Yesterday, The Cambridge Student printed a story on the results of the National Student Survey which suggested that 45% of students believe that their workload is unmanageable, and 62% believe that their course applies unnecessary pressure. The response from one student was that ‘Cambridge’s pressure shows we’re getting it right‘, and that ‘If we are students of the university recently billed as producing the most employable graduates on the planet, we should expect to be in a high-stress, perfection-striving [sic] environment’.
The day before, The Cambridge Tab printed another story which told students who were unhappy with the way the University sometimes treated them to ‘get a grip’, because ‘we’re hardly treated like battery hens’. Their argument was that ‘We live in the lap of luxury, in stunning surroundings, we eat our meals in banquet halls. We have what are essentially servants cleaning our rooms and looking out for us.’
This followed on from another article which argued that ‘Cambridge already nannies its students enough’, that most people have positive experiences with welfare, and that in the cases where they don’t it’s usually a result of ‘administrative incompetence rather than colleges deliberately riding roughshod over the students’ best interests.’
Today, a response was published in the Tab which argued in favour of the Whose University? campaign, calling out the other writers for ignoring the strong evidence which suggests that not everyone has a good experience, often due to insufficient welfare provisions and a lack of support for those from less privileged backgrounds. The comments disputed the article, calling the campaign a ‘laundry list of perceived slights and petty grievances’.
If you haven’t spotted the running theme yet, it’s this: Cambridge is a nice place. It is a good university – no, a Great University. Because it is a nice place and a Great University, and in many ways it is a nicer place to go to university than many other universities, you have no right to complain. If you don’t like this – the opulence and the pressure and the 1-to-1 supervisions and the rampant perfectionism and the Harry bloody Potter halls and gowns – then go somewhere else and let someone who actually wants to be at Cambridge have your place. You ungrateful cunt.
I agree that Cambridge is a nice place – it really is. Let’s take a moment to appreciate how pretty Cambridge is with some pretty pictures of Cambridge.
Now that’s done, let’s stop pretending that just because a place is picturesque it can’t have problems. Obviously Cambridge is a fantastic place to go to university, and we’re all incredibly fortunate to be here. We should never forget (though we likely do) that there were a vast number of equally qualified people who wanted the places that we have, and an even larger number of people who were born into circumstances which meant that for them this place was never an option, never even an unachievable dream.
But. And it’s a big but. That doesn’t mean that we should accept unfair treatment where we see it. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t call out cases where colleges and staff have engaged in bullying tactics, intimidation and emotional manipulation. It doesn’t mean that we should just suck it up when students are failed by welfare systems.
‘But the welfare systems at Cambridge are much better than those at any other university!’ goes the argument against me. That may be the case. But as TCS’ article reveals, Cambridge demands a huge amount of its students. We are unquestionably given a much larger burden of work than many of our contemporaries at other universities. The amount of time, effort, sweat and tears required to achieve a decent grade from Cambridge is incredible. Many people I know here say that they would rather have gone to another university where they could have got a first without having to sacrifice any semblance of a social life and, in many cases, a fairly large portion of their mental stability.
When an institution demands extraordinary effort and standards from its students, it must in turn be prepared to provide extraordinary support. Many students who struggle find the support structures in Cambridge incredibly helpful, and doubtless many would not have got through their degrees without them. That’s fantastic, and it’s important to report the positive stories as well as the negative ones because it shows that great support can be provided, and in many cases is provided*.
However, the test of a welfare system’s efficacy and strength is not in the cases where it has succeeded, but in those where it has failed. In my view – and I think this is reasonable – if the support structures in Cambridge are letting down a small but significant number of the most vulnerable students here, sometimes to the point where they are forced to leave and never come back, then the welfare system is not up to scratch. Those students deserve better. It doesn’t matter whether it’s because of administrative failings, or ideology, or just plain ignorance – it can get better, and we should demand that it does.
Mental health and stress are serious issues in Cambridge, as they are in universities around the country. We cannot afford to undermine the efforts of students who speak out on these issues and try to effect positive change just because Cambridge is a nice place, or because the systems here are better than elsewhere, or because many students have had a positive experience. If we are failing the most vulnerable students, we are failing full stop. That has to change.
*This is, incidentally, the mistake I made two years ago when I ran a survey on mental health for the Cambridge Tab. I was angry at a system which I felt had failed me and many others, and so in many ways I sought to prove how bad it was rather than portraying it accurately. I used the most negative stories I could in order to shock people into action, and the University called me out on it accordingly. I wasn’t in a fantastic mental state myself at the time, but I think I may have set back the cause of mental health activism in Cambridge, and for that I can only apologise.