Cambridge University students told to “ditch the gown” before going out

Michael Yoganayagam – Associate News Editor 7 August 2012

A video produced for prospective freshers by Cambridge University has advised students to “ditch the gown and the tux” after swaps and formal dinners before heading into Cambridge for a night out to avoid becoming an “easy target” for aggression or violence from Cambridge residents.

The University has stressed that the video is simply meant as helpful advice for students starting university, especially international students “less familiar with the British drinking culture”.

Some however think the advice exaggerates the extent of ‘town vs. gown’ antagonism, and have criticised the advice as “paternalistic”, “patronising” and “over the top”.

The video, presented by Queens’ College JCR Freshers’ Rep Laura Jayne Ayres and fellow Queens’ student Liv Emden, contains the following advice for students: “Ditch the gown and the tux before you head out on the town. That way you won’t stand out as such an easy target later in the night. And if you’re still feeling threatened, head to any porters’ lodge.”

The video also warns students against over-drinking, and advises drinking plenty of water, walking home in a group, keeping cash to a minimum and storing taxi numbers in mobile phones.

In February last year, The Cambridge Student reported that five students at Downing College were attacked by four men in The Fez nightclub after going out in dinner suits following their college’s halfway hall dinner (see report on Pages 1 & 6 in TCS Lent 2011). One victim, Dan Addis, who was punched in the face on the Fez dancefloor, said: “It was clear that the aggressors were going for people in dress shirts”.

In all, three students were hospitalised. James Green, at the time in his second year reading Economics, suffered the most serious injuries, fracturing his cheekbone and eye-socket.

The video, entitled Cambridge Stay Safe On A Night Out, was commissioned by the University Senior Tutors’ Committee, which is chaired by the Vice-Chancellor. A University spokesman confirmed that reports in The Telegraph newspaper today that the video was commissioned by Sidney Sussex College are incorrect. While it was agreed that Sidney Sussex would arrange the production with the film company and coordinate with the Police, the City Council and other Cambridge institutions, the video itself is a University project.

The four-minute film, produced in conjunction with Cambridge Business Against Crime (Cambac), also contains segments from Dr Adrian Boyle from Addenbrooke’s Hospital A&E, George Bhangoo, manager of Nusha Bar near Cambridge station, and Chief Inspector Neil Sloan, Cambridge City Safer neighbourhood manager for Cambridgeshire Police.

The video was produced for the University by West Yorkshire-based film company Campuslife, at a total cost of £3,000. Ten colleges have so far confirmed that they wish to make use of the video for their own Fresher induction programmes. More colleges are expected to sign up once the final version is presented to them. The hope is then for the cost of the video to be shared out among all participating colleges, a University spokesman confirmed.

It was intended that participating colleges would send their own specific, branded versions of the video to freshers starting this October, complete with college-specific information, once A-level results are released later this month. Many colleges are also planning to include the video in their induction programmes during Freshers’ Week.

However, in an apparent blunder by the film company, a generic, unfinished version was uploaded to YouTube in July without, it seems, the express authorisation of the University. A University spokesman admitted, “The video is still in production and was posted on Youtube in error. It has since been removed as there is still work to do.”

The video’s advice to “ditch the gown and the tux” has been criticised by City Councillor Colin Rosenstiel as excessively “paternalistic”. Rosenstiel said: “It does seem slightly patronising and a little over the top… I would expect students to discuss this sort of thing with their peers to work out for themselves what is appropriate.”

Rosenstiel, who represents Market Ward which includes many of the central Cambridge colleges, cited the experiences of his own daughter, currently a Cambridge University student, and described the idea of Cambridge residents attacking students wearing formal attire as “a silly scare story”. He told TCS, “People wanting to pick a fight will find any excuse,” and added: “Relations between residents and the University have never been better.”

Speaking to The Telegraph, Keith Willox, Domus Bursar at Sidney Sussex, said: “It is a tradition for students to go to dinners at other colleges, known as swaps, and they have to be formally attired.

“It has been known for students to go directly to nightclubs in the city after such dinners without getting changed which has the potential to create a tension that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

“What this video does is point out that it is not sensible for students to make themselves a target. It is just one aspect of lots of advice in the video.”

A University spokesman said he was unaware of any specific incidents of students being attacked or abused due to their attire, confirming: “The advice to ditch the ‘gown and tux’ was provided by Cambridge Business Against Crime, an organisation that includes Police and managers from Cambridge pubs and clubs.

“This advice was not included in response to specific events but as part of a package of general advice on ensuring a safe night out.”

An earlier University statement read: “When going out on the town, it is sound police advice that people don’t provoke reactions from non-university people. Town and gown relations are very good but there are incidents at night when it would be safer to blend in. It is the sort of advice that has been given to students for many years.”

A Cambridgeshire Police spokesman was unable to give any statistics about attacks on students or any details on why they occurred.

He issued the following statement: “Cambridge is no worse for assaults and alcohol-related violence than any other city of its size with a university. This is simply safety advice that any university could give.”

Michael Yoganayagam – Associate News Editor