"We often forget that we can create change most effectively by rallying our colleges"Image: Simon Lock

I love my college. Actually, I think my college is the best college. The grounds, the colours, the bar, even Plodge. But everyone I know in Cambridge will say the same things about their college – we all feel an unconquerable amount of pride. We all race to check whether our college has come up decently in Camfess rankings, argue with our out-of-college friends about the benefits of our own, and hype every redeeming quality up ten-fold on open days to prospective students.

Although my criticisms of the University often overshadow the issues I have on a college-level, it sometimes feels wrong to be so proud of my college when Cambridge is so flawed – in access, in student support, and in its attitude towards the environment. Sometimes, it feels false to tell students to pick a college that still asks bursary recipients to send thank you cards, and has indirect investments in unethical corporations. Only last year, for example, it was revealed that seven Cambridge colleges still had a total of £20.7m invested in companies engaged in oil and gas exploration, production and refining.

Many colleges, often under pressure from their students, are finally making beneficial changes

When bragging about how rich our colleges are, it’s sobering to remember that their money isn’t always being used for good. Instead, the competitive Cambridge culture that torments so many students is literally encouraged by colleges that still offer monetary rewards and higher places in room ballots in exchange for exceptionally good grades. It tears our mental health to pieces, but we feel bad asking for help because everyone else seems to also just be staying afloat.

Much of the time, we criticise University-wide institutions like the University Counselling Service (UCS), forgetting that our colleges could – and should – be doing more to help their students on a college-level. 

Often, we forget that we can create change most effectively by rallying our colleges. We rightly criticise the toxic environment Cambridge’s competitive culture often cultivates – it is, indeed, absolutely ridiculous that some of the country’s brightest students don’t feel at home in a room full of clever people – but we would do well to make changes at the collegiate level.

Indeed, there are an increasing number of things to be proud of on this level. Many colleges, often under pressure from their students, are finally making beneficial changes. For example, so far, Clare Hall, Selwyn and Downing colleges have committed to divestment in some form. My college, Jesus, recently did the same – most likely in response to the student-run Jesus Divestment Campaign set up earlier in the year. We also just welcomed our new master, Sonita Alleyne, who is the first black person and the first woman of colour, to be appointed head of an Oxbridge college.

But for many students, it can be a struggle to feel at home in their college, and where you are admitted can have a significant impact on this. The traditions, varying across colleges, can feel stuffy, especially to those from under-represented backgrounds. For instance, this year, 68% of incoming freshers to the University are from state schools, a figure that is increasing slowly but steadily, year on year. To echo the University, this is “deeply encouraging” – it is something to be proud of. But this varies largely across colleges. For example, St John’s saw the lowest state school intake in the 2017 admissions cycle – where only 48.6% of students were state-schooled – and Churcill saw the highest at 76.5%.


Mountain View

Beef or no beef, Cambridge can’t call itself sustainable if divestment is still off the cards

These differences persist in terms of academics. Supervisions are largely organised by college, which results in big variations – when your reading list is full of men, as a woman you can often feel a sense of unbelonging. 

It’s a different kind of impostor syndrome, but impostor syndrome all the same, and we criticise the lofty University for making us feel this way, when some of the most impactful changes are made on a college-level. Indeed, when we live, eat and sleep in colleges, it is their responsibility to make us feel at home.

Sometimes it feels like Oxbridge, though supposedly full of the nation’s brightest minds and future leaders, is decades behind the rest of the country. Sonita Alleyne shouldn’t be the first black head of an Oxbridge college – that should have happened years ago. 

There’s a lot wrong with Cambridge. Your experience is defined, often more so than any other factor, by the college you attend. With more applications being made to Cambridge every year, now is the perfect time to be making changes. And it finally feels like, to some extent – and even if the University isn’t – some colleges are starting to listen.