Cambridge’s image problem

The University of Cambridge has a reputation – occasionally deserved, but mostly inaccurate – of being populated by wealthy twits who wear suits everyday, dine daily in three-course dinners, and whose bedrooms are furnished daily by a personal maid, and are supposedly the best and most expensive bedrooms in the country (clearly absurd!).

Sitting by the bank, I hear punt guides repeat these fables once every five minutes. While they makes a good Daily Mail article or a tale for a punt guide, this reputation is harmful: it detracts from the academic merits of this place, which are to be lauded of themselves. And it puts people off coming here, if they are turned off by the idea of extravagant living. Worst of all, the myths about Cambridge’s fees and expenses cause perfectly capable people to turn away, not realising that Cambridge charges the same tuition fees as most other UK universities (for UK students), and has a number of bursaries, and probably lower costs of living than London.

Cambridge has many problems with its finances and its lifestyle (it would be nice to see the bursary system expanded, and it would be very good if students could have more respect for the city, and vice-versa). But the image problem is a problem that will need to be fixed, independently of the others. Very few of us come from aristocratic society or have anything to do with the most chauvinistic drinking societies, yet misconceptions about those things remain, and their effect is very real: partly because we embrace it ourselves, selling ourselves with a sense of mystique to our non-Oxbridge friends and referring to ourselves as ‘Hogwarts’.

Of course we cannot hope to change our image by stopping the Daily Mail from saying what it will say, or by banning punt guides from spreading misconceptions (or outright lies). But ordinary members of the university can help to get rid of this image, simply by not embracing it. This would not have to come with losing some of our beloved and less harmful traditions. Nor would it stop us from being the unique university that we are: our research and teaching rankings do not come from being associated with the Wyverns.

What techies are missing in the debate over surveillance

I recently started volunteering for Julian Huppert’s campaign to become the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge. (For more on that, go to their website.) Some of the other volunteers were members of the tech sector; as such, they used a lot of encryption in their work, had a lucid understanding of how encryption works. Of course, we are all very strongly worried by the attitudes towards Internet surveillance and encryption that Theresa May and the Conservative Party seem to hold. These includes last year’s Snoopers’ Charter, which gives the option of requiring ISPs to hand over users’ browsing history to the state (and not just to police and security agencies, but also other, unrelated, branches of government). More recently, the section on digital issues in the Conservative Party manifesto* contains rather troublesome proposals, including

  • Verify, a single digital ID system to be used for both government services and private services such as banking, and
  • the words ‘we do not believe that there should be a safe space for terrorists to be able to communicate online and will work to prevent them from having this capability’.

Unsurprisingly, the Manchester bombing last week will be used to justify activating the Snoopers’ Charter (but only after the election, of course!).

* I actually rather like some other parts of that section in the manifesto, especially ‘central and local government will be required to release information regularly and in an open format’; such a process would be long and costly, but would be very useful for future policymakers.

Like me, Julian and many others, they were quick to point out how heavily encryption is used in day-to-day, perfectly innocuous transactions over the Internet. (See also this piece by the web company Mythic Beasts.) We also knew how surveillance or web censorship could be defeated, using freely available tools such as Tor. Despite all these things, the Tory attitude towards Internet surveillance stands popular; Labour and the SNP abstained in the vote over the Snoopers’ Charter.

Why are we doing so poorly in this argument? One reason is that

The widespread public understanding of encryption is not accurate.

Or, more facetiously:

The debate over encryption is not a debate over encryption.

Okay, my use of the phrase ‘widespread public understanding of encryption’ may be a little hyperbolic, since I can’t speak for the country as a whole. But I think it’s clear that plenty of people don’t understand that normal people use encryption, not just criminals, perverts and terrorists. In some ways, this is laudable: it illustrates how computer and software manufacturers have been able to preconfigure their systems so that people can use them safely without having to think about all the processes (like encryption) that go on under the bonnet. The fact that computing is so accessible is a good thing. One should not need an understanding of mechanical engineering and combustion chemistry in order to drive a car.

However, the same sort of accessibility means that there is a large disjunction between how most people use their computers, and how techies use them. (I know ‘techies’ is a very loose term.) It’s true that policies such as censorship, surveillance and ‘bans’ on encryption can be defeated easily by those with the technical know-how. This doesn’t mean that the policy is moot, because

The effectiveness or otherwise of any policy depends on social factors as well as its technical merits.

Many people will go along with these authoritarian digital policies, reasoning along the lines of ‘I have nothing to hide, so I have nothing to fear’, or ‘we should do anything to keep our children and our country safe’. How else is it that the Great Firewall of China manages to keep a billion people in check, despite its many weaknesses?

The upcoming election may be a fait accompli as far as this issue is concerned. Labour is not devoted to protecting digital liberties, while the Conservatives are keen to abolish them. (Perhaps a third party, either in a coalition or in opposition, may be strong enough to moderate the government on this issue, but neither the LibDems nor the Greens are likely to be strong enough to do that effectively.) As we continue campaigning on this issue until and after the election, we must not focus too much on the technical weaknesses. In doing so, we’d risk blinding people with endless facts about Tor, VPNs, RSA and other obscure three-letter words and acronyms. Instead, we must focus on the social harms of a surveillance state and the benefits of personal privacy (including as a matter of LGBT+ rights).

People need homes, and empty spaces need people

I read in the Independent about a group of Oxford students and activists who have occupied one of the many unused buildings around the city to house the city’s rough sleepers:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/squat-oxford-university-homeless-shelter-a7517916.html

(Incidentally, the Independent website runs rather a lot of third-party Javascript programs, so you may want to use NoScript or somesuch when using it. More on this in the future…)

I think there is plenty of scope for a similar project at Cambridge. There are sites owned by university or colleges which lie unused. These include the former site of the Mahal and Dojo’s, next to the Mill Lane lecture theatres, which a consortium of colleges (including, I am ashamed to say, Queens’) bought four years ago with the intention of turning it into student accommodation. The existing businesses, which had been part of the fabric of Cambridge’s culture, were evicted while the colleges knew that they did not have the finances to actually build their accommodation blocks. Other sites include prime locations on Market Square, including the former pasty shop which was forced out of business by a rent increase two years ago, and has since lain dormant.

These are good examples of market failure, but a deeper fallacy is to think that these unwise decisions are bad for the owners of the buildings but hurt nobody else. An unused or abandoned building brings social costs. Homelessness is not an economic choice, but a situation of having no choice. When we remember that being housed is a human right, perhaps we will stop referring to buildings as ‘properties’ and treating them as investments.

Voter turnout for student elections and referenda

After the summer’s referendum on the EU which had the whole nation in discussion (even if the level of discourse was rather poor), the recent CUSU referendum has been much more low-profile and somewhat of a climbdown. The topic in question was the class lists, Cambridge’s traditional (and unique) practice of publishing lists of all students’ examination results, both physically outside the Senate House and in print and online, in the Reporter. The question put forward was: ‘Should CUSU campaign to keep the Class Lists with an easier opt- out process?’. Proponents argued that publishing results is useful for combating impostor syndrome, and that class lists are a Cambridge tradition that should not be allowed to die, while an unconditional opt-out procedure would make participation voluntary. Opponents argued that having one’s results published causes stress and that an opt-out system would still allow the best to boast about themselves, and that the most stressed students could find it hard to request an opt-out, even if the procedure was unconditional.

I found about about the referendum only four hours before voting closed, thanks to an email from the Trinity Maths Society’s president. The referendum was not advertised by CUSU, except being mentioned in passing in two newsletters. I therefore suspected that the turnout would be rather low, and that the legitimacy of the referendum would be questionable. I was quite surprised by the turnout: 4,758 votes cast, out of an electorate of 23,615, or 20%. (The proponents won by a margin of around 500 votes.)

For comparison, the referendum to disaffiliate from the NUS, back in May 2016, had a turnout of 6,178 out of 21,479, or 29%. Queens’ JCR’s referenda in Michaelmas 2011, one motion being ‘Queens’ College JCR should oppose the current government changes to higher education’, had a turnout of 34%.

It would be interesting to study voter turnouts at different colleges’ JCR and MCR elections. In which colleges are students most keen to take part in the way their college is run?