A comp-rehensive review: Cambridge from a state school perspective

More state students than ever, but what’s it like when they get here?


My very first lecture rounded up with the lecturer asking if we had any questions. This was all new to us, of course, and the website told me that this course “presumed no prior knowledge”.

I was ready to ask if he could maybe, very kindly, explain what on earth was going on because I had no idea. The first question shut me up before you could say ‘pretentious’.

“Hi, yes. I was wondering if you could explain the multilateral neoliberal nature of this in relation to the anarchical…” (at this point I tuned out).

Perhaps I’m being dramatic. But this is certainly what it feels like to move from a school where we semi-regularly ran out of budget for printer paper… to Cambridge.

We may have all got into the same uni, but it certainly doesn’t feel like we exist in a school made for us when our peers have been quoting Latin for the years that we were fundraising for our art departments’ glue sticks.

While Cambridge has in recent years refused to respond to requests for information on the familial incomes of its students, it doesn’t take a genius to walk into a formal hall at Caius (the college with the lowest rate of state school students last year) and consider that we might not be offering a particularly representative sample of the rest of the UK.

Of course, this isn’t new information– especially if you’re in the same position as me. I don’t mean to tell you things you already know. I also want to point out how important it is for this not to become a conversation about “private schoolers,” a reductive and accusative conversation that helps nobody.

As cliche as it is, kids don’t generally choose their school experience and we shouldn’t pretend that this is a problem with individuals or their backgrounds.

The uni is putting genuine effort into increasing the application levels and intake of state school students from a wide variety of backgrounds, but we need to do a lot more to facilitate the student majority’s experience once they get here if we want to call Cambridge a truly inclusive place to study.

Language and its baggage

Not only is it a particularly horrible experience to frantically urban dictionary what a “mathmo” is on your second day in the hopes that you won’t have to ask a second year who hates you enough already (as I…definitely didn’t have to do. Who, me? Never), but the ridiculous volume of slang used here is enough to basically make up a whole degree itself.

It’s also worth considering what slang is harmless – pidge, plodge, and prelims make sense and usefully shorten otherwise long terms– and what slang seems to exist entirely to make Cambridge even more confusing and a bit more hostile for students who might not know anybody else from home who went there.

Urban dictionary coming in clutch (Author’s own screenshot via urbandictionary.com)

Looking a bit more like your average “townie” than your average “gownie” has a tinge of insult to it, a stark reality when Cambridge is officially the most economically unequal city in the UK. This is particularly uncomfortable when you then have to ask what a “townie” actually is, now scared of sounding like one.

Finally worked out Eduroam but still don’t have a network

One of the strangest experiences for me has been living the words ‘small world’. As most students do, I know a few people here or there– someone from my school, another who went to some club two years ago– but most of these people don’t have some “in” with the university either.

The best that we can do is grab a drink and relate to how expensive our food is now. This might be a common experience but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. Invite-only secret societies and fifth-generation students make it seem like everybody knows everybody else…except us.

Our little group of people who met through group chats, or freshers, or our course, who know each other and not much else.

This is partly just the universal fresher feeling but finding out that there is a whole set of Cambridge societies dedicated to “lounging” doesn’t exactly help.

We have talked to freshers in a similar position, and almost every one has mentioned some feeling of “isolation” or other forms of separation from those lucky ones who “just know” this stuff.

Given the strong career incentives of applying to such a famous uni, it’s particularly disheartening to find out that the “networking” successful people always say is so important is sectioned off by your secondary school.

From 2006 – 2016, over a third of undergraduates came from 100 schools. You might find that (if you hadn’t heard of them before) these schools are the names you’ve also heard echoing from the Cambridge Union and suspicious booked-out meeting rooms while you’re just trying to find your way to the college bar.

A quick note: grammar schools, you aren’t off the hook

Your humble writer went to both a grammar and a state during secondary school, and can therefore say with some authority that grammar schools might not have the funding to offer a private school-level education but definitely try their best to let you pretend.

The difference between grammar school and state isn’t talked about enough at a uni with a disproportionately high volume of grammar students.

Grammar schools generally expect a certain rate of Oxbridge applicants and therefore are much more likely to organise practice interviews, extensive personal statement feedback, etc. for many students.

This has a significant impact on students who get in– many state school students go in “blind,” not knowing quite what to expect. Grammar school students are much more likely to at least have teachers and older students who’ve done this before.

Have you noticed that since you’ve got here, you’ve had more subject and passion-based conversations than back at home?

It seems almost inevitable that this would be the case at a uni whose students were willing to go through interviews, entrance exams, sacrificing their first-born child, etc., but this happens (on a smaller scale) for some students back home too.

Being surrounded by students who are regularly told that they are intelligent and that their passions are valid has a long-term impact on confidence, distinguishing them from peers who have not had that support (especially students who did not find their academic strengths until late into their secondary school career, at which point understaffed and overstretched schools have already cast them off.)

So what now?

I don’t want to and won’t come to the conclusion that we just have to be nicer to each other, that we shouldn’t make jokes at the expense of others, yadda yadda.

As important as it is to have and share kindness, these issues are much more fundamental than that. Big changes can and will come, in part stemming from the increasing proportion of students joining the uni from diverse backgrounds every year.

The uni is putting in some work to improve this situation. This year has been the highest intake of state school undergraduates, and the current Access and Participation Plan commits to improving student experience for underrepresented groups.

But we as students also need to be mindful about what we pick up from the environment (or less diplomatically, bubble) that we exist in.

If you find yourself snubbing freshers who “don’t know anything yet” or asking questions with long words because short ones won’t scare the students around you quite enough for a Thursday morning, consider why these things are attractive to do.

There has been so much progress in making Cambridge a place for passionate and intelligent students who have worked hard to be there regardless of background obstacles– but we aren’t there yet.

Feature Image Credits: Ruby Cline

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