Cambridge: The university for the 18th century

What’s a whiteboard?


Cambridge is quirky. That’s kind of the fun of it. The batwing gowns, the listed buildings: Cambridge is self-professedly proud of being old.

Whilst it was founded about 100 years after Oxf*rd (first the worst, second the best amiright), part of me wonders if Cambridge is trying to retrospectively outdo our boat race rival by being as old-fashioned as is humanly possible.

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The History Faculty, a building listed by the English Heritage. Truly an awe-inspiring landmark of Cambridge’s past!!!!!

Don’t get me wrong, the fanatical adherence to tradition is generally great: who doesn’t love a candlelit formal? Who doesn't know how to say grace in Latin before a meal?!

All the same, sometimes Cambridge seems better equipped to cater for a technophobic old peoples home than a world-renowned university.

The university might be valiantly attempting to update its infrastructure with omnipresent construction, but one short circuit around a college of your choice quickly unearths facilities which haven’t seen the light of day since the 1960s. In Magdalene, the washing machines double up as time machines: transporting their users back to the Cuban Missile Crisis as well as leaving their clothes warm and toasty!

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Colourised (1962): Washing machines that are so broken you can only pay for washing cycles in pound coins and dryer cycles in 20ps

So it isn’t just the history books which give you a tantalising taste of the past at Cambridge. The blackboard in the Classics lecture hall is testament to the fact that, though time may move forward, The Bubble does not (and will not) change. I can’t decide if that’s weirdly comforting or just a bit annoying.

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A Classics lecture or Victorian classroom? You decide. (Photo: Elizabeth Guild)

It isn't as though Cambridge isn't capable of modernising. I'm sure if you left any CompSci alone with a couple of cans of Red Bull they could create an artificially intelligent robot to run the place and win a Nobel Prize in approximately three hours. Cambridge isn't old-fashioned by necessity: it's old-fashioned by choice.

In truth, I have no justifiable grounds to complain about Cambridge’s archaism, I absolutely knew what I was getting myself in for when I applied. In contrast to literally every other university with which I interacted, Cambridge harboured a weird obsession with letter writing. Defying environmentalism and convenience, the use of email was thrown to the wind in favour of good, old-fashioned correspondence via carrier pigeon/the Royal Mail.

Even when Cambridge does brave the online world, it’s a little bit frightened about hauling its email facilities out of the 1990s. I don’t know what’s more amazing about Hermes: the beauty of that vintage 1993 interface or the fact that they’ve only thought to update to Outlook in 2018.

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"Goodbye My Lover" by James Blunt plays in background whilst students come to terms with the fact that Hermes is being phased out

Not everyone is fond of The Bubble’s outdated charisma. In 2013, the Telegraph reported that a number of the UK’s top state school students were opting for American universities due to the "unfriendly and old-fashioned" appearance of Oxbridge.

Obviously, this was contributed to by the attitudes of their interviewers and the compatibility of the students with Oxbridge as a whole. However, as competing universities upgrade their technological smarts, you can’t help but wonder if Cambridge is getting a little left behind.

Personally, I think you have to love The Bubble's quaintness (which I say from my Totally-Unbiased-Really-Very-Neutral perspective as someone who goes to university here). You might be cold, able to hear your flatmate having sex through the paper-thin wall and living in perpetual fear that your ancient fridge will spontaneously start a fire, but that’s just the Cambridge charm.