University education must be democratized in the service of the community

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“Academic spaces are ours – which, considering how much urban space the university owns, controls or dominates – is a pretty chilling statement.”Katie Kasperson

Universities should be public spaces. Especially in Cambridge, the university plays a central role in defining and shaping community life. However, as things stand, the University of Cambridge lacks the quality that defines a public space: freedom for outsiders to mingle freely. Without this mixing, university campuses are often unaware of the material reality that surrounds them.

It’s no coincidence that the most unequal city in the UK is home to the richest university in Europe. While we enjoy all the privileges of being a Cambridge student, we forget that our experience of the city – essentially meeting other students – is not universal. While the Central University alone spends almost £50m a year maintaining its grounds, the city’s children live with such limited opportunities that in some cases they have “never seen the River Cam’. In 2020, one in every hundred households in Cambridge was assessed as homeless or at risk of homelessness. And yet, because we exist in a physical bubble, the university makes it difficult to make the connection between the opportunities we enjoy and the lives of the 80% of Cambridge residents who make up the “city” side of the “city/dress ” divide.

“Access control hides the potential of our campus to become a social center”

By making education a service rather than a right, the commodification of education has reinforced the fortress mentality of the university. Only students – who actually pay for admission – are given exclusive access to the space and resources the university owns. For everyone else in the city, the colleges are what they have always been: a closed space.

What this control hides is the potential of our campus to become a social center, rather than a service available to an elite. A 2016 study on the Milano Bovisa Durando campus of the Politecnico di Milano illustrated ways to democratize campus spaces. Community members, students and staff were challenged to reinvent the way the land was used. “Entering the campus,” the researchers observe, “makes people realize how they can use the space on a daily basis.” Participation in the initiative by members of the public ranged from people without gardens who wanted to help grow vegetables, to parents who wanted a quiet place to bring their children.

“Public access is a responsibility of the University”

At the same time, for the university participants, “the event allowed the university community to contextualize the place of their training”. The campus has become a larger point of education, a type that can only exist when an academic bubble bursts, when communication and collaborations are established across historical “city/dress” divides.

Public access is standard practice in many educational institutions around the world. Until 2020, many universities in Hong Kong were community spaces, where residents could dine in the halls, use the university grounds or attend lectures. This principle has been described by Michael O’Sullivan as “an integral part of the public spirit, since government funding supports all universities in Hong Kong”. It is seen as a responsibility from the university: “The institutions themselves have also been keen to give back to their communities by providing recreational spaces for people living in congested urban centers.”

It’s hard to know what an open-access university in Cambridge would look like. The good news is that we don’t have to. Not alone, at least. The first step towards restoring access requires understanding the needs of the community; which, as the Milano study shows, requires wide consultation. If things are to change, they must change collaboratively. It’s the opposite of access control: talking to your neighbors.

This may translate to facilities such as the Hive Library at the University of Worcester, the nation’s first university and public library; or the community garden rented by Corpus Christi College, Oxford, for the price of a jar of honey a year. It could mean opening the doors to lecture halls and encouraging real public education. This should involve, as It Takes a City suggests, using university land to build safe and comfortable shelters for homeless people in the city. It’s not really for us to say. Part of the problem is that the function of community spaces is strictly dictated – and controlled – by us.

In the age of landlord college, it’s not just about spaces in Cambridge. The university and its colleges own large tracts of farmland and forest across the UK. As in Cambridge, only privileged groups often have access to green spaces and the countryside, while marginalized groups – who have historically been forced into industrial work in cities by settlement and enclosure – find themselves without access to land. Many groups are already taking the lead in addressing land inequity and demanding land reparations for COPD communities. Particularly in light of its historical complicity in colonial projects, working with these groups to address, democratize and, if possible, redistribute university land ownership must be an important part of decolonizing the institution.

Above all, it requires tackling the power dynamics that underpin our land ownership. The university, as the landowner, has the power to control the space, while those who use it have little say in its oversight or management. Of course, true land democracy will never be entirely possible in a system where land ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy individuals and institutions who have the right, by law, to alienate, consume and destroy lands in which we all have a stake. However, the alternatives to this system can start by letting in – and, above all, to listen — the community around us.

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