"Over two thirds of UK students partake in part-time work to afford living costs," but this is discouraged in CambridgeGabrielle Brucciani

In 2018, CUSU's Big Cambridge Survey revealed that 45% of students from families in receipt of low-income benefits found the extra costs and charges from their college to be problematic. One student said that "The ridiculously high fees and costs of living for Cambridge are extremely limiting when you do not have any or a very limited parental financial support, and when you do not have any funding help from the University either."

Higher-earning parents are expected to contribute more to students’ living costs, but this fails to consider how many people are living off a household income, or whether families can afford this extra contribution, leaving many students in difficulty. In 2018, The Mirror also highlighted the implicit expectation that parents plug the gap between maintenance loans and living costs, and how many are unaware, unwilling or unable to do so. This is a national crisis that the University of Cambridge, despite its many claims about being equal and accessible, systematically fails to address.

Before arriving at university, I was sent numerous forms, one of which was titled ‘Financial Undertaking’. It outlined how much maintenance costs would be over the year and asked for confirmation that my family could afford the eye-watering costs of me living in Cambridge. Panicked, and having read and re-read the form, we signed it. If there was an option to not sign it or get extra funding, this was unclear – ultimately, we all thought that no signature meant no Cambridge. Besides, with my maintenance loan, a bit of help from my grandparents and my holiday job, we thought that it would be just about OK.

Well-meaning as some tutors or staff can be, the University is out of touch with what student life is really like

This is a familiar scenario for many students: according to Endsleigh, in 2015, 77% of UK students partook in part-time work to afford living costs. I knew that Cambridge didn’t allow their students to work, but I thought this was only during term time. However, according to my tutor, I’m also expected to devote my entire holidays to my academic work. When I told him that I couldn’t afford my living costs if I didn’t work, I was told to apply for a college grant. When I did, it was refused on the grounds that, with my job, I broke even and that I had signed the Financial Undertaking before arriving.

I was being told not to work because it would impact my studies but also that I couldn’t receive any financial aid because I was working. I applied again, a year later, when my sister started university (meaning more outgoings for my family), but was refused again. Whilst all of this was going on, my grades and mental health were suffering, and I felt powerless to do anything about it.

Unfortunately, this is all too familiar: it is normal for students to be on a budget and to have limited funds. What is not normal is the stress and pressure that the University places on its students because of this. The Natwest Student Living Index revealed that Cambridge was found to be the most stressful university in the UK, with 60% of its students rating its stressfulness as 8-10 out of 10.

Of course, a lot of this is academic pressure, but finances add to the burden: term time either becomes more full-on as the vacation is spent earning, or it’s a case of constantly watching the purse strings so as to avoid having to work. The Cambridge culture of regular formals, expensive coffee shops, swaps, or simple things like buying gowns, is hardly helpful for students on a budget and risks leaving them isolated.

Well-meaning as some tutors or staff can be, the University is out of touch with what student life is really like for its average student. My tutor, for example, suggested that I try and get a vacation job that would “look better on my CV”. I needed something that I could count on being there when I went back, not an unguaranteed, one-off week here and there, regardless of the points on my CV.

Some subjects suffer more than others, such as languages students who have to live abroad full-time and for whom support (especially outside of the EU) is minimal, or Medics and Vet-Meds who have to undertake long vacation placements. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.


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The fact that the University tailors its courses and their content with the assumption that students will have free vacations to dedicate to their course is simply wrong. The availability of grants and bursaries in addition to government support is undeniably praiseworthy. However, the University shouldn’t rely on these to justify a workload or an attitude to education that is unsustainable for the average student.

Cambridge is slowly making efforts to expand the bursary scheme to better support those in the ‘squeezed middle’, to eliminate disparities in financial provision across colleges to cover students’ maintenance costs such as rent and food. But any changes go through a lengthy decision-making process and several committees, while students are left to fend for themselves. Varsity also reported several cases of students facing significant delays in receiving their college hardship funds last year.

If Cambridge is pretentious enough to forbid its students from working, then they should ensure that this is possible for every student and not just when it suits them. To do otherwise is to perpetuate elitist and restrictive access to education.

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