Louis Ashworth with permission for Varsity

Do you wear your college puffer outside Cambridge? I didn’t think so. Broadcasting the fact that you’re at Cambridge is just too embarrassing. I’m now a withered third-year, but am yet to find the right tone of voice in which to answer the question 'so where are you at uni?'

There is something about the Cambridge brand that only seems cool if you’re an embarrassing alumnus tormenting your offspring by loudly reminiscing about 'when I was at Caius…' Part of the awkwardness comes from the way people react when they find out you study here – the immediate assumption that you must be Einstein born again can be rather off-putting, especially if you’re an English student who has obtained Oxbridge status purely because you have strong feelings about poems.

Still, I don’t think that’s the whole story. Saying 'Cambridge' doesn’t just make people think of Watson and Crick, or Stephen Hawking. It conjures Carols from King’s, formal hall by candle-light, and posh blokes in gowns talking about rowing while crossing Trinity Great Court. In other words, admitting you go to this university is awkward because Cambridge is old, rich, and big on traditions. It looks like a caricature of the British establishment – and, famously, there is nothing students hate more than the establishment.

Within Cambridge, I think this attitude explains why students tend to be so suspicious of the people running the University and its colleges. Talking through my plan for this column at the Varsity social, most people agreed that they wouldn’t call the University actively malevolent. Yet if you listen to the way students here talk about Cambridge, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was run by a cabal plotting to undermine student welfare.

“There is nothing students hate more than the establishment”

Take the freshers’ week power cuts at Wolfson College earlier last term. I am sure they were inconvenient, but was there really a need to accuse the college of gaslighting? Hardly – yet this kind of language is pretty standard whenever students (myself included) criticise this University.

There is a chain of reasoning which starts with the fact that Cambridge is the richest university in Europe, factors in its power over students’ lives, glances with suspicion at the old fellows who hobble around its various courts, and concludes that the University is wilfully stingy and borderline malevolent.

You can see this sort of thinking when students ask things like: 'why does a college that is part of one of the richest universities in the world have to turn off the heating to save money?', as one disgruntled student did in a recent article about Lucy Cavendish reducing the number of hours during which rooms will be heated.

There are several possible answers to the rhetorical question. Maybe Lucy Cav is thinking about the planet, not its budget – as I type I’m pretty sure the radiator running in my empty room is eroding what’s left of our ice caps. Even if it is a financial decision, fixing colleges’ money problems isn’t really the job of the central University.

Such responses, however, miss the point. For many, the fact that Cambridge’s Wikipedia page reads “Endowment: £9.326 billion” means that any real or perceived failure that happens even loosely on the University’s watch is a moral outrage. One imagines Deborah Prentice in a gold-plated office in Senate House, burning £50 notes and gorging on swan – while poor, blue-fingered students shiver at their desks.

The truth is that Cambridge’s money, prestige, and age don’t make its administrators dastardly defenders of the establishment any more than they make its students Thatcher-loving Waugh-enthusiasts. Cambridge is a massive force for good. An Oxbridge education is one of the few things left in Britain that actually are world-beating. As Cambridge students, we are protected from the real world (and the rental market) by the security of college walls; thanks to the Cambridge Bursary, a frankly incredible amount of financial support is available even for those at less magnificently-endowed colleges. Last year the University announced it was spending almost £5 million pounds on revitalising the Counselling Service, meaning that as NHS mental health provision flounders, Cambridge students essentially have private therapy on tap.

“Cambridge is a massive force for good. An Oxbridge education is one of the few things left in Britain that actually are world-beating”

Cambridge does more than just coddle its students, though – according to data published last year, Cambridge contributes almost £30 billion per year to the UK economy, supporting more than 86,000 jobs. People around the world benefit from discoveries that researchers here make.

I know that writing this makes me sound like the kind of university spokesperson that Varsity journos usually terrorise. Of course, Cambridge is often incompetent, especially at the college or faculty level. It often gets things wrong, and when it does then students should protest – I’m not advocating silent martyrdom here. The University also has all sorts of obligations – to free speech, to future generations of students, to preserving academic standards – which might stop it from giving current undergraduates what they want. Arguing over how Cambridge balances those obligations is obviously a legitimate subject for debate.


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Still, our University is run by good people with good intentions, doing their best to make our lives better – and largely succeeding. To villainise these people because some of them happen to inhabit wood-panelled offices is a shameful capitulation to lazy stereotypes. It is also scandalously ungrateful.