Home sweet home?Emily Lawson-Todd with permission for Varsity

It’s not every day that you find yourself in a standoff with a gaggle of 15-year olds.

Yet that is exactly where I found myself at 8:30am on the day I was meant to move out. In a tremendous cockup, my college had double-booked the JCR – reserving it for both students looking to store their luggage until they could be picked up after being kicked out at 10am, and the Immerse Education Summer School. After single-handedly lugging my worldly possessions to the much smaller post room two courts away, I can only apologise for my language to the summer school students whose style I was evidently cramping. I hope it did not ruin the ‘authentic Oxbridge experience’ that their parents had forked out £5k for. Though, I suppose, nothing says ‘Oxbridge’ more than treating colleges like businesses first, and a student space second.

My storage disaster was only the tip of the iceberg. Earlier that week, postgrads in the throes of dissertations and projects were told that the computer suite in college was out-of-bounds as it was being used for summer schools. The same computer suite was left a complete mess. When I returned to college four days later to work at the open day, I saw that the JCR was in a similarly sorry state, with food covering the floor and chairs tipped over. When working the open day, I opted to say that the JCR was ‘undergoing renovation’, rather than sheepishly admit that student spaces were liable to be infringed on at any moment.

“Postgrads in the throes of dissertations and projects were told that the computer suite in college was out-of-bound”

Throughout each of these unfortunate episodes one thing was clear: to colleges, students are little more than guests. In a heartbeat, we can – and will – be pushed to the wayside in favour of more lucrative ventures. Signing your name in a book and bowing to the master whilst wearing a silly gown signifies that you’re a member of the College – but that’s only until someone who represents a larger monetary gain walks in through the gates. I cannot shake the unpleasant feeling I got as I packed up all of my belongings into bags at the crack of dawn, that I had somewhat overstayed my welcome in the place that I call ‘home’. “I’m a member of this college”, I felt like screaming, “so why do I feel like a hotel guest?”

The answer is simple: profit. Covid has undeniably dealt blows to colleges’ finance, and with conferencing being one of their main sources of pre-pandemic income, it makes sense that they’d be keen to rent out our rooms. My gripes with being tossed out once term ends can be explained away by saying that other people need the spaces more than me. I’m even chill with a random businessman sleeping on my mattress (though I would advise him against it – that thing is at least 45 years old and just springs at this point). However, it seems as though colleges are trying to exceed pre-pandemic levels of conferencing. Now, with college rooms loaned out even in term times, it’s not rare to be sharing a hallway, or even a kitchen with Paul from finance, 37, on a business trip.

“A summer school child shot me a dirty look as I passed him, as if I were the intruder”

At least I wasn’t turfed out of my accommodation to make room for conferencing mid-exams, like several medical students at St. Edmund’s College this year, in what is probably the most blatant example of colleges’ downright disrespect for students when they sense a chance to reclaim some cash. Regardless, these examples point to a worrying wider trend of colleges seeking profit at the expense of alienating students that goes far beyond just rooms, encompassing a range of student spaces, from bars, to libraries, to JCRs.


Mountain View

Eddie’s moved students out of rooms during exams for conference cash

My college, Sidney Sussex, boasts one of the last student run bars in Cambridge. Whilst it has undergone its fair share meddling from college administration it has been undeniably lucky. Other spaces haven’t been so fortunate; a few years back King’s College attempted to renovate their ‘bunker’, a renowned student hotspot, into a lecture hall, showing a willingness to sacrifice student spaces in exchange for profit. Ironically, the only reason it never happened was a lack of cash, though their bar looks increasingly (and depressingly) corporate by the day. Colleges are where students live, eat, socialise, and relax, and when all of this is encroached upon by a desire to make back cash, it can leave students out in the cold – literally and figuratively.

Before arriving at Cambridge, you hear how it’s run a bit like a hotel: depart early, pack up everything, leave no trace. Yet until you’ve lived in college, begun to see its halls and kitchens as home, you don’t realise how detrimental treating it like a conferencing space and a hotel is to its members, and the sense of community promised to us when we begin university life. As I lugged my final suitcase to the car, a summer school child shot me a dirty look as I passed him, as if I were the intruder. To be fair to him, as I passed the cloisters emblazoned with summer school signs, I felt like one too.