Alice Jones: What is Cambridge thinking of? This is the act of a thug, not a university

 

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Rustication. That's a word you don't read very often. It is Oxbridge's characteristically archaic way of saying temporary expulsion. Except in the case of one PhD student at Cambridge University, rusticated this week for seven terms, or two and a half years, it probably does not feel very temporary. For Owen Holland, banned from the book stacks until October 2014, the sentence lasts almost as long as his original degree.

The crime which brought down this draconian punishment? He read a poem out loud. Being Cambridge, he called it an "epistle", but no matter. What matters, at least in the eyes of the university's Court of Discipline, is that he read his poem at an event featuring the higher education minister David Willetts, right. He was one of 60 students and academics involved in the anti-fees protest. "You are not a welcome guest because you come with a knife beneath your cloak", they chanted. "We are not consumers; we are students."

Eventually Willetts gave up – heaven knows how the poor lamb copes with the spittle-flecked hecklers in the House of Commons – and went home without delivering his speech. There was no threat to his safety, no criminal damage done. The protesters used verse, not vandalism to make their point. You might argue, as the Court of Discipline did, that freedom of speech goes both ways and Willetts should have been allowed to say his piece.

Perhaps the protesters were guilty of youthful over-exuberance but for that a rap on the wrist would have sufficed. Singling Holland out and increasing by a biblical sevenfold the punishment suggested by the university advocate – one term's suspension – smacks of thuggishness. To make an example of one poetic voice of dissent in order to stamp out future outbursts is the act of a Bahraini dictatorship, not of one of the world's finest universities. Whatever happened to fostering independent thought and questing intellectual spirit?

Cambridge is already considered out of touch by some (for that, thank terms like rustication). Now, in punishing a peaceful stand against government higher education policy, it has shown itself to be out of step with what vast swathes of its own students and staff believe. Already Holland's fellow protesters have turned Spartacus and demanded the same punishment be meted out to them. A shameful episode which may at least teach Cambridge a lesson: try to muffle protest and it will rebound on you - at least seven times as loud.

* The Special Relationship is safe - held together with hotdogs, chummy manhandling and colour-blocking wives. And gifts, of course. This week the Camerons gave the Obamas a customised ping-pong table. As if the White House doesn't already have 20 ping pong tables; the 40,00sqft Presidential jet probably has at least three - one per deck. Official souvenirs are rarely about utility or suitability, but the Obamas' reciprocal offering of a barbecue is revealing nonetheless.

Barack Obama may have attempted to "natter" like a Brit this week but he clearly has no idea about the British weather. If he had, he would have realised that his $2000 custom-made Braten 1000 Series grill (with essential American and British "friendship flags" engraved on the utility shelf) is destined to sit dusty and unloved behind a row of wellies in the garage only to be dragged out in a panic for an annual spin one unseasonally warm evening in April.

Still, there was thought there. The present is a nod to the barbecue the Camerons hosted for the Obamas' state visit last May. Isn't that rather like inviting someone over for tea and scones and them enclosing their own – implied superior – recipe for scones with the thank you card? This, booms the Braten's 67ins grill, cast-iron wheels and "top-loading firebox", is how you barbecue. Forget that puny little tabletop number from Homebase you flipped burgers on last summer, this barbecue is bigger, better and made in America. As I said, the Special Relationship is safe.

a.jones@independent.co.uk

Twitter: alicevjones

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