“All Colleges Are Equal, But Some Colleges Are More Equal”
Let’s never forget that both college differences and university privilege continue to exist
We can all remember being told that the college we go to won't affect our experience at Cambridge, yet from studying at Cambridge University, I am sure we all know that the college you attend does matter.
The initial differences are easy to spot. Some colleges resemble the quaint, old picture-perfect postcard photos you see everywhere, others have a more modern or more 'experimental' architectural style . Some colleges are an hour away from lectures, others are simply on the other side of the road.
Which college we attend has a large influence on our daily lives. This might mean having small, dingy 'gyps' which aren't deserving of the title of 'kitchen' or awful and overpriced college food, or not being able to sneak your significant other into your room for a few more days without being fined.
Academic life is also not immune from being affected by your college- as which DoS or supervisor your get is often linked to your college, which can be even more important if supervisions aren't organised centrally in your department. Or it might mean having to trek to facilities libraries or the horrific brick labyrinth called the 'University Library' on a regular basis, if your college libraries are not well-stocked.
Even more shockingly, there are also some very noticeable differences in regard to costs and college finances. An investigation by the Tab found there was a £74 difference between the weekly living costs at the cheapest and most expensive colleges, including the costs of accommodation and food. Such disparities in living costs have been highlighted by the recent 'Cut The Rent' petitions and protests at certain colleges.
Another investigation found there were enormous differences in spending between colleges on prizes, bursaries and financial grants, with Trinity College spending more than £100,000 and St. Edmund's College spending a mere £3,000. Perhaps for a lucky few students, this won't make a big difference, but for most of us with our piling student debt and high tuition fees – and especially for those who face financial hardship – such disparities can make a crucial difference to our lives.
Another important difference is how each college handles welfare. Mental and physical health are extremely important, especially at Cambridge where terms are condensed, intense and stressful for most students. Yet an investigation by the Tab suggested there were significant differences between how colleges handled intermissions. Surely for such an important issue, there should be some uniformity in how colleges respond?
Although it is true that what college we are part of can have a vast influence on our experience and everyday life at Cambridge, we must not forget the bigger picture: what unites the colleges. At the end of the day, whatever college we go to, we are all part of the University of Cambridge. An institution that forms part of 'Oxbridge', often portrayed as a distant, mystical, exclusive bastion of privilege and tradition by the press. We can complain about differences between colleges, but we must remember that even deeper inequalities exist in society at large.
The Oxbridge application process is probably one of the most complicated university application processes in the UK, with access to resources and knowledge about the application process being unequally distributed. Recent investigations by David Lammy (MP) have revealed how deeply unequal Oxbridge offers are, with around 80 per cent of Oxbridge offers going to students from the top two-socioeconomic groups and a significant number of Oxbridge colleges failing to give offers black students for several years consecutively. Such inequalities are unacceptable in a society which celebrates itself for being a meritocracy with equal opportunities for all.
Deep inequalities are also starkly visible on the other side of the story. Whatever college you attend, Cambridge appears to offer a wealth of opportunities and a degree of privilege. In the UK, studying at Oxbridge is often seen as the elusive and tightly-guarded path to privilege. This is not particularly surprising, considering that almost half of our cabinet, 75 per cent of senior British judges and 12 per cent of the Sunday Times Rich List studied at Oxford or Cambridge, according to this famous report. Even if we don't end up as millionaire entrepreneurs or powerful politicians, research has found that graduates from Cambridge and Oxford have significantly higher starting salaries than their counterparts from other universities.
It's not enough just to know about college differences and joke about them, especially if they pertain to very serious issues such as living costs and student welfare. The Cut The Rent campaigns are doing a good job in trying to make living costs more affordable and fairer for students of certain colleges, and we should follow their footsteps in seeking to improve university life for students. But at the same time, we must remember not to focus exclusively on local issues within the Cambridge bubble. We need to remember that both disparities exist: disparities that exist at a local level between colleges, and greater inequalities that permeate British society – and that something needs to be done about both.
[The first four photos were taken by the author of this article, Sophie Zhang, and the last photo was taken by Cambridge ACS]