What does the #ITooAmCambridge hashtag say about Cambridge University?


The experiences of students photographed in a new tumblr account feel all too familiar to this local resident – me.

The page mentioned above is here.


Ethnicity is an issue I’m ***really uncomfortable*** blogging about – and talking about. In the grand scheme of things, I’d rather not have people asking me where I’m from or about my family background – unless they really know me. I also ***really hate*** people making assumptions about me just by looking at me – even though we all do it. (Which makes me a bit of a hypocrite – well…a lot of one really). The thing is, a Twitter meme that started on the other side of the pond at Harvard then hit Oxford and then hit Cambridge on all things diversity and ethnicity. Hard to avoid when I spend a fair amount of time at events organised by the latter despite having never been a student at Cambridge.

Cambridge – not just a university but a place I call ‘home’ too

Cambridge is my home town – one where I spent my entire childhood in. It’s the only place I can really call ‘home’. In that childhood I was one of the few non-White faces in my year group. Off the top of my head, in a year group of nearly 250 at secondary school, only about 10 of us were not White. It was similar for other year groups either side. I grew up sort of in between communities that straddled affluent professional middle classes on one side, and families living in council houses on low incomes on the other. Yet being ‘mixed heritage’, you could say I am just as much White as I am non-White. So when people and institutions try to put me in a box – whichever that may be, there will always be something about me that they are trying to assume away, or assume into me.

At that time, Cambridge University didn’t do community outreach bar the odd school visit. The University’s admin staff simply did not want to know you if you weren’t a member of the institution. One of the reasons why I’ve grown up learning to hate them as a collective institution – I spent several weeks temping inside the institution in the early 2000s and was horrified but not surprised by what I found.

Does this conversation sound familiar?

Them: “Where are you from?”

Me: “Cambridge”

Them: “No, where are you really from?”

Me: “Cambridge”

Them: “No, what is your family background?”

Me: “Does it matter?/how long have you got because it is a ***very long*** story”

Them: “You’re so rude!” (Or normally something more abusive)

And then I’m the one who ends up feeling like shite even though the person asking those questions doesn’t know me well enough to be asking them. (For the record, me and the immediate 3 generations of my family were born on different continents. 4 generations, 3 continents. Now you tell me where I’m from.) This article explains someone else’s experience.

“Oh but that makes you very exotic and mysterious!”

Which is code for ‘foreign, but in a way that we like.’ Shappi Khorsandi (pictured here with Puffles on stage in Cambridge) came up with that one at a gig in London a few years back.

Feeling uncomfortable reading this already? Imagine how it feels writing this

What the We too are Cambridge account reveals is that something is going very badly wrong with the schools and colleges that many UK-based students come from – something that for whatever reason Cambridge and its colleges are unwilling or unable to turn around. Ditto at Oxford, where the original I too am Oxford meme was responded to in a well-meaning but woeful manner in We are all Oxford.

“Why was it woeful?”

For many reasons, but in the grand scheme of things, it revealed the class & institutional divide between many of the people that go through Oxbridge vs the majority of the people from more economically-deprived parts of the country that never get to see the universities, let alone set foot inside them. Talking to staff recently at some of Cambridge’s state schools, children from some of our most deprived communities haven’t even been down Kings Parade to see Kings College. (It was raised a few years ago – see here).  The thing is, The Manor School (since re-opened as the North Cambridge Academy) is on the doorstep of various Cambridge colleges and institutes – sort of in the same way that London Docklands is on the doorstep of some of the most deprived communities in the UK – in Newham and Tower Hamlets. Why is it then, that we have communities so polarised in wealth that live side-by-side but with next-to-no interaction? (Given the scale of wealth).

Institutions and structures

It’s like with the community activism work I’m doing. If a single one-off approach doesn’t work or an email doesn’t get responded to, maybe there is a problem with an individual in the system, or perhaps the email didn’t arrive. If repeated attempts by various different people using different means across a number of institutions in the geographical area is producing the same result (ie no responses), then the problems go far beyond an individual.

Having a ‘diversity day’ or giving a small grant to a student society isn’t going to change the cultures, systems, processes and structures that have led to the problems in the first place. Just scrolling through We too are Cambridge and more than a few of the quotations are snapshots of what I’ve experienced in life. In one sense it’s a relief to know that I am not alone, while at the same time saddening that another generation is still on the receiving end of mainly ignorance, but in a few cases, hatred too. The schools and the colleges that regularly send lots of students to oxbridge really need to start asking questions of themselves about what they are getting so spectacularly wrong with the social skills of their students.

“Have the institutions acknowledged these problems?”

Well…those that are the decision-makers will know how to make the right ‘sounds’ from a PR perspective, but with very little radical action to deal with the problems. They are good at following David Cameron’s example here – lots of ‘We need to do…’ then doing next to nothing as a result. Bearing in mind Cameron will have been leader of the Conservatives for a decade come 2015, his record on diversity in senior/decision-making posts, for all is words is one of complete and utter failure. The same is the case for Cambridge University as Professor Dame Athene Donald highlighted recently – see here. The same is also the case in professional football. I started following football at a very young age. So why is it, a generation later there are still no high profile top-flight British-Asian footballers getting regular games? Ditto when I was in the civil service. In the lunch queue at the local supermarkets by our offices on Victoria Street, it was a predominantly White customer base being served by low paid shop-floor staff from minority ethnic communities. The only White British faces you would see as staff were the managers in suits.

Separating ignorance from hatred

For me, it’s important that we do this. Like the late Tony Benn, I like to believe in the goodness of people – and of individuals until proven otherwise. The students & young people I meet in Cambridge I don’t see as ‘the finished article’. We never are. Rather I like to see people as having the potential to achieve great things. Just as I am not nearly the same person as I was when I was at university, so I see the same thing with the current generation of students too. The question is how to challenge that ignorance.

Why the leaders within institutions need to take a lead

The We too are Cambridge feed should send alarm bells ringing in Cambridge University circles. The reason being that it’s showing whatever the institution is currently doing is not working. It’s all very well having the documents and strategies in place, but if no action stems from them, what’s the point? But does a predominantly White, male, middle-aged and affluent academic and management class know where to start with something like this in Cambridge? It reminds me of when Baroness Kramer on BBC Three’s Free Speech programme (Series 3 Episode 1) complained to an audience of young people that she had tried lots of things to reach out to young people & get them engaged in politics but none of them had worked. To which the audience told her to try and listen for once.

Acknowledging the problem – and acknowledging it might make a lot of people within the institution feel very uncomfortable

Sort of like when I spotted Oliver Letwin in 2003 going punting, at the same time as I was with a group of friends. His face was a picture – as if he’d never seen anyone that looked like me before, let alone being recognised as a politician by someone that looked like me. It was as if he’d seen a ghost – poor thing. And that was in the days before I had a dragon with me.

Acknowledging that an organisation has a problem with something is going far beyond having corporate equality and diversity statements. That in itself carries huge risks – especially for an institution like Cambridge University that is more and more dependent financially on its international reputation. There also has to be a desire from people to make those changes and improvements too. What makes things challenging for Cambridge University is that every academic year you have a new intake of students. This means that some things will have to be repeated annually for the new intake. It also has implications for how Cambridge University challenges its most successful feeder schools, as well as reaching out to those that historically don’t send students to Cambridge. (Personally I quite like the idea of Oxford and Cambridge guaranteeing interviews for at least 1 student from the poorest performing secondary schools, if anything just to let students from those areas know that Oxford and Cambridge are there, and force the schools to think more about ‘how’ to get students to apply (& how to prepare them for interviews) rather than ‘why?’).

Cambridge University has no choice – social media users have let the cats out of the bag

Scrolling through and reading each account individually sends a very powerful message. These are a series of independent individual experiences put together collectively – with an impact far greater than the sum of their parts. It’s not something that can be dismissed as a one-off. The problem is institutional. The University as a corporate body has to respond.

How should it respond, and why does it matter to residents?

It matters to residents because Cambridge University and local residents share the same city. For those of us that want Cambridge University to share its knowledge, wealth and resources with the wider city, the institution’s failure with its own students doesn’t fill us with confidence on how it treats the rest of us that have Cambridge as a home.

As for how to respond, open it up to the students and the city. Acknowledge the problems, and start a process that will lead to a significant improvement in the culture. Invite people to describe how the problems manifest themselves in terms of behaviour – whether actions or inactions, invite people to set out a ‘vision’ for what success looks like, and invite people to design the actions, systems and processes they think are needed to achieve that vision. Then get the University’s Senate to sign it off and assign someone in very senior management to have responsibility for seeing it through – along with scrutiny from staff and students.

Do I think Cambridge University will respond positively?

Good question – I’ll ask Julian Huppert to forward a copy of this blogpost to the Vice Chancellor and see what his response is. Will keep you posted.


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