Timur Rakhimov with permission for Varsity

As I ploughed through a plate of gloriously free fish and chips at my college’s open day last month (my contract-given right as a ‘student ambassador’), a friend and fellow employee summed up why the experience, though enjoyable, was so odd. There is something distinctly weird, she said, about spending a day convincing seventeen-year-olds to fall in love with a college which will, statistically speaking, go on to reject them.

Granted, our national obsession with Oxbridge has never exactly been normal. Last week, the Times published an article about an allegedly lecherous doctor accused of having a string of affairs and inventing sick family members to help him “juggle” them. It began: “A Cambridge-educated doctor…”. That hyphenated spot of journalistic colour tells the reader a depressing amount about our national psyche. One seldom reads “Durham-educated lawyer accused of…”. The closest you get is “Oxford-educated politician”.

Still, experiencing that obsession first hand at open day was sobering; nothing makes you choose your words with care like having anxious young people hanging on every one of them. I felt almost silly going through the motions of describing accommodation and sports facilities to groups of seventeen-year-olds who obviously needed no further persuading that a place at Cambridge was very much worth having. I felt like a salesman surrounded by willing buyers but unable to make a deal. In truth, I was closer to a tour guide.

“I felt like a salesman surrounded by willing buyers but unable to make a deal. In truth, I was closer to a tour guide. ”

At first I thought this was the product of modesty. I was made a salesman-Sisyphus, and the visitors academic Tantaluses, because Cambridge doesn’t like to admit that its open day is fundamentally different to, say, Durham’s.

A bright, enthusiastic seventeen-year-old with good GCSEs can be confident that they will probably receive an offer from almost any British university – except Oxbridge. At its open day, Durham sells you an education; Cambridge invites you to bid for one.

Admitting this risks coming across as arrogant and off-putting. Moreover, it risks undermining the things that a Cambridge open day does need to achieve: principally assuring every bright seventeen-year-old that if they make it through the admissions process, they will be welcomed and supported here.

So, conundrum resolved. Most open days are sales pitches. Cambridge’s isn’t, but they pretend it is so that they don’t come across as up themselves. Below the surface, however, the point is to encourage nervous applicants, demystify the application process, and help people to pick a college. No need to feel weird after all.

The problem is that this ‘modesty’ doesn’t just involve polite silence about Cambridge’s unique (Oxford begrudgingly notwithstanding) academic prowess and prestige. It also means overlooking Cambridge’s unique problems.

The most egregious case of this is the disparity between colleges. On its website, the admissions office tells applicants not to “agonise” over which one they apply to, and encourages them to choose based on accommodation, catering, and facilities. Applicants are assured that “your student experience isn’t dependent on the age of your College”. In other words, colleges are glorified halls of residence – just like at a normal university! You live there, you eat there, your friends are there – but at the end of the day they are all kind of the same.

This might be reassuring, but it isn’t true. Older colleges have cheaper rents, and more academically successful students (at least as far as undergraduate exam results go). They have more money and their students reap the benefits. Everyone at Cambridge knows this, but the admissions office seems to treat it almost as an article of faith that the Cambridge experience is the same at Trinity – where less affluent students receive almost £4500 a year in bursaries – and Lucy Cavendish, where students “pay higher living costs, and receive fewer subsidies, bursaries and grants than other Cambridge students”, according to a recent Varsity investigation.

Potential applicants deserve transparency from the University. Pretending that all colleges are equal robs future students of their agency. If an applicant is concerned about financing their education, they have every right to know that some colleges will be able to completely obviate those worries, but others won’t – and make their decisions accordingly.

“Potential applicants deserve transparency from the University.”

This is only the most egregious abuse of the knowledge gap that separates the University and its applicants. The problem goes beyond colleges; it even goes beyond the open day. Cambridge is simply far too keen to paint itself not as it is, but as it wishes it was.

In this telling, the supervision is “one of our greatest strengths” – never an awkward waste of a week’s work. Consoling a newly-minted Oxbridge reject is as simple as telling them “try not to worry”. There are never discrepancies between colleges in admissions because, thanks to the pool, all applicants compete against each other anyway – no matter what the University’s own statistics say. In the worst Oxbridge tradition, Cambridge is choosing the easy pretence of perfection over the pain of genuine progress – which famously starts with being open about what has gone wrong.


Mountain View

Is Cambridge really Cambridge?

I don’t mean to be overly critical. The open day really did feel helpful, and throwing open college gates to the public can only be a good thing. I just wish Cambridge were always so transparent. The British Oxbridge obsession might make admissions officers uncomfortable, but it also gives them a chance to be honest with prospective applicants. Bright young things are going to fight desperately for a place at Cambridge no matter what it tells them. At the very least, they deserve openness about the costs of applying, and the truth about what to expect if they succeed.