Cambridge students and the living wage challenge


On the challenges that await Cambridge students campaigning in their colleges – and some wider issues on campaigns that have a regular turnover of activists

I went along to what I found to be a thought-provoking meeting of a new living wage campaign in Cambridge. Labour’s Prospective Parliamentary Candidate Daniel Zeichner was there too. As I mentioned in this blogpost, the living wage is probably Daniel’s strongest campaigning platform locally because he’s been campaigning on it for quite some time, and is thus very knowledgeable about the issues and how they are impacting local residents. Also, with campaigns in general it’s the showing up to meetings and gatherings when it’s cold/dark outside and/or when you’d much rather be doing something else that indicates a level of passion for the cause. I said similar when 50 people turned up on a freezing cold Friday night in early February when Green Party leader Natalie Bennett visited Cambridge.

What is the role of Cambridge University Student Union?

This was a question posed I think by Fiona Woolston of Cambridge University Students Union ethical affairs team. Unlike other universities, Cambridge has a much weaker and less well resourced student union – the strength being in individual colleges. For the purposes of societies in Cambridge generally, Anglia Ruskin Student Union is treated as if it were a college of Cambridge University, ensuring that students there can take part in many CUSU activities. (Personally I think there is a huge amount of untapped potential here, and would love to see more CUSU societies teaming up with ARUSU organising outreach-style events/activities/stalls on ARU’s Cambridge East Road campus).

Anyway, back to the point about an under-resourced central student union, Fiona sketched out a co-ordinating rather than an organising role. This makes sense given the autonomous nature of the colleges.

Should students concentrate on their own colleges, the university as an employer or the whole city & beyond?

This for me will be down to individual students and campaigners to decide at what level they want to get involved. For some, staying within their college walls is where they will be most effective at campaigning. For others, it might be far beyond it – party political students possibly looking at public policy, for example.

This is where the role of CUSUEA comes in – ensuring that clear links to the different levels of campaigning are available. No point in trying to persuade someone to join a political party and take part in public engagement when all they want to do is to persuade their college friends to lobby college management over how college employees and outsourced staff are treated.

Outsourcing – a risk of mission creep?

There is a huge risk of mission creep with a college-based living wage campaign – but one that cannot be avoided either. A number of people – Daniel included – were surprised to find the scale of outsourcing being reported back by students. This makes campaigning that much more difficult for students. It’s not simply a case of trying to lobby senior college management. The reason being is everything will be tied up in college contracts, and trying to renegotiate such contracts is incredibly expensive. Remember that the culture of outsourcing of contracts also involves the outsourcing of responsibility. Multinationals may try to deny this, but when you look at what happens in the globalised clothing industry, you’ll see my point. So where do you start?

Gathering information – a common evidence-base

Students have started using freedom of information requests very effectively. Websites such as guide people through the process and ensure that any documents released are easily accessible to the public. In terms of datasets, it’s worth asking information on the number of directly-employed staff the college has, the number of outsourced employees the college takes on – and the breakdown of these staff for example by gender or by nationality/citizenship. This will give an idea of the risk of exploitation (and the types of) they face. For example, are there predominantly more women employed in particular areas than others? If so, does it mean that you will want to tip off people campaigning on women’s rights?

If one college/institution chooses to release a data set, or is able to get information from outsourcers, it makes it much harder for other colleges to resist. Also, I was surprised to hear reports of the potentially flawed use of exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act. (Guidance from the Ministry of Justice is here). In particular, the interpretation of commercial secrets (S43) is the one colleges may rely upon. In which case this piece of guidance by FOI trainer Ibrahim Hasan may be useful in challenging attempts by institutions to block requests.

It’s not just Cambridge University colleges – what about other educational establishments such as the further education colleges?

I’m thinking in particular:

Between the three of them, they have over 5,000 full-time 16-19 year olds studying there. A number of students from each of these institutions end up at either Cambridge or Anglia Ruskin each year. Will engaging with students here help with continuity and links with city societies?

Managing succession and transition when students move on

With student societies in general – especially the institutionalised ones, there’s often an annual turnover where a new individual or committee takes over. One of the things people in such roles need to think about is not just how they manage the transition process for themselves, but also about what to put in place to make the whole thing easier for future post-holders. In particular how will you ensure that the ‘corporate memory’ is retained – especially of what you have secured & achieved. For example how do you ensure that for those colleges accredited to the Living Wage (see here), how are you going to ensure that your colleges maintain the accreditation? How are you going to ensure that tactics that worked for you are passed onto new students?

Managing inductions for new students

I was pleasantly surprised to see a group of first year activists who were women, who were all new to activism in general but eager to learn. The first thing to bear in mind with new activists is to ensure that the group is a ‘safe space’. Testimony from Everyday Sexism campaigners has shown that even progressive-sounding campaigns are not without their problems.

It’s also ever-so-easy for more experienced activists and campaigners to assume their own knowledge. What I mean by that is assuming that everyone knows what you know and have learnt. This is something I have to remind myself of every so often – especially when engaging with students and academics in Cambridge. My instinct sometimes has been to resort to stereotype. I.e. that of:

“You’re at Cambridge! Therefore you’re brainy! Therefore you know all of the stuff that I know from all of the experiences that I have had, plus a million times more!”

It’s not like that. As I say at workshops I run, there’s no such thing as a stupid question when it comes to wanting to learn about something. Hence creating a ‘safe space’ for people to ask what may seem like basic questions to others – but also inviting other people to make contributions based on their own experiences too. (In the process, it often means that I learn something too).

What is the role for people from the ‘town’ side of Cambridge?

The principle may also extend to other cities with a university-city divide. For this living wage campaign, I sort of see the role of types like me as a ‘distant support role’. What I mean by that is one where activists can call on the support of someone who may have expertise in an area where that might be useful. In my case it’s as a former Freedom of Information Officer who had to apply exemptions in the civil service. A sort of gamekeeper-turned-poacher if you like. It’s not my role to be sitting in on face-to-face negotiations between college management and student reps.

As I’ve said to others, with campaigns and community groups in Cambridge, I’m seeing my role as that of a connector. Basically I’m trying to put as many people and groups in touch with each other either through face-to-face introductions and/or through social media – especially where co-operation and collaboration will have a bigger impact on their causes than working separately. How they choose to co-operate and collaborate in the grand scheme of things is their business. I’m more than happy to make the connections between the groups then step back.



4 thoughts on “Cambridge students and the living wage challenge

  1. You obviously have a lot of useful experience in this area, Antony, but I have to ask what is it that makes you feel it’s appropriate for you to attend such student meetings/events, given that you aren’t a student. Judging from your blog, you seem to be at an awful lot of them.

    You write about promoting safe spaces, but I wonder if for first year students having their first foray into activism having a (much more experienced) non-student in the room might be a bit off-putting.

    1. One other thing to add, the groups/societies whose meetings I’ve attended have said specifically they want to reach out to community groups. (Esp the Cambridge Hub). This stemmed from a Cambridge City Council meeting last summer where representatives from both Anglia and Cambridge student unions spoke about linking up with the council. (See item 13/48/CNL)

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