An “open secret”: What Cambridge’s silence on Ronald Coyne reveals about our elite institutions

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Credit: Zechariah Judy

Georgina Hayes
Writer

Last month, to probably no one’s surprise, the public woke up to the news that a Cambridge student had been caught on video burning a £20 note in front of a homeless person.

To say that it wasn’t particularly surprising isn’t to say that burning what could be weeks worth of food or multiple stays in a shelter in front of a homeless person isn’t abhorrent: the act can only be described as thoughtless, sinister and cruel. The knowledge that any human being could do such a thing is indeed shocking and uncomfortable, but finding out that it was perpetrated by a privileged white male at an elite university makes it considerably less surprising. Why? Because we’ve seen it many times before.

The student, a law student at Pembroke College and a member of the Cambridge University Conservative Association, was hastily removed from the CUCA following the act. Shortly afterwards, a statement was issued by the society claiming to be “appalled” by his actions. Following this, attempts to humanise the student and question what possibly could have motivated him to do such a thing were made, including statements by his mother claiming the boy from a top, fee-paying Edinburgh school to be from a “normal family”.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. In fact, burning a £20 note in front of a homeless person is nothing compared to what members of our own government have done: burning a £50 note in front of a homeless person is widely believed to be an initiation process for the notorious Bullingdon Club at Oxford, a group that both Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and former Prime Minister David Cameron belonged to. Somehow, committing an act so vicious and snide towards the most vulnerable in our society isn’t a disqualifying factor in leading the country if you happen to be privileged – in this case, nor is it apparently even worthy of expulsion.

Students can now get expelled from a university for a multitude of reasons: plagiarism, taking drugs on university premises, and even simply failing to meet a certain academic criteria to get into the next year of study. It is therefore mystifying as to why a student who had been caught on camera destroying a person’s chance of food and shelter in front of him was not also expelled. Although he has been removed from the Conservative Association, this student will continue to study at one of the world’s most prestigious universities: by the time he has graduated, we will likely have forgotten Ronald Coyne’s name and face. By the virtue of being a Cambridge graduate, as well as a relatively wealthy white male, he will likely face no substantial long-term consequences for his actions – after all, our former Prime Minister didn’t. Perhaps by the time Ronald Coyne has finished his degree and secured himself a job, the man he burnt £20 in front of will have frozen or starved to death.

Although that may be a sinister and uncomfortable picture to paint, it is also a realistic one. At a time when I see working class students still stop by a homeless person on the street to give them spare change, or watch as students with mental health problems risk having credit denied for being unable to attend all of their classes, I also see that the only consequence faced by a wealthy, elitist student for burning money in front of a homeless person is that he was removed from a university society.

According to a homeless charity Embrace Cambridge, there is a “disturbing precedence for intoxicated Cambridge students abusing rough sleepers in the city”. Obviously, this is not one shocking, isolated incident. There is a culture for this at Cambridge, and although the university does not condone it, they certainly don’t condemn it either. If they did, Ronald Coyne would no longer be on his way to graduating from a top world university after abusing a man who has nothing on the street.

Many will say that these are simply the actions of deplorable individuals, and that it has nothing to do with background, or the culture that top universities perpetuate: not every privileged student behaves as terribly as this, and indeed the vast majority also find such actions appalling. However, some students still do, and it comes from a place of genuine disdain and disregard for those of lower socio-economic status. By allowing students like this to continue their studies, and seemingly having very few procedures in place to prevent an elitist culture from arising, top universities are perpetuating a hostile environment towards poorer students that should have been eliminated decades ago. With actions like those of Ronald Coyne being somewhat of an open secret at elite universities, it’s no wonder that many poorer students who are academically capable are still choosing not to apply to Oxford and Cambridge through fear of not being able to cope with the lifestyle.

As long as being contemptible enough to burn money in front of society’s most vulnerable isn’t a disqualifiable offence to enjoy the privilege of a top university, or indeed, be elected Prime Minister, people like Ronald Coyne and David Cameron will continue to rise to the top tiers of our society – and seemingly nothing can stop them.