Money Talks

Cambridge cost of living is adding up to far more than pennies and pounds

Recent statements from the University seem to have pledged clear support for those affected by the national cost-of-living crisis. Although it seems that talk of “subsidised lunches” and “hardship funds”, which in theory appear an ideal solution, may in practice be nothing more than semantic sticking plaster over a far more sinister issue.

Where on the surface the 50 per cent increase to the University Hardship Fund may seem like a welcome foil against current financial burdens, the emotional costs of accessing such funds seems a cruel and needless interest payment for those already facing the silent struggles of financial difficulty.

I spoke to students accessing or attempting to access both centralised funding and college financial aid, many of whom are paying far more acutely than simply having to shop in the reduced section.

A long Winter ahead (Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons License)

The process is contingent on your tutor being able to prove that the shortfall in costs was entirely unforeseen, with the question often not being financial but emotional. One student says she was advised by her tutor to “tug on the heart strings” to even be considered for support.

The time-consuming bureaucracy of such measures is perhaps a given in an age of the battle of form-filling and the war of Student Finance, but where does adding up the numbers transgress into the invasive, humiliating and deeply personal?

To even discuss such matters with your tutor, particularly in a world of oat lattes at Bould Brothers and Hot Numbers brunches where it seems like everyone has money to burn, is a difficult yet necessary ask.

But with the processes of accessing both centralised and college funding being entirely dependent on which college you attend, students felt as though their fate rested in the hands not of a cohesive system but a single person, and whether or not their ability to craft “as convincing of a sob story” as possible, as one student says they were told, would pay off.

Aside from the obvious emotional levy this places on students, financial concerns devour valuable time in a way that seems entirely unaccounted for.

Apart from the waiting games students are forced to play in accessing hardship funds, with one student I spoke to waiting nearly six months for the outcome of their application, the temporal expenses of low-cost living remain largely unspoken about.

In order to access a “subsided meal” from the recent pilot scheme at West Cambridge site for example, students at central colleges or studying at Sidgwick Site would have to walk on average thirty minutes there and back, all while peers pick up a panini at Arc Café or a midmorning cappuccino on King’s Parade.

West Cambridge Site (Image credits: Ståle Eriksen)

And although it is of course the case that individual cafés and Colleges often have primary control over their prices, surely there is scope for discounts across all departments and cafés? Not to mention the fact that some students requiring financial aid are forced to take up jobs in a precarious tightrope walk between meeting university requirements on term-time employment and the realities of making ends meet.

Between the hours given up to weekend jobs, holiday work and evening tutoring (all ways many students look to bridge the gap), how much is lost?

How much longer should it be taken as a given that for those needing to pay less, life has to cost more?

While students seem to be directed to countless strongholds of financial aid, there are many that fall through the gaps.

Those left in the no man’s land between Cambridge Bursary and financial security, or those who would be receiving this Bursary according to the new guidelines but as they matriculated before 2022 are deemed ineligible, feel increasingly abandoned by the institution that is supposed to facilitate their development. A system designed to ease strain and tension seems to be doing just the opposite.

Traditions based on longstanding opulence appear to be a cornerstone of institutional culture, and with Colleges being home to everything from Tracey Emin prints to million-pound wine collections, it seems many students are left asking where exactly they fall in the pecking order – it feels like certainly below the fellows’ free wine.

A very Formal tradition (Image Credits: Izzy Grout)

These gratuitous displays of wealth, as fellows at Selwyn and other Colleges access free accommodation and separately-prepared meals while students are struggling to gather the funds even to eat in Hall appear to be a deep set and challenging issue to unpick.

While widespread reform and radical redistribution of wealth may seem the obvious answer, many colleges have these seemingly unequal practices written into their constitutions. Catering and conference activity funding also remains entirely separate from educational funding, so while the former is substantial, redistribution is not the easy fix. It seems it’s not just the students who are backed into a corner of bureaucracy.

The question is then perhaps not how many performative percentages and subsidised sandwiches the university can throw at its students, but rather how the attitude around financial conversations can be destigmatised and made manifest in practical and cohesive support facilitating long-term and constitutional change.

Particularly in a culture where wine appears cheaper than water.

Cambridge University was approached for comment and a University spokesperson gave the following response:

“These are uncertain times, and the rising cost of living is having an impact on everyone. The Cambridge Bursary Scheme has recently been extended for undergraduate students, and the University is increasing financial support for its Student Hardship Fund by 50% in order to provide help for those who need it most. If any student has concerns about the cost of living or their financial circumstances they should speak in confidence to their College Tutor, who can provide welfare support and guidance on how to access the financial support available.”

Feature Image Credits: Izzy Porter

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