Eimear Ní Chathail is a fourth-year at MagdaleneRosie Bradbury

“I do understand that people can make mistakes in their job, but I do think it is a bit unacceptable to have mistakes be so easily made when it affects the student so much.”

Several students have spoken to Varsity about their experiences with delays and logistical complications in receiving financial support, and have criticised the suggestion by some college development offices that students write thank you notes thanking donors.

Eimear Ní Chathail, an Irish student at Magdalene College, told Varsity about the logistical difficulties she faced when trying to receive her bursary. She receives a scholarship from the Irish government, but on the condition that the College sends a letter of confirmation that she is coming back to study each year and has passed her exams.

“They never, ever send it back until I literally show up at their door.” She explained that this year, when she rang the College to remind them to confirm that she would be returning, they had lost the letter from the Irish government, and it was up to her to get another one. This meant that she did not receive her bursary until early November, as opposed to the beginning of October.

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She also faced a delay in the bursary she receives from the College. While they did delay the deadline for her college bill, “the combination, this year, of them [not sending the letter of confirmation to the Irish government], and the fact that the bursary they were giving me was delayed, meant that I had no money until last Friday.”

“They sent me a letter saying my bursary was coming, they emailed me saying I had to provide them with information to get my bursary, which I provided, and then they never told me my bursary wasn’t coming.

“They did not not seem particularly organised in that respect.”

Steven Morris, the bursar at Magdalene, explained that the college had been facing technical issues with their SLC system, which caused some students to not receive their bursaries on time.

“All students have been given an apology and will be given temporary financial support by the College to avoid further delay and until the issues are resolved with the SLC,” he explained.

A Downing student similarly stressed that the urgency of these situations can often be ignored by colleges. When her laptop broke, she went to the college for financial help, as she was already on the maximum student loan and Cambridge bursary. She was given additional funds, but made to fill out a “sort of thank-you form to donors”, which made her feel “a little degraded”.

Later, she was owed money as reimbursement by her College for having spent her own money on a theatre production. She did not receive the money until two terms later.

She explained that the onus was put on her to chase the college up for the money. “Eventually I went to [a member of senior college staff] because I hoped to find some sort of sympathy and awareness that I was only asking her for help because I really needed her to use her position to move things along, but instead she was quite cold and didn’t make an apology”, she explained.

“I had to beg the [college] to make an exception for me and put the £100 in my bank account because I was running out of money for food, and [they] made it seem like I was being very inconvenient.”

Another Downing student, Eleanor Hayes, explained that her College had tried to make it a “condition” of receiving any hardship funds that the students in receipt must write a letter of thanks to the donors.

Ever since Hayes’ mother, her sole carer, lost her job in between her first and second year, she has been reliant on the College’s hardship fund, as well as the government loan and the Cambridge bursary.

Writing to the students, the College encouraged these thank you letters because it was “very motivating for donors to understand the difference that their gift has made to individuals and by providing this information you may be indirectly helping future students.”

Hayes pointed out that the language changed over the course of her study, with the language of it being a “condition” only appearing in her second year. She challenged this in an email sent to those who had sent her the original request, and her tutor and senior tutor.

“I explained that it would be very stressful for me to write a thank you letter, like, thank you for letting me survive.”

CUSU Education Officer Matt Kite said, “[there] needs to be an open conversation about [the practice of asking for thank you notes] and the impact it has, joining up the people who are asking for these letters to be written and those who know about student experience”.

Rhiannon Melliar-Smith, a finalist at Trinity Hall, argued that writing notes of thanks should be reserved for specific grants, and not asked of students for the Cambridge bursary. She added that she understood the University and College may each sponsor half for the bursary, but that would mean “some students have to thank various grants for the Cambridge bursaries and others don’t, depending [on] where the college finds the money from”.

“It does make people feel unwelcome, that you have to beg for money and then show how grateful you are for it”

According to Kite, the chair of Cambridge’s Senior Tutor’s Committee wrote to college development directors last month to remind that students should not be asked to write thank you letters for the Cambridge bursary.

Melliar-Smith commented that being asked to thank donors for bursaries is “a bit patronising”, since bursaries provide “the bare minimum for the quality of life you should have as a student” and is not something one actively applies for.

“[It] makes poor students feel like burdens”, she added.

Melliar-Smith pointed out that she got £350 when she got a first at the end of the year. “They clearly have money, but it’s just in different funds”, she said.

A spokesperson for Trinity Hall told Varsity that the college “has a reasonable provision of funding available to assist students experiencing financial hardship”, adding that “nearly all College funds are administered through the Benn Bursary Committee, which meets termly to address cases of unforeseen, accrued hardship”, declining to comment on individual cases.

As Downing’s access officer, Hayes pointed out that she helps students in financial difficulty without writing thank you notes, saying: “I don’t need to feel the pressure of indirectly helping future students through my own emotional labour.”

“Coming from the background I come from I want to help, but I want that choice to be mine, I don’t want to feel like it’s my fault if disadvantaged students don’t get here because they don’t have the money to get here – that’s your job, you get paid to do that job”.

Dr Guy Williams, the Senior Tutor at Downing, told Varsity that it was indeed not the University’s policy for students to be required to write a letter of thanks to the donors. He added that no students were sanctioned for not writing a letter of thanks.

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Meg Gibson, also an access officer at Downing, explained that the administration of receiving hardship grants was also an issue for many students. Every time students need to receive money, they are required to fill out a physical form.

“You shouldn’t have to keep filling out the form, college knows your circumstances”, she said, “especially when it can be difficult reaching out in the first place.”

She added that students can often be left waiting for money during the administrative process. “Some people have had difficulties where they’ve submitted a hardship form to a tutor and the tutor hasn’t submitted it on time, which delays them getting their money ... it shouldn’t be dependent on things like that.”

In August, Varsity revealed that Cambridge’s Senior Tutor’s Committee is considering to cover all tuition and living expenses for the University’s poorest students in the form of “debt-free” studentships.

Alongside major proposals for increased financial support, a University Bursary task force also examined expanding the Barnard Scheme – a “supplementary” support scheme being developed at Trinity – to be rolled out across all undergraduate colleges.

Hayes explained the issue as one of a gap between college institutional structures and the individuals who work there. She explained that her tutor, for example, has always been supportive, and the bursar was willing to split her college bill so that she could make the payments more easily.


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“There’s a massive disparity in college between individuals and their opinions, and the actual system of doing it”, she said.

However, she added that some of those working at the college were not supportive of her financial situation: “In conversations I’ve had where I’ve suggested I wouldn’t be able to study unless I have this money, I was told that that’s the way life works”.

“It does make people feel unwelcome, that you have to beg for money and then show how grateful you are for it.”

Do you have a story to tell about your experience with college bursaries and hardship funding? Get in touch: news@varsity.co.uk

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