Cambridge needs to stop mollycoddling its students

Elsa Maishman 15 May 2015

University. It’s meant to be that stepping stone between the cosy comfort of school, with registered attendance, structured lessons and days that actually finished at 3:45pm, and the shark-infested cesspool that is the world of work, where any facade of comfort and security goes out the window, with drinking on a weekday and, (if you live in London) most of your money. But is it? Does the university treat us like what we are i.e. legal adults, fully in charge of our own mental faculties? Or does it in fact totally infantilise us and leave us unprepared for life beyond the plodge?

In some ways, Cambridge does treat us like adults. It has no qualms with charging us exorbitant prices for tiny box rooms which you have to vacate every eight weeks, thoroughly preparing us for the reality that no one of our generation will buy a house before the age of 45. It also heaps enough pressure on us to perfectly prepare anyone for a career in lion-taming or bomb disposal. But in other ways, especially with regard to basic practical skills, it treats us all like blithering idiots. Change a light bulb? Don’t you dare! You must instead be condemned to the semi-gloom and an over-reliance on that one hour a day your room gets sunlight. Plug in your own kitchen equipment? Heavens no! According to most colleges' fire safety requirements, you shouldn’t be plugging in hairdryers or straighteners, let alone deadly devices such as microwaves or toasters.

Students are not trusted with even the most basic tasks, instead told that we must contact maintenance or housekeeping. Personally, I think maintenance have better things to do than come and bleed my radiator four times a year because I’m not entrusted with the bleeding key. After a month of poor performance, I emailed my college to ask whether the shower-head was suitable for descaling. Instead of being congratulated on my initiative, I was chastised for my suggestion and told to contact the Lady Superintendent, which involved a week’s delay and immense frustration instead of 15 minutes and a packet of Oust.

Why are we surprised when we leave university lacking even the most fundamental skills? People are shocked at graduates from prestigious universities who have no clue how to cook even basic meals that don’t involve a microwave. With exorbitant kitchen fees and pathetic gyp rooms, the vast majority lacking an oven and some even a hob, it’s no surprise that we are forced into the monopoly of the buttery system, which, though perhaps better for the college, means that some people graduate not knowing how to use a can-opener. Lack of freezers prohibit any attempts at realistic budgeting or meal planning: who wants to eat chilli for three days in a row? Communal washing machines with only two settings are the norm: god forbid you be befuddled by 12 options, some of which might actually get your clothes clean. As for knowing how to manage your own work-life balance, forget it! Rules that mean you can’t receive a degree if you haven’t been in college the requisite time, chastising from tutors if you have the audacity to take a weekend at home: has it never been considered that you can be just as unproductive and neglectful of your studies while in Cambridge?

This seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: the University treats us as incapable of performing practical tasks, and so we are denied the chance of practice. Living in a shared house, there was a full month during which I was the only person who ever remembered to put out the wheelie bin. Rooms without bedders have a tendency to descend into a state of squalor, despite the provision of a hoover (all the way downstairs!). Bins go unemptied when left to their own devices, shared kitchens in various of states of chaos between bedder visits, rampant food poisoning erupts after any attempts to cook for oneself, ironing becomes a dim and distant memory. And is it even the college’s job to facilitate these skills: shouldn’t parents do that before you even leave home?

University is meant to be a time of exploration and experimentation, and I think the failure of colleges to allow growth of practical and life skills is a severe problem. After all, wouldn’t it be better if maintenance didn’t have to be called for trivial issues (but always with the security of their back-up if necessary)? You can understand some of their reluctance: no one wants rampant fire risks as a result of student ‘experiences’. However, I feel like a little less mollycoddling and a bit more leeway for skills such as cooking and washing would prepare students so much better for the real world out there: university doesn’t last forever.