Within the recent furore over tuition fees and the raging debate concerning acts of protest and policing, one group has divided opinion more than any other. The Cambridge Defend Education campaign group was formed in October 2010 in opposition to the dramatic cuts to the government’s education budget and the raising of tuition fees to £9000.
Since its formation, the group has been involved in many different organised protests, including national student marches, occupying various Cambridge University buildings and, perhaps most famously, preventing David Willetts from delivering a speech when he visited the university at the end of last year.
The actions of the group have aroused passionate feelings, with many eminent academics, campaigners, Oxbridge dons and famous figures weighing in; some to voice admiration and support for the group, but others vociferously to condemn it.
The argument essentially seems to fall into two categories. Those who support the group claim that it is made up of passionate, idealistic young people who are fighting for the basic right for education to be available to all, regardless of their financial standing or any other categorisation. Highly esteemed authors and campaigners like Selma James and leading members of the Cambridge University staff like Dr Ben Etherington and Dr Andrew Zurcher have spoken and written publicly in their praise. These supporters claim that the actions of the campaign group, whilst sometimes extreme (as in the case of their dismissal of Willetts), are nonetheless made necessary by the mercenary actions of a government capitulating to a capitalist and morally corrupt culture of financial benefit above all else.
A long list of scholars and lecturers of the university lent their names to an open letter supporting the CDE occupation of the university’s Lady Mitchell Hall, declaring: “Given the destructive policies of the present government, enacted without due consultation, we believe that the disruption of the Minister for Universities’ address and the subsequent occupation are proportionate and justified actions.”
Interestingly, both lecturers and students alike have joined in mutual condemnation of the university authorities, who were beseeched by students and staff to take a stand against the introduction of higher tuition fees with a vote of no confidence in David Willetts, but narrowly voted not to do so. The open statement from university staff clearly raises this issue, claiming “our senior administrators have failed to resist the current assault upon British universities. Many of our students, however, have bravely opposed it.”
On the opposite side of the argument however, many others have spoken out against the actions of the campaign group, with some academics denouncing the interruption of Willetts’ speech and a separate student faction calling themselves “Cambridge students against Cambridge Defend Education” even setting up a rival Facebook group. Those criticizing the Cambridge Defend Education group are not necessarily pro-tuition fees, or even anti-protest. But they claim that the actions of the group are intellectually hypocritical, and risk damaging the reputation and clarity of the protest movement as a whole. Dr Simon Goldhill, of the Faculty of Classics, had publicly spoken out against the government’s new education policy; even joining a group of 681 academics who sent an open letter of protest against it to the national press last year. But when Willetts’ speech was interrupted, he reacted with an angry statement on the faculty website, claiming that the protesters had denied Willetts himself the very freedom of speech they claimed to be trying to protect.
Whether or not this is true has been hotly debated in the student press. Some have argued that the act was riotous and destructive, denying Willetts the chance to speak and denying anybody else in the audience the chance to listen to him or to question him about his policies. Those in opposition claim that the act was not a denial of freedom of speech as the protesters merely spoke at the same time as Willetts, not actually preventing him from continuing. Others have claimed that the act was sadly made necessary by the absolute refusal by both government and university authorities to make any attempt to engage properly with protesters and open a proper dialogue through which they might have addressed their concerns.
Dr Andrew Zurcher, in an open letter in support of CDE, published on their website, claimed that any threat to the core values of the university posed by the protesters when they interrupted Willetts’ speech was offset by the fact that the very act of inviting him to give the speech was, in the light of his recent political decisions, an insult to the moral standing of the university in itself. He challenged Goldhill: “You have said that CDE has mistakenly attacked the core values of the university. Perhaps you have undermined them, by inviting a politician to whitewash his ideologically driven rape of the university sector, in a speech that would rhetorically re-describe it as consensual sex.”
If you put aside the more specific argument about whether or not the protesters were academically hypocritical in their attempt to defend free speech by gagging one man, the crux of the debate surrounding Cambridge Defend Education is clear. Those who attack them see them as a ramshackle, poorly organized group of riotous youngsters keen for a fight without having a clear understanding of the political necessities that underpin it. They are seen to be chaotic and contain many factions with confused and clashing ideological views. Many (mistakenly) seem to associate them with the rioting students who stormed police lines and damaged property in London during the student protests of last year. They see their occupation of university property as a disobedient and reprehensible flouting of the authority of their own academic institution. Others find them more comical; a group of hippies munching Waitrose hummus and organizing guitar sing-alongs and teach-ins without any real idea of how to focus their energy or create any kind of genuine political pressure.
Certainly it is true that students, and protest groups in particular, have been unfairly vilified since the beginning of this whole torrid affair. First, biased government statements wrote off the entire protest movement, claiming that because of the actions of a violent, disassociated few, the peaceful majority somehow did not deserve the right to proper acknowledgement and response. Then the media presented an orgy of chaos and destruction, irresponsibly focusing on the lurid details of a few isolated incidents of violence at the protests and failing accurately to report the scale of peaceful campaigning that went alongside it. Finally, the university governing body abandoned the needs of its students in favour of its own financial interests by capitulating without protest to the government’s plans and refusing to enter into a full and frank dialogue about its decision with members of the university.
Yet whilst all this is true, it is also true that to those looking for inspirational action and ideology, the protesters really do leave something to be wished for. Far from the rousing, efficient organization of groups like the suffragettes, who some have compared them to, their public statements are often long-winded and unfocused, their speeches unimpressive and vague and their image disparate and lacking in unity. If you watch the video of the interruption of Willetts’ speech, the open letter read out is lurid and over dramatic, failing to deliver a true intellectual or political punch. Footage of other speeches, like the introduction to Selma James’s appearance, posted on the CDE website, are equally dithering and unimpressive. You only have to take a look at the photograph (above) of the Willetts interruption to get the idea. Other campaign groups topple into similar pitfalls – the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts website’s current banner misspells the word ‘happening’ in the very sentence “what is happening to our education?”!
Yes, the dismissal and vilification of Cambridge Defend Education by government and university authorities is unjustified and represents a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the weaknesses of their own argument. But if supporters of CDE like Andrew Zurcher wish to portray them as “principled, desperate young people…defending the opportunity to think and to learn,” then they need to present a public face that goes further towards deserving this dazzlingly heroic image.