'From the moment we get our offer, Varsity Ski reps are telling us all about about this incredible opportunity.'Paul Sableman

We have an access problem. 80% of Cambridge students come from the most advantaged areas in the country, while only 11.5% come from the least. The middle and upper classes are hugely over-represented here, and while much is being done by access initiatives to get more working-class people into the University, for the students who are currently here, the culture surrounding money, spending and class can be hugely alienating.

The way in which Varsity Ski is discussed and promoted at Cambridge is the perfect example of a wider Cambridge culture which assumes wealth and alienates and excludes those who don’t have it. From the moment we get our offer, Varsity Ski reps are telling us all about about this incredible opportunity. I remember the trip being discussed on my freshers’ group chat before I had even arrived: “Who’s going on the ski trip?!” someone asked excitedly. Despite never having had an interest in skiing, I felt that it was expected of me to go, that I was expected to have the same sort of wealth as 80% of the students here. “I’m considering it!” I found myself typing. I knew I’d never be able to consider it in a hundred years.

“If working-class students want to feel that they are getting the full Cambridge experience, they have to assimilate to a middle and upper class way of living”

The pressure to fit in is astounding and ever more heightened by the sense of imposter syndrome for students from backgrounds which have been traditionally excluded from the Cambridge landscape. Money seems to be spent readily on events for which the details haven’t even been confirmed: £15 for a formal with an unknown menu, £150 for a May Ball with a line-up yet to be released. If working-class students want to feel that they are getting the full Cambridge experience, they have to assimilate to a middle and upper class way of living - this isn’t always possible when it equates to a middle and upper class way of spending.

Working-class students must play social catch up, and the cost to do so more often than not comes out of our own pockets rather than those of our parents. “Only £379!” cry the varsity freshers reps who, whether consciously or not, are appealing to the need to fit in no doubt already felt by freshers. “It’s the cheapest ski trip you’ll find!” But let’s be realistic: Varsity Ski is only cheap if you have all the equipment and have been skiing before, a privilege only afforded to those from advantaged backgrounds whose parents have been able to pay for this. For those without the kit and experience, you’re looking at a figure which exceeds £600, the burden of which falls entirely on us.

But, thanks to Cambridge’s generous bursary system, students from disadvantaged backgrounds can afford everything that Cambridge has to offer. At least, that’s what we are told by many of our peers time and time again as they demonstrate their complete lack of understanding of what life is like for us. Yes, we get more bursaries, but the £3500 we get from the University each year isn’t just fun money. It is spent on groceries, the rent some of us have to pay over the breaks because we have no home to go back to, emergency savings for when our ageing laptops eventually give up on us. People on the bursaries send money back to their families because their parents are struggling to make ends meet, or save the extra few hundred to pay for an eventual masters that parents will never be able to fund. Part of the working-class existence is agonising over spending decisions like these, something that those who have never had to scrabble to make ends meet simply do not seem to understand.

Choosing to go on Varsity Ski does not make you a bad person. But the more privileged among us need to become more conscious of the fact that, as unbelievable as it may seem, some students are made to feel even more excluded by its existence. Sat in a lecture the day the Varsity Ski tickets were released and overhearing conversations about the trip made me feel like the only working-class person in the room. It was incredibly alienating.

“Are you going on Varsity Ski?” One girl asked.

“Yes, but they’d run out of tier one by the time I got online, so I had to go for standard tier instead,” another replied.

“Oh no!”

“It’s okay, it’ll be an adventure!”

“Does that mean you’ll have to get the coach?”

“Yeah.”

“Wow, brave girl.”


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Some of us live our lives in the metaphorical standard or substandard tiers. Tier one is not the norm, but to the majority of people I live and study with, it is. What does it say about our university that students do not recognise their privilege enough to see that being able to afford to go on a ski trip at all puts them in amongst the very few for whom this is even an option, and that having to downgrade to a coach from a plane is not even slightly brave.

If writing this article achieves anything, I want it to make students aware that they share their university with people from vastly different backgrounds, with vastly different experiences. However, I fear that at present we are a long way away from even a simple, reflective recognition of privilege.

This problem will not be solved until access issues are solved, and there is equal representation of students from all backgrounds. This university needs to be as much ours as it is theirs.

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