Cambridge formals: alienating elitism or inclusive fun?Downing College JCR

Whilst working at my summer job I told people I went to UCL. I (pretty irrationally) couldn’t bring myself to tell people I went to a university I love attending, and can’t wait to return to. I felt embarrassed that I might be perceived as different to my colleagues, and I didn’t want to be judged against preconceived ideas they may have had about Cambridge. I wanted to ‘fit in’. Oxbridge’s idiosyncrasies intrigue some people and disgust others, and not knowing how someone would react was a risk I wanted to avoid.

It is important to separate my mild embarrassment from a potential feeling of shame. I am not ashamed by my participation in the quirks of Cambridge life. It is one of the persistent myths about this university that the so-called ‘traditions’ necessarily exclude and intimidate state educated students. Before Cambridge, I hadn’t been to a formal dinner that bore any resemblance to the one I attended at matriculation. I went to a state school, but even my private school friends had never worn a gown, or had drinks with an academic. But you adapt; its fun, and I wouldn’t change a thing. The same can’t be said for everyone; a lot of middle class people feel guilty about these ‘traditions’. Get over yourselves.

Cambridge is a weird, weird place. The language is weird, the gowns are weird, the student halls are weird. At Downing, we call dinner ‘slops’ for God’s sake. When I arrived as a fresher, as many will be doing next week, I approached all of this like most others; with an apprehensive eye-roll and a desire to fit in. But most of the ‘traditions’ were hardly news to me; like most millennials, I had spent hours online researching the minutiae of it all. To be honest, I took an uneventful gap year so I had more time than most. The Harry Potter-esque narrative of a normal kid being let into the ‘world of Cambridge’ is out-dated. It is a misconception that all freshers need molly-coddling in their first week; some do, of course, but it shocked (and impressed) me how many eighteen-year-olds from all backgrounds were auditioning, writing and campaigning in their first weeks of Michaelmas.

“Cambridge ‘traditions’ are remnants from a past that was bitterly exclusionary to people of colour and women.”

Yes, you can label it all ‘posh’ if you want. Cambridge ‘traditions’ are remnants from a past that was bitterly exclusionary to people of colour and women. In the nineteenth century even Catholics and Nonconformists were banned from the University. It is a fair critique, but this discourse neglects the important role student events play in the social cohesion of the University. I don’t mean Riot Club-esque dinners, or awful drinking society initiations. I mean the formals and garden parties which are accessible to nearly every student. The social backgrounds of students are more diverse than ever, and the May Balls keep getting bigger. Nevertheless, it’s a shame that many potential applicants see this place as ‘not for me’. Cambridge has a class problem, but it doesn’t lie in many of the superficial targets people who champion access claim it does.

Modern students occupy these social structures to our benefit. The weight of tradition is less. College doors don’t lock at 10pm anymore. From symbols of exclusion, many of the unique social activities in Cambridge have proved themselves to be elastic enough to foster a special environment of inclusion. For the price of a subsided dinner and £20 second hand gown, a small college community provides a social architecture for very close friendships to form. We go to formal in a sixteenth-century hall, then take a five minute walk to a local nightclub. And this isn’t limited to twenty-somethings; students and academics often enjoy a closeness which is distinct in character from other universities. Freshers, your director of studies may seem intimidating at your first supervision, but soon enough she will be telling you about her daughter and inviting you on theatre trips.

Bonding over black tie and champagne at the Union's Freshers’ BallThe Cambridge Union

These have been my experiences, and the experiences of a lot of people I’ve spoken to. It may not be fashionable to say this, but I do not think academic relationships are as easily formed at other universities, where one-on-one contact time is less, and academics live miles away.

“Freshers, be angry at the Conservative government, not your college for putting on a nice dinner for you to bond with people you’ll know for the rest of your life.”

Everyone’s experience at university changes them, no matter where you go and what you study. However, it frustrates me when people criticise many elements of Cambridge in the name of access, when a lot of working-class students actively enjoy those things. When I sent my mum a picture of me and a friend at a May Ball this year, she couldn’t have been happier. She thought I had ‘made it’. I suppose it vindicated all the hours spent teaching me long division, reading with me, checking my spellings when she had a full time job and two other kids to care for. The excessive cost of May Balls are a problem, but at least you get something out of them. What do you get by paying nearly 5% interest on a £50,000 student loan? Freshers, be angry at the Conservative government, not your college for putting on a nice dinner for you to bond with people you’ll know for the rest of your life.

My embarrassment at work this summer was silly and probably irrational. But the feelings that motivated it are distinct; Cambridge offers a strangely intimate and intense experience, which can be confusing and hard to communicate to others. This intimacy is felt by many; its there in what I’ve heard some people call ‘Cambridge time’, the weird sensation of experiencing time in a place where so much goes on in eight weeks. My point is not an elitist one – Cambridge has many problems – but we should cut the self-flagellation and be grateful for the good bits. So-called ‘traditions’, the social events unique to Oxbridge, are a part of many people’s enjoyment of their time here. To dismiss them all as exclusive, and to feel a complicated sense of guilt about them, is a pointless waste of time