Last Easter term, amid the chaos of exam preparation and C Sunday debauchery, Pembroke’s catering team found itself at the centre of a controversy that was swiftly swept under the rug. A hungry Pembroke student, in their quest for satiety, was to be greeted by a strange new dinner option – the “Access Meal”. The premise of the menu item was to provide students with a main and two sides at an affordable discounted price. But, something didn’t feel quite right and it wasn’t just the portion of grated cheese that constituted a side on pasta night. The community consensus was summarised by one anonymous submission to Pembroke’s version of Camfess: “it is pretty laughable that including two sides is considered as an access move”. Just as abruptly as it had been introduced, the Access Meal was lost to history, and rebranded the “Student Special”.

Today, the Student Special costs 70 pence less than the vegan option with two sides: it’s a welcome discount and, as they (Tesco) say, every little helps. No one is above a meal deal and this particular saving was only ever an issue when it was branded with the word “access”. In Pembroke catering’s bid to appear inclusive, they unwittingly acknowledged that their food might otherwise not be fairly priced. The rebranding of the meal demonstrated that its provision had been performative: a business decision masquerading as a helping hand.

“A business decision masquerading as a helping hand”

Just a few months later the Cambridge theatre scene set out to engage in a meta-performance of its own. A ticket to the ADC doesn’t come cheap but the creation of a student bursary discount seemed to recognise this. Unfortunately, that’s all the initiative offered – the appearance of inclusivity. The 10% discount available to students who acquired a written signature from their tutor and dropped it off at the ADC box office could hardly be described as a saving at all. It was as though the ADC had decided to do the bare minimum to say they were trying to make student theatre affordable. I’m pleased to say the discount has since been raised from 10% to 25%, but it should not have required backlash for the ADC to see that paying £10.35 for an £11.50 ticket wasn’t the great access move they thought it was.

It is worth noting that the Cambridge bursary scheme is an incredibly generous form of financial assistance. While the schemes and provisions that are placed under the access umbrella often feel offensive in their performance, nothing can be said to denigrate the tangible good that the bursary scheme is doing to make this city entrenched in inequalities a fairer place.

It was this generosity that was emphasised to me in a series of emails from Pembroke’s development office last summer. The bursary scheme is provided in large part thanks to the assistance of wealthy alumni, and the office wanted us recipients to recognise this in a letter of appreciation. The issue was that their initial plea suggested our receiving the bursary was conditional on this letter being written. One student, again via anonymous submission, expressed being “uncomfortable” with the expectation that they would “divulge lots of personal information”. This was a fair complaint; access schemes should be about levelling the playing field. When they require a student to “grovel”, or self-identify as someone in need of the initiative (say, by purchasing an Access Meal) in a public setting, that undermines the intention that should be behind them. This confusion over the motivations behind accessibility initiatives is all too apparent to those working on them for the right reasons. Speaking to one undergraduate access officer, I heard of the difficulties holding “colleges to account”. Often, they told me, access schemes at a college level amount to “box-ticking exercises in the interests of the College [rather than] the participants”.

“Box-ticking exercises in the interests of the College [rather than] the participants”

Of course, a different access scheme has also recently made University news – the Union’s “double digit” membership for students with a household income of less than £25,000, priced at £90 rather than the usual £230. It is quite telling that one of the best examples of significant financial assistance that exists at this university is one which makes access to a glorified member’s club more affordable than it would normally be, but still costs nearly a hundred quid. I’m inclined to argue that the number of students this reduction applies to will be so small as to be inconsequential but if we are facing a toss up between schemes for many with inconsequential effects (like the ADC’s original proposal) or schemes with a narrower focus that at least make a difference for those who are eligible, then I’m in favour of the latter.


Mountain View

Student spaces are what we make of them

It’s a shame we are having to debate (pun intended) which of these two strategies is preferable, but that’s where we seem to be. Ultimately, the term ‘access’ comes with a lot of confusion and I worry that its appropriation in many instances will detract from the good of programmes making a real difference. The motion I am putting forward is this: this house believes the University and its associated institutions need to think harder about its access schemes … and at the very least, learn that a discount in the region of a pound doesn’t count as one.