HE Power List 2016: Cecil Rhodes and students’ influence

Recently, the student-university relationship has been pulled in many different legal directions. One of the most fascinating is how, at a time when the CMA and government policy seek to assert an explicitly transactional and consumerist interpretation of the relationship, some students are vigorously rejecting the passive role this foists on them.

These students are not attending university simply to receive an education or experience, but to shape and influence their institutions, the things those institutions choose to do and the way they choose to do them. This student movement has the power to influence both individual institutions and higher education as a whole.

Let’s start with Oriel and the statue of Cecil John Rhodes (24th). For a long time, he was simply a statue, past by many thousands of students or walked on without comment and possibly even without seeing it. But in the last eighteen months or so he has come to represent how some students feel that universities have failed to understand and adapt to the changing needs of an increasingly diverse student body.

A tribute to a bombastic imperialist would have raised barely an eyebrow amongst a student body consisting principally of white, upper and upper-middle class descendants of imperialists, but it had very different connotations for students from countries and backgrounds oppressed by empire. The campaign for his removal (not one that, incidentally, I agreed with) was at its heart an attempt to stake an equal claim to ownership of and right to influence the Oriel College community.

The Rhodes Must Fall campaign is not the only example of this phenomenon. Student campaigns have recently occurred across campuses against issues as varied as the content of the economics curriculum, tuition fees, the outsourcing of campus services, the closure of academic departments and fossil fuel divestment. Representing these campaigners is the new and controversial NUS President Malia Bouattia (33rd).

Many students do not appear to see themselves as passive consumers of an off-the-shelf higher education experience, or purchasers of an established university ‘brand’ that they must take or leave, but as members of a community who should have a say in developing their own experience. Such expectations have the potential for quite significant influence on how universities develop and implement their strategies and differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive climate.

The ongoing debates about trigger warnings, safe spaces, and the Prevent duty on campus are related to this. Some students want academic content and campus life to be organised in a way that is sensitive to their individual needs. Sometimes this comes into conflict with the activities of external speakers (where their views or prior publications are regarded as offensive); academic staff (who may be expected not to teach certain material without prior warning to students who it may disturb) or other students (whose societies and events may be seen as exclusionary and insensitive).

The potential effect of all this on the character and ethos of an institution could be quite telling. Some institutions will respond by accommodating the requests; others may, like the University of Chicago, decide to proactively set out their stall as places where students can expect to be challenged and even disturbed and to learn to deal with the negative emotions they may experience as a result; few if any will be in a position where they can afford not to respond to the pressure to change at all.

Is this any different to how it’s always been? Students have always protested and sometimes that protest has led to tangible change, although not always in the direction that the students may have wanted; for example, it was resistance to controversial external speakers that led to the introduction of the statutory duty on institutions to safeguard freedom of speech in 1986.

The current spate of collective student challenge is however in my view different for three reasons. First, there is its extent, both in terms of the range of things that students are targeting and in the geographical spread of protest, which encompasses Africa and the USA as well as the UK.

Secondly, there is the ease with which support for such protests can be garnered through social media, increasing their size and impact. Thirdly, and perhaps paradoxically, there is the fact that the importance of attracting student ‘consumers’ in terms of finances means that many institutions, quite literally, cannot afford to ignore organised and collective student challenges.

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