The double-edged sword of Cambridge accommodation
Are the aesthetics papering over the cracks?
The view from my room last year was simply stunning. There aren’t many places in the centre of town that would have looked that good and cost that little. Admittedly, my room was so small that I couldn’t open the door without knocking over my bedside table, and most of the rooms were in the block weren’t as reasonably priced.
Depending on college, living in such exquisite place with a comparatively small price tag can become a yearly assurance. When your college’s endowment would make Daddy Warbucks swoon, and they are nice enough to pass on those savings to their students, everything comes up rosy. The beauty of the city can fade into monotony, still gorgeous but less striking as we adapt to the yellow stone and red brick of the colleges.
Inherent in the renting system, however, is the disparity between different colleges' approaches, funding and location in the city. We can’t move colleges, and it seems to be regarded as near blasphemy if anyone suggested sharing funds to help other colleges' students. It can all come down to the letter you put on your UCAS form many years ago, or the kindly faced fellow who picked you out the winter pool.
Colleges attempt to sell themselves as more than just a hall of residence – they are a ‘community’ and organise far more of your degree than is perhaps entirely healthy. Yet, there are still many systemic problems with living in this city as a student.
As already mentioned, the restrictions that are placed upon us based upon which college you go to can seriously limit your choice of room. I should probably to count myself very lucky that Emma has a reasonably progressive system based upon room quality and price giving a large amount of choice for baseline rent, on top of being able to stay outside of term at an even cheaper rate.
Lucky is the operative word here. I had no idea what the accommodation system was like at Emma, moreover if I was pooled, it’s hardly likely that I would have rejected somewhere based upon their room sizes. Simply from chatting with friends at other colleges, it becomes clear that the systems appear to diverge significantly. No matter how lauded the collegiate system is, these discrepancies continue to frustrate and infuriate me. Rent price and room locations make a massive impact upon the student experience.
Rent price and room choice can change the amount of disposable income you have and how much you need to rely on your parents, who may not always be able to subsidise the difference. There are many schemes which help struggling students, but again some of these are dependent on college and its endowment. A degree of cosmetic difference and sport field size is perfectly acceptable, but the extent to which experience is determined by college feels deeply problematic.
"I hope you realise how lucky you are." It’s a common phrase offered by both my parents when driving me back up. It comes from a very honest place; our surroundings and the opportunity to live in such historically significant buildings is something most of us will never have the chance to experience again. But, at what cost? We are, indeed, very fortunate, and it's essential that Cantabs appreciate the unique and privileged position we're in, by studying here. However, this doesn't mean that such issues regarding the colleigate system and its varying standards of accommodation should go uncriticised, when justified.
Moving on from simple price, another key issue must be raised: the array of facilities offered. Touring around accommodation through pre-drinks, after-parties and walks of shame shows the vast variety in kitchens. Ovens are the stuff of legend, and due to a technicality, hobs are not required in my 4th year accommodation (Part III is an undergrad course, so the college don’t have to provide proper kitchens despite my status as a Master’s student). I’m 21 years old and the most advanced cooking facility is a combination oven.
Hall is the alternative to microwave meals and soggy pizza. While our hall prices are reduced as students, this is often because of the kitchen fixed price that most students are required to pay, and a full meal can still cost nearer to a fiver than one would care to think about. For those without, this is yet another financial anxiety to negotiate.
Obviously, there are draw backs to every University city and structure, but the trapped feeling which Cambridge gives massively reduces the flexibility of student life. Ultimately, I don’t think we should have to give up on our dreams of coming to Cambridge because of its odd and infuriating accommodation policies. There are times where the ethereal draw of the city can forestall legitimate and important discussions about student living that need to be taken into consideration. It’s time for a rethink.