“Because their jobs mean they have to enter our students’ rooms, [bedders] can be the ones to notice signs of distress”lllustration by Emily Wittingham for Varsity

Content Note: this article contains mention of self-harm

Being a surrogate mum to the politicians of the future sounds like an odd job. But that’s how Amy*, an experienced bedder at Christ’s, describes her work. The other students and bedders that I spoke to often seem to agree. Richard, studying physics at the same college, describes his bedder as “a second parent”. His bedder, Suzy, broadens out the picture from politicians. She recognises former medics now working at Addenbrooke’s Hospital and keeps in touch with a student from years back who is currently living in South Africa. She finds her work “quite rewarding”, saying that students are “a breath of fresh air” who keep her “young at heart”.

​​Not that being a second mum is always easy, or at all wanted. Jill, at Emmanuel, recalls an engineer who always left the kitchen in an extremely untidy state. She says she told him that cleaning it felt like building a machine only to see someone else smash it up. And though many bedders I spoke to described themselves as a surrogate mum of some sort, by no means were they all were happy about it. Cleaning comes under the job description, but they told me that bedders soon learn to monitor students’ health, with self-harm and alcohol issues mentioned fairly frequently. Almost all the bedders I spoke to said they were happy to look out for students, but the point raised by Nadine at Emmanuel – “it’s not a bedder’s job” – is surely understandable. Certain warning signs can be unpleasant to say the least: Leona at St Catharine’s said the most obvious was a lot of blood in the bathroom.

A spokesperson for St Catharine’s College told Varsity:“We know what an important role our cleaning and maintenance staff play in the welfare of our students.” They recognised that “because their jobs mean they have to enter our students’ rooms, these members of staff can be the ones to notice signs of distress”, noting that “when appropriate, our staff refer concerns about individual students to the College Nurse, Tutors and Senior Tutor” and that the College “ensure that appropriate support and training is offered to members of staff who deal with these situations.”

Emmanuel College did not respond to Varsity’s request for comment.

Bedders are, in one sense, close to students. They come closer than any supervisor by seeing the inside of our rooms, the contents of our rubbish bins and sometimes even our half-naked bodies if we’re still in bed or on the way to the shower. But in another sense they are quite distant. I asked a student at Corpus Christi to guess what percentage of students across the university knew their bedders’ names, and they responded: “30%, which is sad really”. Others I asked went as low as ten. Richard, the student I spoke to at Christ’s, was more optimistic, saying half. Even this, however, was lower than any of the bedders’ answers to the same question. Still, many bedders said they think that they are often overlooked. Suzy put this down to a “stigma attached to cleaning”. Nadine was blunter: “some students look down on you”. Jill suggested that Emmanuel students might organise a Christmas party or something similar to show their appreciation.

 “Some students look down on you”

So, surrogate mums and their kids have their problems. And we are, by the way, talking about mums. Male bedders were almost unheard of at Emmanuel and rare everywhere else. One problem is the name ‘bedder’. Bedders at Corpus Christi alone explained that it was part of “tradition and college life” and left it at that, but most wanted it changed, seeing the name as old-fashioned and patronising. Betty, an old-timer at Emmanuel, said, half-jokingly, that people at first take her for a call girl when she says she’s a bedder. Cue repeated reminders that bedders don’t actually make beds.

Class, always an issue at Cambridge, is a factor. I asked bedders how they would describe Cambridge students. Most explained that students were students wherever they went to university, mostly respectful, quite industrious and often fond of drinking. Some responded along the lines of ‘posh pissheads’. And disappointing news for CUSU and CULC: not a single bedder I spoke to had heard of the student-led campaign to force the University and all its colleges to pay the living wage. Money was a very big issue amongst all the bedders contacted. There is considerable variation across the colleges in terms of workload and pay. An Emmanuel bedder told me she is now paid £10 extra for cleaning up vomit, when another college had paid £50. But living in Cambridge is so expensive that Leona, a migrant worker, told me that she was in fact worse off here than she had been at home. With generous travel grants and scholarships generally available for students, it’s easy to see why Jill told me that colleges “invest in the wrong things”.


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How do you treat your bedder?

“Because their jobs mean they have to enter our students’ rooms, [bedders] can be the ones to notice signs of distress”

In many ways, the experience of bedders parallels that of academics who are living through the ongoing marketisation of higher education. There is a consensus that work has been getting steadily more intense. Increasingly, the end of term means the start of harder work, as most students leave their colleges and paying guests come in. But the work is by no means bad. Every bedder I spoke to much preferred working with students than with conference guests, and everyone mentioned how much kind notes, Christmas gifts and simply chatting with students brightened up their day. “On a personal level, you see them everyday”, said Suzy. “I miss them when they go.”

*The names of the people who spoke to Varsity have been changed.

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