It’s time to stop pretending access problems disappear when students arrive at Cambridge

‘Why exactly do colleges make asking for genuine help such a painful process?’

There is an elephant in the room when you arrive at Cambridge. Thinly veiled beneath euphemistic and often performative discussions of “access” is the stark reality of the economic inequality that exists between students from the moment we start unpacking our bags. 

‘I was the only person who didn’t have £50 to hand over as if it was nothing’

When I think back to the day I arrived in Cambridge as a fresher, one memory sticks out for me in particular: within minutes of passing the gate to my college, the porters breezily informed me I would have to pay £50 for my gown immediately, and in cash. As the cluster of students and parents gathered around the entrance to the Porter’s Lodge handed over their cash in exchange for a gown, I slowly realised that I was the only person who didn’t have £50 in cash readily available to hand over as if it was nothing. The excitement of my arrival began to fizzle out and reality dawned as I exited the crowd and frantically rang my dad on the way to a cashpoint. 

To Cambridge’s credit (although perhaps more credit should go to the students who dedicate their time and energy to campaigning for these access schemes), the launch of a “Foundation Year” is a welcome step in opening up paths to Cambridge for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But despite an impressive amount of schemes centered on widening access to Cambridge, there remains a taboo around frank and honest discussions about how students from low-income backgrounds are supported when we actually start our time here.

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(Photo Credits: @kayyteigh via Twitter)

‘Those who are directly affected by an absence of meaningful support are more passionate about resolving these issues’

This is most likely the case for a few reasons – an obvious one being the understandable reluctance a lot of students have to single themselves out as struggling financially amongst their peers. However, the underlying issue here is the fact that so much of the burden to find solutions and lobby for reform is placed squarely on the shoulders of the student population. 

Alongside completing our degrees, students who are passionate about levelling the playing field are expected to come up with solutions either in unpaid roles on their college’s JCR, or just in their own spare time – something that we all know is in finite supply, especially as exams approach. 

Unsurprisingly, it is often those who are directly affected by an absence of meaningful support who are most passionate about resolving these issues. Both the physical and the emotional labour of trying to implement measures to overcome these institutional barriers is shifted to the students who suffer most as a result of them.

‘There is a divide between students who simply get to study at Cambridge and those who have to actively challenge inequalities’

This leaves those who are already disadvantaged with an uncomfortable choice to make. Do you devote your time trying to make Cambridge more accessible and by doing so, take on the mammoth task of attempting to bring your college on side? Or do you begrudgingly accept the way things are and receive individualised, often limited support, conceding that attempts to spark systemic change are made as difficult as possible by obstinate college bureaucracy?

This aspect of the “Cambridge experience” is often overlooked in discussions about access and inequality. Material differences aside, there is a divide between students who simply get to view Cambridge as a place to study, and those who are forced with the choice of actively challenging the institution’s archaic and substantial inequalities or accepting whatever they are offered as the generosity of a benefactor they should feel indebted to. 

‘It’s easier to get financial support for holidays than rent’

One thing I particularly resent in the frequent conversations I have with people regarding financial inequality at Cambridge is the flippant response that “help is there if you ask for it.” I know the majority of people who peddle this narrative are trying to be helpful – including college staff – but all it does is reveal that these individuals have never had to swallow their pride and ask for a handout.

 As well-intentioned as it may be, patronisingly telling those who voice their struggle to you that financial support is available for students who *really* need it is problematic for a number of reasons.

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(Photo credits: @rentstrikecambridge via Instagram)

Firstly, often this is not true. Although colleges reassuringly insist that this is the case in communication before we arrive and throughout our time here, the process of asking for and receiving financial support is far from straightforward. 

‘Why exactly do colleges make asking for genuine help such a painful process?’

As a result of a system insistent on making individuals come forward and plead their case to a bursar (who receives no pastoral training whatsoever), students are subjected to a demeaning and arduous process that often involves submitting detailed financial breakdowns and can take weeks.

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(Photo Credits: @Carenzaprice via Twitter

 When discussing with a friend, they rightly pointed out that students weren’t subjected to such rigorous and time consuming hoop-jumping when it came to acquiring funds for holidays and extracurricular trips. This begs the question why exactly do colleges choose to make asking for genuine help such a painful process? 

College handing out generous grants for vacations seems to allow them to publicise themselves as being charitable, yet when confronted with students not being able to afford basic amenities, there doesn’t seem to be the same motivation to help students. The unspoken wealth gap is spoken, to the quiet embarrassment of the institution that publicly insists it does all it can to ensure students don’t go without.

‘Students should not have to divulge their entire life story to evoke the sympathy of whoever holds their college’s purse strings’

Fundamentally, it should not be the case that it is the norm for a student to have to divulge their entire life story in the hope of evoking the sympathy of whoever holds their college’s purse strings. To have to rehearse a sob story for the consideration of an individual who gets to deem if your situation is desperate enough to warrant support (often only in the form of a loan rather than an actual grant) is humiliating.  

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Looking forward, my hope is that people think with a little bit more nuance and empathy when we have discussions about “access”. There shouldn’t exist two groups of students at Cambridge: those who get to live their lives as normal and those who have to make a conscious decision to swallow their pride and beg for support, or suffer in silence. 

The fiasco regarding who can and cannot return to Cambridge has highlighted this more clearly than ever before. Students deserve to communicate with their colleges without having to sacrifice their dignity and compromise their privacy to get a fair shot at being listened to and supported.

Whilst a scary number of people seem to be insistent on dismissing and minimising student issues by encouraging their peers to deal with problems individually and quietly, we should loudly be questioning this rotten system that lacks transparency and varies massively depending on what college we attend.

If your case-by-case basis “solutions” preserve this unequal model, perhaps what you’re offering isn’t much of a solution at all.

The University Press Office has been contacted for comment. 

Feature image credit: Izzy Porter 

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