Posted in Master's blog

I spent a couple of hours this week in the House of Lords, courtesy of Lord Bradley, discussing Tamara Pattison’s research project carried out under the umbrella of the Griffins Society on why prisons should not be seen as ‘a place of safety’ for women with complex mental health needs. Tamara, a governor at HMP Low Newton, has a powerful but depressing message: everyone who works in prison is convinced that mentally ill people should not be detained in prison, and they can come up with endless depressing ‘stories’ (too often ending with suicide and self-harm). But why does nothing change? Indeed, why does the situation continue to deteriorate?

Tamara’s first solution is better advocacy for mentally ill offenders. Far too often mentally ill suspects in police stations do not ask for legal advice. And they find themselves swiftly remanded in custody. It is a slow road out, as they queue for a hospital bed. Then there’s the need for better screening, better training: we have heard it all before and Tamara is to be congratulated on keeping these vital issues on the agenda.

Why does the ‘system’ let people down so badly? It is difficult to answer that question. Partly it is the ‘silo’ mentality, everyone working away in their own little part of the system. Magistrates, who make bail decisions, need to understand why prisons are not the best place for the mentally ill: understanding can be helped by better guidance, but nothing beats spending time talking to people in prison. Listening to Tamara, and to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) is certainly enriching.  Should magistrates be encouraged to join Independent Monitoring Boards, to see for themselves the consequences of their decisions?

More than one voice in the House of Lords discussion suggested that the current fixation with ‘contracts’ consolidates the status quo, and stifles innovation.  There are some very good things going on diverting women from police stations, but the news from Women’s Centres was less encouraging, as some are losing out in the contractual world of ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’. Good learning and continuity of provision are both lost as contracts change hands.There’s even a fragmented approach to commissioning in health care. How difficult it is to provide a good service for prisoners. It would certainly be easier if we could halve the prison population and provide better mental health care in the community.

I was reminded of my blog of 17 April 2015 ‘You can’t learn to swim without water’, where I proposed that every prisoner at the very start of his or her sentence should have a ‘ champion’, a key worker… who “would have the lead as the offender’s advocate, arguing loudly for measures and interventions which support rather than impede desistance. Pushing the prisoner’s case for reintegration, for progress through the system, at every corner”. We have a long way to go before we reach that point. What sort of tools and incentives can be offered to prison staff to help them achieve what they so clearly want to achieve – moving those with severe mental health needs out of the prison environment?


Posted in Master's blog

Two important Bills were promised in the Queen’s Speech earlier this month and are coming very soon:  the Higher Education and Research Bill, and the Prisons and Courts Bill.  And important background papers on education in both the HE and prison sectors have been published very recently.

First, the higher education White Paper – Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice .

This reflects the government’s declared determination to drive up standards and the status of teaching. No bad thing, but this endless emphasis on creating a competitive market and choice for students doesn’t sound very innovative to me. Nor is it obvious how it encourages social mobility… We have had a competitive market in HE for all the years I have worked in it.  Whether or not the Teaching Excellence Framework lives up to the Government’s expectations remains to be seen.  Widening participation in HE requires decent funding for poorer students and much better encouragement and support for them throughout their school careers.

Then there was Unlocking Potential: A review of education in prison by Dame Sally Coates on behalf of the Ministry of Justice.

This tells us that 42% of adult prisoners report having been permanently excluded from school. What a statistic. Dame Sally perfectly sensibly wants to put education at the heart of the prison regime: “education in prison should give individuals the skills they need to unlock their potential, gain employment, and become assets to their communities. It is one of the pillars of effective rehabilitation. Education should build social capital and improve the well-being of prisoners during their sentences”.  One of the most challenging parts is what is often called  ‘through the gate’ support – helping individuals continue to progress through education, training and employment through different prisons and then on release. The big idea of the moment is to give Prison Governors autonomy – but how and why would you hold them to account for the educational progress of all prisoners?  Perhaps Masters of Cambridge Colleges should be held to account for the exam results of their students?

Dame Sally wants a new ‘people’ culture in prisons to support leadership, to build routes to attract new talent into working in prison, and to ensure professional development for all staff.  How shocking that this is currently lacking. Of course the prison regime should be personalised and concerned with raising aspiration. Of course it should enable more prisoners to move into sustained employment and/or continue education on release. The idea is a “prisoner learning journey”, with a dynamic Personal Learning Plan.  Let’s see how it works out.  The evidence of recent years in prison has been fewer resources, and more fragmented services.  Reducing the prison population by half would help.

In an article published last week, Peter Dawson, one-time prison governor and now Deputy Director of the Prison Reform Trust wrote: “The condition and performance of your local prison should be as important to you as that of your local hospital or school. The people it holds have the capacity to make a significant impact on your quality of life”.

I suspect he’s right: until everyone worries more about what goes on in prisons, nothing much is likely to change.

Posted in Master's blog

This term is obviously a really challenging one for students…  exams and exam pressures are every where.  So it is useful to remember that there are other things going on too.

First, an illustration of a recent tandem outing: five tandems loaded with Fitzwilliam graduate and undergraduates gathering behind us on the top of a Cambridgeshire mountain (some of the hills feel big when you’re lugging your partner up the hill – funny he thinks that’s what he’s doing too!).  I love these regular wanderings just a few miles away from Cambridge, but nonetheless an eternity away, as none of the students we’ve had on these trips had any idea that there were real rural landscapes within easy reach, where the pressures of the Cambridge bubble fall away for a brief interval.  It’s a joy to listen to undergrads and grads in conversation, often apparently for the first time ever, even though the two communities intermingle physically within the College.  Too often they seem tacitly to assume that there’s no mileage trying to strike up friendships across such a massive gulf in maturity – all of 3 years, perhaps!  But sitting outside at lunchtime at a pub somewhere, eating a spartan picnic, the tethered tandems grazing peacefully close by, barriers of seniority fall away.  And we get back to Storey’s Way exhilarated by a crumb of exercise in the open air.





The College has had many other wonderful events:  the highlight recently has to have been the debate in London, as a variant on the regular format of our “London Dinner”, between Andy Burnham (English 1988), Vince Cable (Economics 1962) and Norman Lamont (Economics 1961), on the issues of the EU referendum.  I am not sure they changed anyone’s mindset (don’t we all know how we are going to vote by now?), but the evening was terrific.  The three main speakers all showed their well-honed but nonetheless remarkable skills of oratory, and were followed from the floor by Marina Wheeler QC (Law 1983) and Professor Catherine Barnard (Law 1986) and others.  Real quality, and all home-grown Fitz!

With the speakers at the London Dinner, from left: Vince Cable (Economics 1962), Andy Burnham (English 1988), and Norman Lamont (Economics 1961).


As ever, my two working worlds reflect interestingly on each other.  I spent a day in HMP Altcourse last week reflecting on ‘Understanding and Preventing Suicide within the Criminal Justice System’.  Whilst it is clear (of course) that those who run the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) are deeply committed to new initiatives to support all prisons, both public and private sector, I am still depressed by the failure to join up work between different prisons, and between prison and community criminal justice agencies.  It was the prisoners there who had the best ideas – stop late evening arrivals in prison, don’t lock new arrivals behind the cell door too quickly, allow more than a two-minute phone call on your first night… The decency agenda is so basic.  It is not just a question of resources: as someone said, a smile is powerful, and free.

Posted in Guest posts · Master's blog

Kiana Thorpe (Geography 2012) and Nicky Padfield report on one of this term’s Master’s Conversations

On 2 February the College enjoyed an extraordinary ‘conversation’ on the vast subject of ‘stability’ in the Middle East (with a special focus on Jordan and Palestine). The three speakers had only ten minutes in which to outline their arguments, but packed in an enormous number of thought-provoking ideas.

The first speaker was Ardi Imseis (Fitz 2014), a UN lawyer currently studying for his PhD on the gulf between international law and international legitimacy in the work of the United Nations. Having worked with United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), his interests lie in political, legal and humanitarian issues in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. He argued that peace was rather more important than stability, exploring the reality of political power, the power imbalance between Palestine and Israel which he saw as central, crucial to any peaceful settlement.

The next speaker was Edward Chaplin (Queens’ 1969), who had been the Foreign Office’s Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Ambassador to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and between 2004-5 Ambassador to Iraq. He agreed that the quality of the stability (peace) is what matters, and that feelings of injustice drive radicalisation.  He suggested that good governance and strong leadership is the Middle East’s biggest problem, and cannot be solved externally.

Finally, Jonathan McIvor (Diploma in Applied Criminology and Police Management, Fitz 2000). A former soldier and policeman turned security reform consultant, he presented a view from the perspective of change, particularly in relation to community policing structures in Lebanon and Jordan. He explored the practical problems created by the concentration of refugees in the north of Jordan, arguing that the dual imperatives of stability and change stand somewhat in contradiction.

From left: Nicky Padfield, Jonathan McIvor, Ardi Imseis, Edward Chaplin.

From left: Nicky Padfield, Jonathan McIvor, Ardi Imseis, Edward Chaplin.

By the end of the discussion it was less clear that peace should rank above stability as an objective, since the two concepts were so inter-dependent.  The prospects for both seem to be increasingly remote as atrocity builds upon injustice, and the mixed communities living in close proximity seem to be inexorably extinguished. The taxonomy of difference is complex and the emotion associated with different identities and belief systems apparently impervious to rationality.

The three speakers were at one in believing that neither peace nor stability would be achievable in the region until solutions were found to the cohabitation of Israel with its neighbours.  While that prospect seemed remote, the human calamity unfolding in the region was now so great that it ought nonetheless to rank amongst the highest priorities for global leaders. The cynical lens of national interest is disgracefully inhumane.

There was a fascinating debate, which ranged from the broad perspective of international diplomacy to the small picture of life in a refugee camp.  There were no easy answers, but plenty of challenges:  an erstwhile police officer calling for more popular protest and an erstwhile diplomat asking the international community to recognize its limits.  The influence of religious leaders was set against the frightening absence of women in the peace process, and in public life more generally.  The need for good governance, trust, fairness, and respect for human dignity at all levels is so obvious, and yet seemingly impossible to achieve.  Worth having the discussion even when the issues seem intractable?





Posted in Guest posts · Master's blog

This guest blog is written by current students Jack Philipsborn (Land Economy 2014) and Conor Monighan (English 2014) in collaboration with Bye-Fellow Dr Matt Neal (History 2003). The debate ‘This house believes the perceived threat to campus free speech has been exaggerated’ was held at Fitzwilliam on 26 January.

Free speech is why universities thrive; cross-pollination of ideas happens when people can interact freely. So when the idea gains traction that campus free speech is under threat, alarm bells everywhere should surely start ringing. And what if the expected ringing is oddly subdued? It may be perhaps because the threat seems be coming not from government, but from students themselves. Recent student initiatives such as ‘no platforming’ (for example the high-profile no-platforming of Germaine Greer at Cardiff University), ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ provide the context for this important debate.

The debate began with the proposition arguing that a true threat to free speech would require an individual to face the fear of death, and therefore no threat to campus free speech can possibly exist. The proposition then argued that controversial speakers could speak elsewhere should they be denied access to a particular platform. Their central point was that the student-led initiatives mentioned were all critical for student welfare and must trump any trivial perceived threats to free speech.

The opposition were quick to point out that no-platforming is not only a threat to free speech, but is also counterproductive. They urged that controversial people should be allowed to speak in order that we might challenge views that are offensive or upsetting. Withholding platforms merely maximises publicity for bad ideas, and as there is often only one aspect of a speaker’s beliefs that might offend, the blanket denial of speech prevents the speaker from being heard on other issues.

The proposition then raised a point of information, asking whether this principle still applies to speakers who incite hatred. The opposition responded by arguing that government anti-hate and defamation laws are in place to prevent this already. On safe spaces, the opposition argued that safe spaces are not ‘safe’, and are rather an attempt to exclude as many people as possible from often-reasonable dialogue.

Throughout the debate there was a deep-seated sense of irony that it was students rather than government who were responsible for the perceived threat to free speech. Perhaps this why the issue has only just become apparent: government clampdowns on university free speech are widely reported, but it is commonly assumed that students know what is good for them.

In fact, this issue lay at the heart of the winning questions from the floor. Grayson Elorreaga noted that some students might choose to limit free speech in order to create a position of wilful ignorance for themselves. Chinedu Ugwu drew a distinction between the situation in the UK and his home country, Nigeria, where university authorities had only recently granted students the right to form a student union. When so many students in authoritarian states from China to Saudi Arabia are forcibly silenced, the perceived threat in the UK might be seen as exaggerated.

Nevertheless should we allow no-platforming and safe spaces to gain momentum, we might wake up to a university not dissimilar to those in authoritarian regimes. The slippery slope argument is too often used, but well-intentioned initiatives such as those described tend to become the basis for intolerance. Additionally, should students fail to be concerned by the curtailing of university free speech, there might be a greater government willingness to intervene – indeed arguably this has already been seen in the form of the enhanced discretionary powers created by the ‘Prevent Programme’.

The opposition won the debate with 23 votes to 8. Many thanks to Kirill Lasis, Harry Stovin-Bradford, Sourav Roy, Matthew Kellett, Sarah Collins and Carlo Lori for participating. Congratulations to our winning speakers Sarah Collins and Sourav Roy.

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Winners Sarah Collins and Sourav Roy.


Group debating

Group debating







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Sourav Roy speaking

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Sarah Collins speaking

We would like to thank the Master, who chaired the debate, and Dr Iacovou and Mr Middleton for judging. In addition, we would like to honour Lester Brewster who enables this debate to take place each year. He matriculated at Fitzwilliam House in 1948 reading history, and was a founder director of the Fitzwilliam Society Trust Ltd in 1974 (having been President of the Society in 1972-3). He died on 21t March 1996, and the Brewster debate is just one part of the legacy he left the College.

 Anyone interested in attending other events hosted by the Fitzwilliam College Debating Society is welcome to visit


Posted in Guest posts · Master's blog

This guest post is by graduate student Hannah Bennett (currently doing an MPhil in Social Anthropology and hoping to do a PhD studying the evolving golf course culture in modern China). She writes on the Foundation Lecture given by Professor Maurice Bloch at Fitzwilliam on 19 November 2015.

Since completing his PhD at Fitzwilliam College in 1968, Maurice Bloch has become one of the most renowned academics working within British anthropology, an Emeritus Professor at the LSE and a Fellow of the British Academy. He has published extensively on topics ranging from kinship and ritual, to the relationship between anthropology and cognitive science. While it was this extensive back catalogue, and his prominence within the discipline, which attracted such a large audience to his recent Foundation Lecture at Fitzwilliam College, it was his humble but powerful message about the importance of anthropology which made it so memorable.

When working within anthropology, as with any other discipline, it is easy to become sidelined by, and focused on, the problems and limitations of your own research and to lose sight of the bigger picture. Namely, what initially made the discipline appealing as well as its broader utility. What made Maurice Bloch’s lecture so enlightening was the manner in which he reminded us of the continued relevance and significance of anthropology. For Bloch, what makes anthropology so crucial is also that which traditionally distinguishes it: the practice of undertaking long-term field work to produce ethnographies which draw heavily on participant observation. Simply put, this involves spending a prolonged period of time living within the culture of study, observing and participating in the social life of the group, and cultivating personal relationships with local informants as a means of learning about a culture. Bloch, and many others, argue that as the knowledge most of us live by is implicit, the only way to properly understand a culture is by being around people.

Maurice Bloch working with Merina people in Madagascar

Maurice Bloch working with Merina people in Madagascar


Throughout the lecture, Bloch stood beside a projection of a photograph taken of him while in his 20s doing field work among the Merina people in Madagascar. The image shows him outside with a group of people preparing maize so that it can be hung from the rafters. In his description of the scene and his life in Madagascar the unique benefits of fieldwork became clear. When the woman in the photograph told him to “take a rest!”, Bloch knows – having learnt about her life and Merina rules of politeness – that this simple utterance is an indication that he is doing the task wrong. Certainly participant observation is flawed in many ways, the most obvious of which is implicit in its name; the observer being actively involved in a manner that can negate the ever-elusive concept of objectivity. However, from these difficulties also arise interesting levels of interaction between observer and subject which foster ever-changing and ever-intriguing relationships. Arriving in Madagascar Bloch’s relationship with his hosts was originally one of perceived superiority; it was assumed that he was rich, or associated with the one large institution which penetrated their daily life, the Catholic Church. However, as Bloch gradually became integrated within society this relationship transformed into one of dependence; dependence on his hosts for food, shelter, and perhaps most interestingly for the tools of sociality. He was a learner, and they were his teachers. It was in this way, not just from nights spent in the library, that Bloch added depth to his understanding of the Merina – an understanding forged in a continual process of interaction and engagement.

While working in Madagascar Bloch was involved in negotiations with international development professionals trying to convince locals to switch to transplanting as a method for growing rice. It was not that locals were unaware of this method; most knew very well how to employ it, but rather preferred their existing method of planting rice through broadcasting. Bloch’s attempts to present each party’s point of view fell on deaf ears; he hypothesized that the complexities of living one’s own life were preventing each side from understanding the other. Accordingly Bloch argues that while an understanding derived solely ‘from the outside’, such as through medical science, can certainly help us know the actions of humans (just as we can understand other living beings by a similar method), this method will always be incomplete without including a view ‘from the inside’, a personal point of view of the people studied. For this reason, to this day, Maurice Bloch, now in his 70s, continues to undertake field work. And the message he brings from it is simple: “Shut up, listen and learn”.


Posted in Master's blog

The criminal justice statistics published in August 2015 state:

“There were 12,000 sexual offence proceedings in the 12 months ending March 2015 and 6,400 convictions over the same period; an increase of 3% on the previous year. Both the volume of proceedings and of convictions over this period are the highest in a decade.

The number of defendants proceeded against for sexual offences, in the 12 months ending March 2015, was 3% higher than in the previous year. In our previous quarterly publication, we reported a 9% increase between the 12 months ending December 2014 and the previous year. The apparent discrepancy between these figures over a three month period is due to the large and sustained increase in the number of defendants proceeded against for sexual offences occurring between the first and second quarters of 2013. The increase in the number of defendants proceeded against is likely to be partly due to the Operation Yewtree investigation, connected to the Jimmy Savile inquiry and the resulting media attention.

The number of convictions for sexual offences increased by 10% between the 12 months ending March 2015 and the previous year. The differences between changes in convictions relative to the change in proceedings may be due to the length of time between the proceeding and conviction of a sexual offence case. Therefore the changes in convictions tend to lag slightly behind the changes in proceedings for sexual offences.”

I have written elsewhere about the implications of this: a growing prison population (more prisoners, serving longer sentences) and a huge number of registered sex offenders in the community. There are now a number of prisons which only hold sex offenders. It’s probably easier to serve your sentence in a prison which only holds those convicted of sex offences than in the ‘vulnerable prisoners’ wing of an ‘ordinary prison’. But it is by no means easy.

I was lucky enough to be invited to chair a fascinating event in Cambridge this week, Living among sex offenders: Identity, safety and relationships in prison, hosted by the Howard League for Penal Reform. The focus was the work of Alice Ievins, who won the Howard League’s Sunley Prize in 2013. She discussed her research for her PhD on sex offender identity – she’s just spent several months in HMP Stafford carrying out lengthy interviews, and observing ‘life’. She discussed important questions of shame, guilt and self-disgust, as well as the interactions between prisoners and between prisoners and staff, suggesting that being labelled a ‘sex offender’, and living with other such offenders, might be painful and even contaminating in ways which aren’t necessarily the case for other types of prisoners.

Two other speakers also helped make this an evening to remember. First, Lynn Saunders, the governor of HMP Whatton, who spoke passionately about what Whatton could achieve. A few decades ago typical sex offenders might have been either a young man convicted of rape (an offence which appeared as much a crime of violence as a sexual offence) or an older child abuser: two different sorts of offender. But now the population is very much more complicated. Much older, of course, and the majority have no contact with their families: hence the innovative palliative care centre in Whatton.

Finally Dr Victoria Lavis, from the University of Bradford spoke about her research in three Yorkshire prisons on equality and diversity issues. She presented a fascinating argument that the Equality Act 2010 with its focus on the nine protected groups has had a ‘singularisation’ impact: it separates out different aspects of personhood. But people are more complicated than this: and they shouldn’t have to prioritise one aspect of their personhood. I shall be exploring intersectionality theory now, to see how it might help us (here in College as much as in a prison?) recognise difference and treat people according to equality of need, not output (no point unlocking all prisoners at the same time, if those with walking difficulties can’t get to the gym before it closes….).

What was the message of the evening? Different for all of us. For me, some more depressing recall stories. A sex offender is taught in prison to tell staff if he thinks he has a challenging situation to confront. So a sex offender on license tells his probation officer that he feels tempted to hang around outside a school play ground. The reward for doing what he has been encouraged to do? It is perceived as a sign of increased, not lowered, risk: so it’s recall to prison, for the rest of his sentence. See my Understanding Recall 2011 report.

Posted in Guest posts · Master's blog

This guest post is by Professor David Thompson, a Life Fellow of Fitzwilliam and Emeritus Professor of Modern Church History.

October 1 2015 marks the fiftieth anniversary of my admission as a Fellow of Fitzwilliam. I am not unique in that – John Coles and Harry Hudson are senior to me, but neither lives in Cambridge. In contrast I visit College most days. The Master kindly asked me to set down some reflections on fifty years.

The changes have been enormous. I joined a Fellowship that was only two years old, though the senior officers of Fitzwilliam House had been there for much longer, since the end of the War or just after. There was a real sense that we wanted, as a College, to be something different, and that we could achieve it. The one thing that nearly all of us had in common was that we had been somewhere else – another college or another university; but we shared a commitment to Fitzwilliam’s original purpose, to be a place that enabled those who could not otherwise afford to come to Cambridge to do so. It was a need that was already changing after the government’s decision to make university grants available to all qualified candidates in 1961; but it was still necessary to be accepted by one of the colleges of the University, which was where Fitzwilliam came in. There was, and remains, a potential clash between that aspiration and one of academic excellence.

As Fellows we also did not know many of the former Fitzwilliam students, whose loyalty and commitment had been important for so long. That was something we had to learn, and at first the relationship could be slightly uncomfortable, if we were thinking of something different. Here the continued development of the Fitzwilliam Society was crucial.

Those of us who were unmarried were surprised but honoured to be offered residential sets in the first part of Stage II of the ‘new buildings’ (as we still called them), when it was opened in 1966. That certainly cemented the link we had with the College, still finding its way after the grant of a Royal Charter that year (a week ahead of Churchill, as we smugly noted) under the new statutes that the Governing Body had laboured over the year before. (Research Fellows were initially exempted from those meetings.)

In 1967 the loss by retirement of Bill Williams as Bursar and by death of Norman Walters as Senior Tutor, coupled with the need to elect a new Master in 1970, slightly earlier than we had expected, brought the Fellowship closer together and left people like Ray Kelly, Leslie Wayper, Basil Herbertson and Jack Street as the main representatives of continuity. It also represented a ‘coming of age’ of the Fellowship and the setting of a new course through the inflation of the 1970s. By this time Fitzwilliam was not the only new College around and the competition to secure teachers with University posts intensified as Fitzwilliam’s resources were still weak. When I was appointed to a University post in 1970 my stipend was £1,000 p.a. before tax (paid quarterly), but I could still buy a house costing £6,000, which my parents and parents-in-law thought was a crazy price!

Only in the 1980s could the College afford to build New Court, after a moderately successful Appeal initiated by Jim Holt, the then Master; and when we secured possession of The Grove, we could proceed with the new Chapel. As Bursar from 1988 to 1993, I had to explain that The Grove entailed a cost as well as a benefit; and the property deals I initiated then only came to full fruition during my successor’s term of office. But I did succeed in persuading the Governing Body to appoint a full-time Bursar, because by then my experience in the wider councils of the University had enabled me to see the direction in which the winds governing higher education were going.

Throughout this time the constant has, of course, been the regularly changing student body. The significance of the fact that one third of the undergraduate body changes every year cannot be under-estimated. Last year’s lectures and supervision bibliographies will never quite do again; and this keeps us on our toes. The admission of women in 1979 was the most significant change; and those of us who had advocated it from 1973 or earlier were delighted. But I realised, while standing in as Director of Studies for a colleague at another college a couple of years ago, how much student problems have changed in fifty years: family break-up, relationship breakdown within college now, and greater exam pressures are all different.

My photographs of what is now Fellows’ Court in 1966 compared with similar ones today symbolise one kind of change. But for me the change in the wider political context of higher education stands out today.


Professor David Thompson at the drinks party to celebrate his 50 years as a Fellow.

Professor David Thompson at the drinks party on 5 October to celebrate 50 years as a Fellow of Fitzwilliam.

Posted in Guest posts · Master's blog

This guest post is by Dr Helen Bettinson (History 1982) Development Director.

The last weekend in September is always a special one at Fitzwilliam. This is when members gather for the Reunion of the Fitzwilliam Society, the society consisting of all current and past students of Fitzwilliam, Fellows and friends. The huge popularity of the event makes for a logistical challenge in terms of catering, accommodation and other services, but one which our staff rise to magnificently, from the gardeners to the housekeepers to the cooks, waiters and porters.

After a day spent at lectures, concerts, on the river, on the playing field at Oxford Road, or simply enjoying a wander around the city, alumni and their guests gather together for the culmination of the weekend’s itinerary: the Saturday Dinner. This year the Master drew attention to the extraordinary age-range of Fitzwilliam members packed into Lasdun’s unique dining hall: From current students to those who had arrived at Fitzwilliam House just after the War. Professor Alan Shakespeare, Geoffrey Cole and Dennis Doyle (who matriculated in 1945, 1946 and 1947 respectively) are loyal attendees whose connection to Fitzwilliam stretches back seven decades. For many years Michael Duffett (1952) and his wife Ann have travelled from Australia each September, not only to attend the dinner but so that Michael can row with his friends in the veteran boat – a wonderful example of friendship and stamina. We were delighted, too, to see so many alumni who had matriculated in 2005, 1995, 1975, 1985 and 1955 (the 1965s had their own Golden Reunion in July).

Next week the latest cohort of young men and women will arrive at the College, full of excitement and trepidation, unsure of what lies ahead. Very few will be familiar with Fitzwilliam’s unique history or aware that the thriving community that awaits them stretches back/forward for many decades. It’s my job to break the good news. Just before they go into the Hall for their first formal Fitzwilliam meal, Matriculation Dinner, nervously attired in their new gowns, they will hear a lecture from me on the College’s history. I keep it short, but it’s important that our freshers understand what makes Fitzwilliam what it is, what we are. The senior men who sat in the hall on Saturday night came from a different world, one devastated by war and dislocation. Fitzwilliam was still, technically, a department of the University, with almost no accommodation of its own. The College that our freshers will come to next week would have been unimaginable to their predecessors of 70 years ago. The extraordinary thing, so evident this weekend, is that the esprit de corps forged by the men of Fitzwilliam House, without the advantages of a spacious and welcoming site, persists to this day. Fitz is now a large, successful, ‘mainstream’ college on a beautiful campus. The September Reunion (the Fitzwilliam Society’s 81st) is important not only because it enables men from Fitzwilliam House, who joined in the 1940s and 1950s, to participate in the College as it is today, but also because it means today’s students and recent graduates can look back and see where the College has come from.

I always begin my lecture on Fitzwilliam’s history with my own matriculation photo. As each year passes this looks increasingly like an ancient historical document. But my point is that in the 33 years since it was taken I have remained close to my Fitz friends (and I’m still married to one of them). Fitzwilliam is about intellectual challenge and opportunity, about gaining skills and insight, but it is also about making life-long friendships – a fact that at the age of 18 or 19 is little more than a nice idea, but to the men and women in the dining hall on Saturday night, is priceless.

Posted in Master's blog

My erstwhile PhD student Dr Amy Ludlow organized a wonderfully stimulating discussion day on this subject last week. It was well attended by perhaps 100 people from prisons, probation, coroners, academia, and the Ministry of Justice. Professor Alison Liebling kicked off with a brilliant review of the research in this area area – much of it carried out by her and her colleagues in the Prisons Research Centre of the Institute of Criminology over the last thirty years. Her message that if you reduce distress in prison you reduce not only suicide but also reduce re-offending is a powerful one.

I spoke on the report on Deaths under Probation Supervision, of which I was a co-author four years ago. Loraine Gelsthorpe, Jake Phillips and I undertook an analysis of data for the Howard League  which they had obtained under Freedom of Information requests on the number of adults who had died under probation supervision – including deaths following release from custody and on probation licence over the period from 2005-2010. This data had not previously been published. We subsequently obtained further data, following another FOI request. Despite the fact that the quality of the data was (astonishingly?) poor, we counted 2,275 deaths of men and 275 deaths of women under probation supervision between 2005 and 2011. Suicide accounted for not less than 13 % in each year. Other important causes were alcohol issues (8% in each year for which there are figures), unlawful killing (5% in each year), and misadventure/accident (not less than 8%). Also, a large number were classified as ‘unknown’ cause (not less than 15%). The suicide rate in prison in shocking – but the deaths of those under supervision in the community is much higher, and apparently largely ignored.

We noted then what seemed like defensiveness on the part of probation staff in terms of what and what is not recorded on the forms, and a focus on staff management issues (support for staff). There was much ambivalence and ambiguity when it came to what might have been done differently; e.g. it was not clear how far probation staff were equipped to support families, nor indeed, how far they were prepared to do this within the context of other duties and constraints. We asked, at that time, some challenging questions:

  • Was there an ethics of care? Was prevention a priority?
  • What factors connected deaths: e.g. are they related to length of prison sentence or licence conditions?
  • Which other agencies beyond Probation Service were involved at the time of death?
  • Were different agencies aware of the vulnerabilities of this group of people?
  • Did the prison authorities inform the local Probation Service where people were perceived to be particularly vulnerable upon release?
  • What information, if any, was received from prisons to inform probation practice for those on licence?

These questions were impossible to answer from the data we had. It felt very different from deaths in custody, which seem to be investigated much more ‘seriously’. That was five years ago and the probation world has changed almost out of all recognition with privatisation and the new Community Rehabilitation Companies.This is reflected in the new Probation Instructions which have replaced earlier circulars. I was shocked to learn, as a result of an email to the Ministry of Justice, that, despite “greater emphasis on learning and improvement” and a statement that “a national report will be published by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) each year (on deaths under probation supervision) in PI 01/2014”, the Government has decided not to make the data available to the public.This is really disappointing: no progress in five years? Perhaps we’ll embark on more FOIs…

Meanwhile, the Howard League is carrying out a new Inquiry into suicide prevention in prisons, with the Centre for Mental Health. It is of course difficult ‘learning’ within a culture of blame: a number of speakers spoke of the very negative impact on staff confidence (and therefore competence?) of inquests and of police investigations into deaths in custody. There were powerful thoughts on how organisations and individuals must feel enabled to do more to prevent suicide. All agreed that our common humanity should commit us to involving prisoners and their families in reducing the risk of suicide in prison and in the community. An inspirational day.