There’s a sinister message behind scholars’ prizes
These practices detract from a college’s environment and sense of community
A little while ago, I was contacted out the blue by the then Tab editors to comment on their findings about the sheer amount of money spent on students who attained firsts in examinations. At the time, I knew that money was being spent and that at times it was verging on excessive, but nothing prepared me for the actual figures. Several terms on, I think this deserves re-visiting; this situation seems to have remained pretty much static, as demonstrated in a recent Varsity investigation.
At this point, it’s probably best to say that I have never got a first, sticking solidly to a 2.i from first to third year. Before judging this as a one-dimensional moan piece from a jealous ‘underachiever,’ I want to address the deeper issues that surround attainment and academic pressure in this University. As a former welfare officer and leader of a mental health charity, I have seen the toll that the sustained and sometimes brutal pressure on students can have. Self-inflicted pressure alone can feel inexorable, but it’s time to reconsider the effects and extent of the external ones.
Currently, money is given or spent on students depending on their performance in academic exams at many colleges. In some cases, it gets worse, with Trinity labelling students who get a first as scholars of the ‘Foundation of the College'.
Maybe this seems logical – colleges are, indeed, academic institutions geared towards achievement and academic attainment. A sense of competition can be used to push people to achieve their best results and those who perform well deserve high praise for their achievement. This is valid, for sure.
However, a key issue with these arguments comes when considering the role that colleges have in the lives of their students. I will concede that colleges are more than just halls of residence or landlords; they do provide teaching and have a certain communal spirit that helps to bind their students together. Yet, this relationship begins to strain if they are then rewarding select students for their exam results.
I don't think any of us owe our respective colleges good results. We certainly shouldn't prioritise our college's position in the Tompkins Table over our own wellbeing.
Ultimately, this practice creates a delineation between those who get high marks in exams compared to those who don’t. It sends out a stark message: you are more valuable to the college if you do well in your exams. Add scrutiny of exam results which can lead to under-performance meetings and pressures to give up sporting or similar commitments. These feed into a larger and significant undercurrent which exist in the general college atmosphere, that you still need to earn your place. Addition of material gain that can be won in exams gives this an uncomfortable edge. Exam results should be independent of college, and the consistency of rankings speaks more to the teaching quality, not the students.
This system breaks down the inclusive and welcoming community that colleges insist that they are, and rightly aspire to be. The contribution to a college is about so much more than exam results; there are the people who serve on JCRs, or organise sports fixtures, for instance. Away from the official positions or grades on the list, what gives most to college is the friends and groups that develop. Everyone can think of people at their college who contribute simply by being a wonderful person, not because of their grade or any position they hold.
Colleges taking a neutral approach to students in terms of their achievements and commitments would really help to engender a more mature atmosphere at Cambridge. University is perhaps the last truly free time of your life, where you learn how to handle your own expectations and the pace of everyday life. It helps you to discover your true passions and understand how you work. Removing prizes, dinners and the overly official constant reviews of performance could increase student independence and maybe, just maybe, actually help them achieve their best.
The default mode of a Cambridge student seems to be to do their best, not for any dinner or prize, but because that’s the life they chose. We don’t need this constant material encouragement and ceremonial honour. Just good lectures, a library full of books and a decent internet connection – though the latter, admittedly, is unlikely to ever be achieved.