Downing College intended to restrict the accommodation available to current second-years in the ballotLucas Chebib

Downing College has abandoned planned changes to the College’s accommodation policy after a strong backlash from the student body.

In an email sent to undergraduate students last Saturday, it was announced that students graduating in 2018 (current second-years) would only be able to choose from a restricted selection of rooms.

It has since transpired that this proposal had previously been agreed to by a former JCR committee, who neglected to inform the incoming committee of the discussions during the JCR handover earlier this term.

Rooms are chosen according to a balloting system, which determines the order in which students can choose their room. Students can choose to ballot in a syndicate, meaning that groups of friends can be placed next to each other in the ballot and as a result choose rooms close together. The vast majority of rooms, in both staircases and houses on Lensfield Road belonging to the College, are open to selection by any student in second year or above, apart from a section of accommodation reserved for fourth-year students.

The email, from the College’s outgoing JCR President Tom Meadows, stated that the College had changed their accommodation policy as a result of past Graduation Weeks, when graduation ceremonies take place for students at the end of their degree, usually around late June.

During this time, graduating students are permitted to stay on in their college rooms, but other rooms are used to host incoming summer school students. This arrangement resulted in graduands becoming “dispersed” among the summer school students. It was hoped that, by concentrating third-year students in particular accommodation areas, Graduation Week would become “more enjoyable and coherent as a community.”

But 96 per cent of respondents to a survey circulated amongst undergraduates reported that they disagreed with the new policy. An ‘Extraordinary Meeting’ of the JCR was held on Saturday evening, to which all members were invited to attend as observers and contribute their opinions.

During the meeting, students complained that the allocation of certain houses which had previously been popular among second-years exclusively to third-years would separate students from their friends. Concerns were also raised about the impact of segregating first- and second-year students.

It was also argued that the College was disadvantaging students experiencing financial difficulties, or who needed a long-lease room, particularly given the very narrow range of rooms reserved for third-years.

The JCR voted to oppose the changes, and an open letter was sent to the Senior Tutor on Sunday, detailing the concerns about the proposals and calling for the changes to be withdrawn.

However, the JCR announced to the student body on Monday afternoon that the College had elected to abandon the changes after meeting with JCR members. Citing communications between successive JCR committees which “have not been effective,” the College were said to have been “fully sympathetic” to students’ concerns.

Incoming JCR President Sofiya Gatens emailed undergraduates, explaining that the controversy had come about as a result of a miscommunication between the College and successive JCR committees, and promising that future JCRs would be obliged to pass on such information to their successors and to consult the student body on important issues.

Rob Beardwell, Assistant Bursar at Downing College, told Varsity that “the College takes a transparent approach to the allocation of student rooms, with the students themselves deciding the method by which occupation is assigned. Annual discussions with student representatives cover all aspects of College accommodation including stock, allocation, costs and charges.” He added: “Our students are always the College’s first priority. Our business activities are only undertaken in order to provide income to support our academic mission.”

First-year Geography student Lauren Donaldson explained to Varsity why she was pleased that the changes had been revoked: “One of the best things about Downing is how integrated the different year groups are in college. However, I worry this may have been under threat with the new system denying students the chance to live with those in other year groups.”

Fergus O’Dowd, a second-year Linguist, told Varsity that he had been fearful of the “very serious consequences” the changes could have wrought for students at the bottom of the ballot, who could have been forced to choose more costly accommodation because of the uneven distribution of cheaper accommodation between the year groups. He also expressed his frustration with the communication difficulties between students, the College and successive JCR committees, “which makes the whole affair needlessly hostile.”