Summary (this is a ***long read*** but has lots of links & nuggets of info)
Going by the student union election hustings, Anglia students are facing similar issues to local residents in Cambridge. So how can we improve the relationships between communities that live side-by-side in the same neighbourhoods?
This post is mainly aimed at Anglia Ruskin University Student Union, and their students in Cambridge who want to get active in the local community.
This stems from some harsh lessons I learnt with the Cambridge Skillsfest not so long ago (see here). Because the current president of Anglia Ruskin Student Union, (ARUSU) Francesca Rust is going to be moving onto places new in the near future, I felt a sense of urgency to make face-to-face contact with her potential successors. Hence going to their Cambridge hustings with a community activist/ARU alumnus hat on. (I was at ARU as a post-grad student between 2002-04).
“So, what were the candidates like?”
On the whole, passionate and diverse. Some were stronger on content and weaker on delivery, and vice versa. A number were strong on both. I can’t think of any off the top of my head that were weak on both. What was noticeable was that experience of running societies and interacting with the university’s student communities reflected significantly in the pitches that people made to the audience. I also got the sense that with the issues they were raising, Cambridge councillors would face a challenging experience if they came face-to-face with these students on the local issues they raised.
Pretty much every single post being contested had a candidate that mentioned housing. Just because students might not be permanent residents in Cambridge does not mean they deserve to get ripped off by dodgy landlords, or ignored by the local political institutions as temporary problems that will be gone the next year to be replaced by another lot.
“Does this mean Anglia Ruskin has expanded too quickly?”
While there are some splendid new facilities there, I can’t help but feel the university (as with many others) has expanded student numbers beyond the capacity of not just itself but the local communities they are in, in order to pay for them. This was an issue for me in Brighton a decade-and-a-half ago, and it feels like the national picture has not changed. It’s students that are being short-changed. Ultimately it’s a failure of national housing policy of successive governments. As a former housing policy adviser in central government – albeit for less than a year, I feel somewhat part of the blame for not pushing senior civil servants harder. (Even though there is only so much a Fast Streamer can achieve in the face of the peak of a housing boom).
“Did anyone promise to solve housing problems?”
One or two indicated they would, but others said (correctly) that Cambridge housing and rent prices were something outside of the competency of the student union. That doesn’t mean students cannot do anything about it though. This for me is where ARUSU could start thinking about political awareness campaigns – in particular developing continual working relationships with local councillors. For a start, could students interested in local housing issues go along to Cambridge local area committees? (See here). Could ARUSU encourage students to get in touch with their local councillors, MPs and MEPs directly? (See here). What guidance/support could ARUSU provide on organising campaigns so that email/writing campaigns are sequenced to have maximum impact? Are there local people and organisations in Cambridge that can support them in his? (Yes.)
“You’re not a student, so why did you turn up? How dare you?!?!”
No, but I used to be, and ARU have built sizeable accommodation blocks in my neighbourhood. Even though I may not have the vote, doesn’t mean local residents don’t have a voice and can’t ask questions. The same applies for under 18s and public elections. In anycase, my questions were generally probing/raising awareness questions rather than hostile/ranty questions. Also, at various points there were awkward silences so I waited till the last minute to ask mine, and/or let everyone ask their questions first. After all, it’s their union.
I aimed to get the candidates thinking about what it can offer and what it can gain from the local community – in a way that can reduce tensions benefit students too.
What was nice was how all of the candidates I was able to put questions to were really positive towards the idea of Anglia Ruskin Student Union building on the work Francesca’s team has done over the past couple of years – in particular hosting events that bring together Cambridge’s diverse communities. Francesca’s team were at the full council meeting with me and the Cambridge Hub, putting questions to Cambridge City Council on community action. (See item 13/48/CNL here). So the work has already started. What matters now is that the new student union executives of both Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin student unions meet with officers of Cambridge City and Cambridgeshire County Council early on – ideally before the summer holidays. Following this, it needs to be seared into the institutions that post-student union (and local council) elections, every year the councils will invite the new student union executives to get them up to speed on what has happened in previous years, what the councils have planned and to see how they can work with the student unions given their own manifesto pledges.
Reaching out to local sixth form and further education colleges
This for me is one of the big potential areas ARUSU has, because three of the biggest are on ARU’s doorstep (hence I urge ARUSU’s new executive to make contact with the student councils:
- Hills Road Sixth Form College (their FB pages are here & they have just elected their own new student council – see their website too)
- Long Road Sixth Form College – contact them here
- Cambridge Regional College – contact them here
There are also the smaller sixth form centres such as:
- Parkside Sixth Form – which is almost over the road – contact them here
- Netherhall Sixth Form – contact them here
- Impington Sixth Form – contact them here
Two schools that ARUSU may also want to reach out to in terms of inspiring young people to continue in education are:
The reason why I’ve listed the above secondary schools is that historically they have struggled, but the current management are working their socks off to turn things around. I was at Coleridge not so long ago to meet with their head teacher and their head of citizenship and saw this for myself. With Coleridge in particular, given the very low baseline it is starting from (see their OfSted figures here), the school cannot do it alone. The rest of the community needs to stand up and be counted. The potential with Anglia students – particularly several of the ones I met – is that they will be able to relate and empathise with the students at school far better than I will. With a couple of the candidates this evening, when they took to the stage they carried this ‘presence’ with them that with a group of secondary school children I don’t think I would have. In terms of activities, outreach and visits, it doesn’t have to be all academia. ARUSU has access to facilities that local state secondary schools don’t have access to. (Ditto primary schools). What would joint sports sessions be like? Or combined arts and drama? Could (with legal and other reasonable safeguards in place) ARUSU and local schools get together to design a program of activities that can be repeated/refreshed every year?
Hosting specific events for the local community
Taking the learning from the Cambridge Skillsfest (See here again), one of the things Anglia Ruskin University has tried to do over the years is to reach out to the local community. They used to have a superb programme of part-time modules which was killed off by the funding changes from central government. Basically running such a system isn’t really viable in the current climate.
Anglia’s Cambridge campus on East Road has had a significant amount of work done since I left in 2004. But how many people from the local community have seen it? Yes, it has ‘open days’ and hosts performances at the Mumford Theatre inside, but all too often I get the feeling that local residents feel that these are ‘not for them’. This was one of the pieces of feedback I got from the Skillsfest: People thought that the ARUSU branding meant it was for students only. So how do you get people onto the campus to see things for themselves? (The same question was one we discussed at Coleridge earlier).
My top four are:
- The community action summit – which more and more people in more and more groups are showing a strong interest in
- A societies’ fair for the city’s community groups – perhaps organised and hosted by ARUSU to bring local residents onto the campus
- Parliament Week in November 2014- a series of events around engaging with Parliament and with political institutions generally. Bring in some big names too, to generate some publicity?
- People and Planet’s Shared Planet – next one scheduled I think for Autumn 2014 – inviting student campaigners from all over the UK for active learning workshops? You’ve got the facilities and a massive new Travellodge up the road for overnight accommodation (assuming uni bosses don’t mess things up like they did last year!) If you made it open to further education students (as P&P did last year), you might even shake things up for the 2015 general election campaigns across the county.
For me, the facilities on campus will sell themselves. At the same time, what local community groups can offer students can enhance their experiences while at university.
“What is Cambridge – and Anglia not getting right?”
We’re not getting the institutionalised structures, systems and processes right at all. This is also what I’ve spent the past couple of years looking at in detail across the city – only now beginning to experiment (and finding out the hard way) with specific actions and events. There are many reasons for this – including paralysis and shock caused by austerity across the piece. How can you possibly think imaginatively and creatively in your day job if you don’t know it’s going to still exist in six months time? Why would you bother going that extra mile for an institution that could make you redundant before Christmas or the summer holidays?
One of the big things I’ve picked up listening to lots of people across the student communities is how the same large issues are coming up time and again, yet very little progress is being made. For example on housing, can the universities, the language schools and the private colleges demonstrate with the local councils a planned and strategic approach to housing? To what extent are they relying (as when I was at Sussex in the early 2000s) on the local community to absorb students that are not in student accommodation? To what extent are local communities being destabilised by buy-to-let landlords?
“Isn’t turnover of student executives a problem here?”
I wouldn’t say it’s a problem – it’s an inevitable occurrence that we have to manage. On the plus side, it means a weak executive won’t be around for long to do much damage, but then it can mean a competent executive is limited in what it can achieve. Hence whoever wins the ARUSU elections needs to think succession planning on anything new they kick off. This was one of the reasons why I asked candidates what things Francesca had done they were going to continue with and build on. Interestingly they all said the green initiatives.
“What does this mean for long term problems and long term campaigns?”
Funnily enough, Long Road Sixth Form College have a similar problem with public transport. Students there have repeatedly called for an Addenbrookes railway station – to no avail. Students at Anglia Ruskin are split on three campuses – Cambridge, Chelmsford and Peterborough. A big challenge for students is how to overcome the geographical split. As with the Oxford-Cambridge line (see here - and also how I persuaded Ed Miliband to get him to commit to re-opening the line if Labour get into office), there is huge potential in linking Cambridge and Chelmsford – as part of other campaigns. Have a look at the latest version of what England’s old rail network used to look like here. Campaigns/options to be aware of include:
- Oxford-Cambridge rail
- Wisbech-Cambridge rail – could this create an electrified link & better services to Peterborough?
- Haverhill-Cambridge rail
- Saffron Walden – Cambridge/London
To the south east of Cambridge on the old map you have Haverhill. To the south/south-east of Haverhill you have the existing rail line of Sudbury. Follow that line south then south-west you get to Chelmsford. Now, some of the old rail lines will have since been built on, but for the bits that have not, could you envisage a route going from Southend – Chelmsford – Colchester – Sudbury – Haverhill – Saffron Walden – Addenbrookes – Cambridge – Ely – March – Wisbech – Peterborough?
“Yeah – where are you going to get the money for all of that?”
The point is that this is real long term stuff – but it’s one that the politicians are aware of, otherwise they would not have published this prospectus. There are also a number of pro-sustainable transport organisations in Cambridge that can help – such as the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. (Want to learn how to influence local councils? They are the experts – join them). Also, Cambridge has ***lots*** of environmental groups – how many of the ones listed here do you know of or are in touch with? Given ARUSU’s green credentials, could students be linking up with national organisations such as the Campaign for Better Transport while kicking off and/or leading campaigns on local and regional transport issues?
Teaming up with Cambridge University students too
Given the focus on all things green, CUSU’s ethical affairs team (see here) and the Cambridge Hub (see here) are your first ports of call. What joint campaigns can you run that span not just the two universities but also reach out to local residents, schools and colleges?
At some stage you’ll have to engage with politicians
Who’s going to organise a hustings/debate for the European elections in May 2014 – mindful that EU citizens can register to vote here? The University of East Anglia had one recently with the five main parties represented – watch the debate here. You’ve got the facilities to host and record one in Cambridge. A couple of the candidates have indicated to me on Twitter they would be interested in taking part. Think about inviting:
- Vicky Ford (C)
- Richard Howitt (Lab)
- Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon (LD)
- Dr Rupert Reed (Green)
- Patrick O’Flynn (UKIP)
At the same time, think about inviting the Cambridge student political societies along to run stalls too – such as:
“The above is all very preachy – but what did you learn from the students?”
For a start, I’m getting old. (Early-mid 30s). Seven years in the civil service plus all things mental health have sapped my energy & made me more cynical. But with the students, they have lots of energy, ideas and a desire to change things in a way I probably can’t comprehend.
They also have a huge amount of potential. At the same time, that does not mean they are the experienced war-horses and warriors with decades of experience of what has and has not worked in the past. How do you then avoid the risk of trying to micromanage the whole thing. (In my case, I don’t have the energy to micromanage stuff. I’m a connector by habit. I introduce people to each other, invite them to think about A, B and C with problems X, Y & Z then let them get on with it). So how can we – Cambridge as a combination of communities – help students and young people realise that potential, get the skills and experience they need for a tough jobs market while at the same time driving the improvements that Cambridge needs? Oh – and having a damn good time in the process?
Food for thought?