The year abroad is a mandatory part of undergraduate degrees in MML, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, and History & MMLCharley Barnard

Students from private schools typically have an array of extra privileges that prepare them for certain Cambridge courses. Some will have learned Latin ahead of studying Classics, others will have had access to the cultural capital that is helpful for studying History of Art. For courses such as Modern and Medieval Languages (MML), many students from wealthy backgrounds will have had opportunities to travel to countries where the languages they’re studying are spoken, or had private tutors to help their language acquisition.

Given these advantages, it is not surprising that, in 2018, the MML faculty had one of the poorest levels of engagement for students from UK schools maintained by the public sector, at only 61.6%, as compared to a university average of 65%. What is surprising, though, is how little information and support MML students are given on the year abroad process, a compulsory part of any languages degree. Despite sitting through five hours of mandatory meetings and receiving an array of helpful information about my own year abroad, the financial information that I was most eager to learn was not given. There being very little information available on the MML Faculty and Erasmus websites, and questions I had sent to the Year Abroad Office being answered in very little detail often requiring multiple follow-ups in order to get clarification, I was forced to seek it out alone.

We are here. We are a minority, but we must be catered for.

The lack of adequate information and support provided by the MML faculty for students on their mandatory, and undeniably expensive, year abroad cements the class divide evident in admissions and the University more widely. In all of this planning and preparation, essential conversations about finance have been ignored, foregrounding the outdated expectations about the student body that I feel much of the University holds: that all Cambridge students have a certain level of disposable income, and low-income students don’t need to be catered for. Although students from the poorest regions make up only 4.4% of students, and those from the wealthiest make up 52%, we are here. We are a minority, but we must be catered for.

In meetings for MML students that I attended, staff in the Year Abroad Office repeatedly assured students that they would get the same amount of maintenance loan on their year abroad, no matter what kind of placement they did. However, I didn’t discover until I’d completely arranged my year that this wasn’t entirely true: when I called Student Finance England, I was told that if I was working during the year, I would receive half of the amount of maintenance loan offered to those who are studying for the whole year.

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It’s not just finding out information about student finance that was a shock, but Erasmus funding too. It wasn’t mentioned during the planning stage that students would receive less funding if they completed a placement of more than four months. It also wasn’t mentioned that these would only be paid into a UK account, meaning that students miss out on money due to the grant being exchanged twice. There is clearly an array of essential information that is not passed on at the appropriate time, that can only be found out by emailing, or that is simply not given at all. This means that students who have not been able to save, or who haven’t got the financial backing of parents, are left completely unsupported. This is an extra stress on top of the already difficult process of moving alone to a foreign country that I have found has hugely exacerbated my existing mental health problems.

Not everyone has spare cash to cover living costs until an arbitrary date when funding comes in

Outgoing Undergraduate Faculty Rep for MML, Alfie Vaughan, commented that “the Faculty is limited in the support it can offer in terms of helping to finance students’ Year Abroad.” He pointed, however, to the wider issue of colleges failing to support students on their year abroad, that “there is general dissatisfaction from students surrounding the allocation of travel grants, which Colleges will happily allocate towards mini Gap Years, if students can justify it, but won’t provide [...] towards the Year Abroad, a compulsory part of MML & AMES.”

Vaughan is hopeful that changes will be implemented in the coming years. He added, “finance is an important concern for all students that up until now seems to be glossed over.”

I believe that the MML faculty’s year abroad process is ignorant to the needs of students from unconventional and low-income backgrounds, and more effort needs to be made to plug this gap. There is an expectation that colleges will be able to pick up the slack, but little acknowledgement that college support can be a lottery. Poorer students are being let down across the board, demonstrating that this institution is simply not used to having to cater to these backgrounds. Although this is not surprising given the class make-up of MML, and Cambridge in general, it cannot be an excuse.


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Class officers are essential if access is to go beyond admissions

The faculty needs to make itself aware of these restrictions to finance for year abroad students, and candidly pass on useful information — like when to expect Erasmus funding or that we can apply for maintenance loan payments to start in August rather than September — to all of us, but especially those from lower-income backgrounds. We plan and make decisions based on finances, and not everyone has spare cash to spend covering living costs while we wait for an arbitrary date when our funding will start or costs will be backdated.

All of this serves to demonstrate that Cambridge is still not a place that is built for students like me: students who scrimp and save and work during every vacation; students who don’t have families, or whose families aren’t in a position to help them out. We can get as many low-income kids into Cambridge as we like, but until our needs are met by faculties such as MML, we will always be at a disadvantage. This is no longer an old boys’ club, and the faculties can no longer get away with only catering to the majority. It’s time they caught up.

  • In a written statement, a University spokesperson said “students undertaking Year Abroad placements as part of their MML studies receive finance information and advice at a series of meetings in their first and second year, and through course literature. [...] Only once [Erasmus annual] funding has been approved can the exact amount students will receive be confirmed and this is communicated as soon as possible. Erasmus funding is limited and does not usually cover all planned activity which means students may not receive a grant to cover every month of their placement.”

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