Scholars' ballots give preference to high-achieving studentsLucas Chebib

The Governing Body of St. Catharine’s College has voted to abandon the scholars’ ballot, amid growing pressure from students across the University to make room allocation systems fairer.

The vote, which took place on 2nd February, means that the college’s accommodation will now be allocated through a random ballot. Under the new system, students about to enter their second year will be allocated a random ranking, which will determine the order in which they can choose their rooms for the next year. The ranking is then reversed as the students enter their third year. This system is in place in the majority of colleges at the University.

Under the former scholars’ ballot, however, students who received a First or high 2:1 in their exams were entered into their own separate ballot, through which they were able to choose rooms before other students. 

So-called “scholars’ ballots,” or systems which gave preference to the most academically high-achieving students, were historically much more prevalent in Cambridge, but in recent years colleges have opted in increasing numbers to update their procedures. Contrary to reports in other newspapers, seven colleges still retain some form of academically-weighted allocation system: Christ’s, Corpus Christi, Fitzwilliam, Gonville & Caius, Pembroke, Peterhouse and St John’s.

The vote at St Catharine’s was triggered after a student referendum in November of last year revealed that 64 per cent of voters supported the abolishment of the scholars’ ballot. 40 per cent of the student body participated in the referendum.

Rachel Balmer, a fourth-year Modern and Medieval Languages student at St. Catharine’s, told Varsity that the vote had “been a long time coming”. “I’m glad the JCR and the Governing Body have decided that it is unnecessary that we create a further ‘elite’ group of students within the college community, solely dependent on their degree class, and have made this move towards a more democratic system.”

Students at other colleges which have removed all academic weighting from their room allocation systems were also generally satisfied with the way their ballots were organised. Finty Hunter, a first-year student at Murray Edwards, said that its system “works quite well” because only the JCR President and Vice President, as well as students currently living in shared rooms, are given priority in the ballot.

At Newnham, concerted efforts have been made to make the room allocation system as equitable as possible. A college spokeswoman explained: “The same rent is paid for every room within each year-group for the duration of their undergraduate careers, so cost is never a factor in room choice. As students progress through College, they get a better room each year, as they choose before the undergraduates in the years below them.” A second-year Newnham student agreed that, despite “a few substandard rooms,” “the ballot system is about as fair as you can get”.

Some students at colleges still using a scholars’-ballot style system expressed dissatisfaction when speaking to Varsity about it. A student at Christ’s said: “Everyone has worked hard to get here, no matter their background, and the University should aim to reinforce this fact, rather than risk putting students under unnecessary academic stress by teasing them with the prospect of extra echelons of domestic luxury.”

He went on to argue that some may simply not be capable of achieving a first: “A first is not possible for everyone, and probably isn’t the goal of the majority.”

However, not every student disagreed with the scholars’ ballot. According to another Christ’s student, this “unique traditional concept of Cambridge” works as “a good motivator to do well and study hard.”

Camilla, a former undergraduate student at Pembroke, now studying for her PhD there, said, “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to reward people for getting firsts.” However, the organisation of the system meant that, as a scholar, she ended up choosing from a more limited selection of than if she had come top of the ballot, as she changed room post-results.

Speaking to Varsity about the scholars’ ballot system at St John’s, the college’s JCR president, Tom Newton, commented, “the JCR recognise the arguments against scholars’ ballot systems. We are working with students and the college to consider potential alternatives for the allocation of rooms at St John’s.”

Dr Paul Chirico, the Senior Tutor of Fitzwilliam College, defended the use of a scholars’ ballot system as “a reward for our many students who achieve first class results, and is certainly regarded as a substantial incentive.” He added: “We seek to provide every one of our students with an excellent room.”

Speaking to Varsity, Sophie Buck, CUSU’s Welfare and Rights Officer, expressed her support for the abolition of the scholars’ ballot. “The non-randomised balloting system reinforces the notion that students’ worth is dependent on the grade they attain, which is not only damaging to wellbeing but is particularly problematic in light of numerous attainment gaps between different groups of students.”

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