There are many myths about the University of Cambridge (and indeed Oxford), based on historical misinformation, literature and a general feeling that it is ‘different’ from the rest of the world. Novels like Brideshead Revisited – admittedly referring to Oxford rather than Cambridge, but we are generally lumped together – must have something to do with this. The constant drip feed of messages implying the University is stuffed full of toffs, the élite, champagne parties and out-of-touch dons with which some of the newspapers like to feed the public is singularly unhelpful. Hard evidence, as 2016 has shown all too clearly, is not necessarily the basis for decision-making by anyone these days. Indeed, hard evidence may not even be sought by those beginning to consider their future studies (and their parents), although there is plenty of it out there; the myths may put them off before they start digging out the facts.
It was refreshing therefore to see, admittedly Cambridge’s own local paper, highlighting the fact that the University is actually not that expensive. Given how costly housing in the city itself is (as many university employees find to their literal cost), it is encouraging to see that for students Cambridge actually ranks way down the university pecking order for cost of living (38th according to the analysis). Reading the article many questions are begged, of course, since the actual costs will depend on College not to mention life style. Nevertheless, in a case like this, the headline message is perhaps the most important: you do not have to be a swanky toff with well-heeled parents to be able to afford to come to Cambridge University. If the belief that those from modest backgrounds cannot financially survive here could be eradicated once and for all, it could only be of advantage to both the potential applicants who are deterred and the university who could benefit from their talent.
Churchill College is proud of the fact that, with the opening this autumn of our new undergraduate accommodation block Cowan Court (accommodation that is already catching the architectural profession’s eyes), all undergraduates are promised accommodation on the main site throughout their course. Many colleges can provide college accommodation for their undergraduates, but the distinction here (possibly unique for Cambridge, although I can’t swear to that) is that what we provide is not in distant hostels but on the campus of the main College. The furthest room is only a couple of minutes’ walk from the Porters’ Lodge and Hall, the Buttery (aka the bar) and all their friends.
The newspaper report is also proud of the fact that Cambridge is actually considerably cheaper for students than Oxford. As it says:
Students at the University of Cambridge are forking out thousands of pounds less a year than those studying at the University of Oxford, new research has found.
That difference in price is in large part down to the cost of accommodation – which is in turn is down to the rents that Colleges choose to charge (using endowment and other income to keep this low – or not), but also to what might be thought of as more frivolous activities which are less easy to unravel, as it goes on to spell out.
However Oxford halls of residence cost students £568 a month compared to Cambridge’s £433, while in Oxford students spend on average £182 a month socialising, while in Cambridge the figure is £95.
Fashion conscious Oxford students are said to be buying clothes at £182 a month, dwarfing the Cambridge student spend of just £30.
If our students choose to buy their fashion in discount stores and drink less, I don’t see that as a problem, but it is a very curious gap between Cambridge and Oxford. It all goes to show that assuming we are the same is as unwise as believing many of the other myths that abound.
Churchill has a proud record of admitting students from the state sector, and with all the energy and investment it puts in to supporting all students who come here – support such as a part-time Counsellor and a nurse, a superb Tutorial system and now (as I said) providing accommodation on site for all. Newspapers that so often propagate outdated and incorrect messages counter to the reality are infuriating. The media are believed too easily and the facts available on websites are overlooked. All colleges work hard to address pupils’ concerns through visits and open days, but a family that has imbibed the negative messages early on will probably not listen or visit. Even a simple story reminding readers that Cambridge is not out of their reach financially, and indeed is significantly cheaper than many other universities whose image may indirectly imply the opposite, is to be welcomed.