Why I... believe the student-staff gap needs to be bridged

April 12, 2001

We are forced to share one copy of The THES on our corridor. With high rents, tuition fees and the prospect of top-up-fees - every expenditure has to be considered. I could go into great detail about the empty refrigerator, our infrequent meals of rationed pasta and breakfast cereal - but I won't. I often wonder whether the important people within the university were ever students, or if they were placed on the earth fully equipped with a PhD, mortar board and a big fat pay cheque.

A while ago, Sir Alec Broers, vice-chancellor at Cambridge, declared: "I want Cambridge to be an intellectual elite, not the social thing or the money thing." Yet money, whether it be from the Hinduja brothers, GKN, Vodaphone, is readily accepted and used to build faculties and sponsor chairs.

Money, in our society, is inevitably linked to class, thus reinforcing the existing elite. This obviously exacerbates the access problem. Cambridge can be very stifling, static and pretentious. Some 39 per cent of staff have only taught here. Many arrived at 18 and never left. I know many such academics who believe Cambridge to be the centre of the universe.

The recent Schneider Ross staff equality audit, which has not yet been extended to students, described the "white macho" culture and the "insular and secretive" ways of life at Cambridge. This is an accurate portrayal and is encouraged by a college system that is often very claustrophobic.

So how can Sir Alec claim an "intellectual elite" when in so many ways Cambridge is in danger of crumbling under its own cultural pretensions and traditions?

As newly elected student rights officer, I see so much possibility here for staff and students to work together to make things better. For example, we need to ensure our student complaints procedure works properly, encourage more students to become involved and finally crack the divide that exists between staff and students. At the moment, there are two levels of life at Cambridge and I definitely belong to the lower order.

Academics who push for reform, believe passionately in the cause and are willing to work alongside students, are rare indeed. But critical thinking is not always encouraged by the powers that be.

We read in The THES about vice-chancellors' pay cheques and money-making research deals. It all affects us, as it does students at every university in Britain. As you, our teachers and administrators, sit in your cosy homes, spare a thought for us, working and surviving at the mercy of your decisions.

Verity Worthington
Student rights officer
Cambridge University

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