Students entering a may ball in black tieSelwyn College

As a new cohort of freshers begin settling into Cambridge, I’ve been reflecting on my time as a first year navigating life in a new city. Immediately upon arriving I was struck by the insanely high cost of socialising, but more importantly - by how I seemed to meet so many others who were entirely unphased by these costs. As the fifth most expensive city in England to live in, even before considering the extra costs of the Cambridge experience, it’s a pricey place to be a student.

No matter how supposedly important these experiences are deemed, by orienting socialising around expensive activities and upholding this as the epitome of Cambridge culture, those who cannot afford are excluded. But what was particularly upsetting was that most of the people I spoke to just didn’t quite get it.

These social circles are fostered during our time here and then maintained as they go on to become the elite political and financial class after University. And those circles are incredibly costly to access.

Cambridge is different from many other universities because colleges essentially have a monopoly on land ownership in the city, so it’s near impossible to move out into the private rental market (which is also a complete nightmare at the moment) to have a house with a lounge or even a dining table! The college spaces that exist often outright deter socialising, by creating common areas that are far too small for the student body, often dimly lit, with low ceilings.

And so, we’re forced to spend evenings in spaces that revolve around the consumption of alcohol. The pub at Cambridge takes on the role that a living room or a common room might at a normal university. It’s not only isolating for those that don’t drink, but expensive. With the third highest average cost of a pint in the UK, in just one drink, that’s the equivalent of three homemade dinners down the drain. And you’re acutely aware that whilst you’re drinking a £5 glass of wine, with money earned from your summer job at a pub, on the table over from you could be the child of someone who is invested in the industry or literally owns a vineyard.

And even as you sip your tepid pint, the conversation will range from arts, literature and culture that rich children get exposed to from childhood; school connections; living in central London; and favourite skiing destinations.

Outside of day to day socialising, supposed highlights of Cambridge include the Varsity ski trip (with baseline prices around £400 students can realistically expect to pay about £800 to actually enjoy it), May balls (again, most costing over £150 a ticket), formals (£14 at my college), events (those £7 tickets add up), meals out, meals in college, £3 coffees, rowing and other sports (with club & kit fees).

The average student is expected to maintain – in contrast to students at other universities – a decadent lifestyle. Of course, there are good initiatives by colleges, JCRs and the Cambridge bursary system to alleviate some of these burdens. But even so, students from low-income backgrounds are acutely aware of the cost of life outside of term time, the burden of supporting family, and attempts to save what’s possible for the future.

The average student is expected to maintain a decadent lifestyle

Growing up, children are not blind to wealth disparities. Yet before joining Cambridge I had never been in situations where I was so constantly surrounded by these stark differences. Living alongside people, there’s no way of escaping the reminders of other people’s wealth. Frankly, I was completely overwhelmed, felt isolated, and continued to feel so for much of my first year – not least because of the derogatory comments made about my accent and where I’m from.

Certainly many people were empathetic, some found my upset amusing, but many others tried to turn my testimony into a topic for a debate. One of the most deeply infuriating experiences in Cambridge is opening up about a painful experience and someone attempting to use it as an opportunity to flex their faux-intellectualism, to talk about my own experience as a sociological case study. When many people I speak to are able to remove themselves from these debates, viewing them as a purely intellectual exercise, for those in which the realities of inequality are their lived experiences these debates aren’t something that can be left at the pub table.

The anxiety of money troubles can be all consuming. There’s a guilt of enjoying life and relaxing whilst spending money whilst you know that money is needed more by your family or community. In my second year, I was exhausted by this great pressure I put on myself whilst trying to relax, and I began to work through some of these feelings in counselling. I’m thankful to have accessed free counselling sessions, but whilst this has certainly alleviated much of the guilt I felt, it’s an ongoing process. Whilst the financial and social barriers of Cambridge remain, students will continue to feel like this.

So as we welcome a new group of freshers, I can’t help but hope that new students are able to find good support systems, make use of the financial support available, and avoid the trauma of interacting with some of Cambridge’s worst. But there remains a two tiered system of fun, that is both constructed by and constructive of class inequality at University. So, freshers who come from a background like mine should watch out for a social scene that costs a lot and doesn't care. A little self-awareness might go a long way.