2011 said some encouraging things in this area (though I complained about the focus on the NUS. )

In particular I don’t see why a tutor at a college, who could be a poet, ought have a veto over if someone can become a medical research scientist.

I do have one strong reservation with respect the current CUSU supported campaign, in that it calls for “making sure the student body is represented in degrading proceedings”; I don’t think this is right and while students’ representatives ought be involved in setting university policies, I don’t think students ought take part in decisions about other students’ degrees. That principle is present in the university’s current rules and ought be retained.

It also isn’t clear why the campaign is only seeking support from current students. One of the comments on the Varsity article, from Joséphine de Staël, asks this question but it has not been answered.

I think there are a number of reasons why the situation at Cambridge University is particularly problematic:

  • Cambridge University Students’ Union isn’t respected by either the university, or large parts of the student body. CUSU doesn’t focus on representing students as students, but enters excessively into broader political debate, taking a left-wing, Labourite, stance. I think this directly impacts its ability to effectively represent its members, many of whom have either differing, or unformed political views, or have no long term interest in UK politics as they are merely visiting to study.
  • The president of the Graduate Union is not automatically the graduate representative on the University Council and General Board. This is an example of how the university holds its own, largely unheard of, elections to fill the positions on its key committees instead of properly recognising the students union leaders. (I made some suggestions to one of the holders of the latter posts).
  • There are 31 colleges, if there are problems at any one time in one of them, the vast majority of the student body of the university as a whole will be unaware and unaffected.
  • The university operates in a very individual-focused manner and by its nature attracts many individuals who are focused on their own personal achievements and who don’t take an interest in systemic problems. If there are systemic problems which pushy individuals can find a way to work-around there is no incentive to address them in the interests of the majority.
  • The university can, and does, rely on its historical reputation. Regardless of what it does, for the next few decades at least, it will continue to attract students and funding.
  • Cambridge college traditions are defended at all costs. Students are a long way down some colleges’ priorities.
  • There are no whistleblowing protections for students within the university, or as standard across the colleges; this makes it personally risky for students to raise instances of corruption and malpractice.
  • Tutors in Cambridge are given multiple, incompatible, roles, for example acting both as students’ advocates and as those who take decisions in relation to them.

When I was at the University Wes Streeting was the president of CUSU, he and his fellow sabbaticals adopted a policy and practice of not attending meetings between tutors and students unless they were invited by both sides, rendering the union useless to most students involved in disputes. Despite this shaky foundation Streeting has since ascended to the heady heights of deputy leader of the Labour opposition group on Redbridge London Borough Council‎ via a stint as president of the NUS.

Cambridge University and its colleges are well known as being, generally, with some notable exceptions, a place firmly stuck in a previous era. Sometimes this isn’t too bad, but when its acceptable for academics to dismiss students with mental problems such as stress or depression saying they “don’t look ill” this is something which needs addressing. The Varsity article notes there can be psychological aspects to a “degrading” and reinstatement decision.

My first experience of a Cambridge tutor came on a day when I had to choose between college and department activities, both of which were presented as compulsory and important. I had to wait for hours to for a law academic who described himself as a Judge (which was only just about technically correct) who presented himself with a degree of the pomp better suited to the Master of the Rolls. Him having got bored of seeing people individually, I was summoned into his room with eight others to hear a lecture about how he didn’t want the role of a tutor, was far too busy being a judge in London to have anything to do with it, but which failed to reach the logical judgement that he ought not seek to interfere in our dealings with the university.

Part of what is going on may be related to the often cited quote: “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” Many dons will not in their academic research roles do much which has any impact on others, so they seek influence and impact through their student facing positions.

It’s not just college tutors, but academics in university departments too. I was once, while working within the University of Cambridge, banned from a laboratory, by the head of department, for suggesting that users of the new laboratory ought have some induction training before using it. (Use of the lab involved carrying liquid nitrogen in via an airlock, and liquid nitrogen in confined spaces regularly kills people). I alone, for raising the issue, was banned, others were allowed to carry on playing with the new lab’s systems and learning how they worked by trial and error. I wonder if the head of department taking the decision had considered that he was potentially taking away a job, income and home (I was living in a college owned property) by his actions. I have lobbied for the kind of protections which extend to employees being extended to PhD students, in an effort to get these kinds of decisions taken with due process and care.

Some Cambridge Colleges are very weird places (Cambridge MP Julian Huppert has said Parliament’s even worse!). My first encounter with college authorities came when notices were placed on my car when I was unloading my stuff into my room saying I shouldn’t have parked where I was. On querying this I was told, in all seriousness, that I’d parked below the rooms of a college fellow who viewed cars much as I’ve since learnt local Liberal Democrats do. I was told he would have been wild had he seen me park where I did (I later discovered he visited his rooms in the college just twice in the year I lived there!).

My second encounter was odder. I had signed up to attend a dinner in the college hall. At some point early on in proceedings I realised the staff were all pointing at me and someone (I believe the butler?!) marched towards me and hauled me out. The problem, it turned out, was that I had failed to press the “cheese” button on the college’s computer system when reserving my place. Apparently despite the dinner being for graduate students only, and the fact I’d logged onto the system with a card identifying me as a graduate student, I ought to have pressed a button marked “cheese” at some point in order that the college could charge me an extra ~30p or thereabouts on top of the charge for the dinner on the grounds I wasn’t an undergraduate. (The charge itself came on top of a £400/year charge for meals, if they were taken or not, and the college fees themselves). There was no consideration at all that I might have not had a clue about this bizarre practice of pressing a “cheese button” and a judgement was made that I was trying to scam the college out of its 30p and I was told if I ever tried anything like that again I’d be summoned to appear in-front of the “dean of discipline” for punishment. I resolved to try and treat the college like an bizarre stage show in which I had somehow ended up, unintentionally, as a cast member. (I tried going to dinner twice more, once with two friends, but we were not allowed to sit together which rather spoilt the evening, and another time with my parents, when we were almost the only people present and the college no-doubt took great glee in making an astronomical “conference guest” charge on my bill).

My experience was not uncommon, and I regularly observed some poor unsuspecting individual, practically pinned up against the wall outside the dinning hall being balled at by a member of the college staff for some minor infarction of a rule or tradition they were probably completely unaware of.

I eventually came to grief with my college when I was, I believe, disciplined for defamation (the exact details and charges were never made available to me). I had been whistle-blowing to the graduate student body about corruption. The college tutor dealing with me decided that the truth was not a defence to defamation within the college (making the college probably the only jurisdiction on the planet where that is the case!). I was also told by the tutor that he didn’t believe that my passion for democracy and due process was strong enough to justify my actions and he had decided there must have been other, unspecified motivations (Like one of the individuals featured in the Varsity article the suggestion was made that I must be mad). I was told a kangaroo court, had already, in my absence and without me even being made aware of any allegation found me guilty, on protesting I was promised a disciplinary hearing which never materialised. While there were possibly other contributory factors it was primarily this, rather than any academic consideration, which resulted in me not being able to gain a PhD.

I don’t think this kind of thing is restricted to Cambridge; I experienced similar things at Imperial College where I did my undergraduate degree and where I was a student representative and for ~2 years a member of Imperial College Union’s council. In the final year of my course I was summoned to see my department’s director of studies, David Hartley who, completely to my surprise, informed me I wasn’t going to be allowed to take the exam in one of the courses I’d been studying. There was a system for allocating students to courses and I’d applied to do a final year course called Molecular Basis of Disease. When details of what courses we’d all been allocated were released I was told I’d been allocated a course abbreviated as “MBD” and assumed I’d got the course I wanted. In-fact the “D” stood for development, a course I had not expressed a desire to take and was not expecting to be given. Instead of seeing this as the mistake it was, Hartley told me that he had judged me guilty of trying to by-pass the system of allocating the courses, and despite there being room in the lecture theatres and practical classes, and told me I’d have to do an exam in development, which just happened to be his subject and a course he was responsible for, which relatively few people had actively opted to take. As it happened I ended up getting one of my best marks in the rather dull “how to build a fruit fly” course, and still went along for the Molecular Basis of Disease course, co-ordinated by David Mann which was absolutely brilliant and certainly didn’t need the added motivation of it counting towards a degree to make it worthwhile sitting in on. While this escapade turned out all right, following some pointless rote learning before tackling the development exam, it could have been quite different and I do wonder if Hartley had really considered the potential implications of his decision which could have easily resulted in years of work, and expense of being in London being rendered relatively worthless. I made suggestions for preventing the same thing happening in future years.

3 comments/updates on “Why I Support the Degrading is Degrading Campaign

  1. Richard Taylor Article author

    Wes Streeting has responded via Twitter to say:

    Not sure I understand your criticism of a system where student reps are present by students’ consent?!

    Clearly my criticism of his policy and practice was that he required the institution’s, and even the individual tutor’s, invitation before representing a student in meetings with tutors.

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