DEBATE: Should we continue to lie to Cambridge’s hopefuls?

Ashley Chhibber and Sam Rhodes 23 January 2015

YES: Sam Rhodes

On an access tour there is always time for questions. This can go one of two ways; either the fruits of your labour pay off, and a room full of energised teenagers make their teachers proud, or it’s a fifteen minute awkward silence filled only with your encouraging smile. However, the awfulness of this silence pales in comparison to any of the dreaded questions that no access officer really wants to answer.

Is there good pastoral support? Do you get many people from a range of backgrounds? How do you find time for socialising and working? In these situations, even the best case scenario is a lie of omission. I’m lucky enough to do an arts degree which affords me time to do all kinds of other things, but if I’m asked about extra-curricular activities by someone in a room full of proto-medics, that’s almost entirely irrelevant. I know just as well as any other student that they’ll be worked harder than they ever have been before, probably harder than they ever thought possible- if they get in. In this case, I think an optimistic but honest answer is possible. When it comes to questions about personal experiences, however, the right thing to do is altogether murkier.

Whenever anyone does an access tour, they’re doing more than speaking as themselves. They’re representing their college and their university, and to put a personal grudge or bad experience before that is selfishness of the highest order. I may well feel abandoned by college, but bringing those feelings into a room full of students who in all likelihood will not be applying to university, never mind Oxbridge, is entirely wrong. Many people speak of the confidence that independent schools give as the key reason for the disproportionate application rate. Access events provide a chance to spread some confidence around, although perhaps those already getting an overly rosy view of Cambridge from their school would benefit from a more realistic approach.

What must also be remembered is the sad fact that our success rate is atrocious- access officers and admissions tutors speak to tens of thousands of schoolchildren each year. Of course there are a few success stories, but there is a greater and longer lasting good that can be achieved. The most serious problem facing access at Oxbridge is our reputation amongst the wider world- the teachers and parents with a grudge, the newspapers with an agenda, and the young people who listen to both. By showing students not just what Oxbridge is, but what it can be at its best, we fight all three. There are more than enough people in the world intent on denigrating Cambridge, and even more who are intent on telling prospective students and the general public that it’s too hard for ‘people like them’. I see no reason why access officers should join in.

I would never tell anyone helping in an access event that they have to lie. But I’d urge anyone to think incredibly carefully before telling a schoolchild from an under-represented background that Cambridge is an inhospitable place. The best case scenario is yes, they apply anyway, get in, and perhaps slightly better prepared should their experience at Cambridge happen to be negative. However, the worst is that we lose yet another bright person to the awful stereotypes and snobbery that have already prevented so many from reaching their full potential. Perhaps if all those people had applied, we wouldn’t have to lie. It may sound utopian, but what’s the point of access if you don’t think things can change?


NO: Ashley Chhibber

Last week, The Cambridge Student revealed that 45% of Cambridge finalists felt their workload was unmanageable, and 62% felt their course applied too much pressure, compared to national averages of 22% and 34% respectively. Before that, the big story was Whose University?, raising concerns over colleges ignoring their duty of care towards students in favour of hosting conferences. ‘So what?’ comes the usual reply. ‘What’s new? Cambridge is tough, it’s stressful, and it’s unlikely to change any time soon. We knew all that when we signed up.’

For most of us, however, that last statement is untrue. Applications to Cambridge take place under a veil of wilful ignorance. The prospectus, the open days, even student-led tours and Q&A sessions, brush these problems under the carpet. ‘Yes, it’s hard,’ we say, ‘but everything else makes up for it. Have I told you about punting? Or all the great shows you’ll see or act in at the ADC? Best three years of your life!’ After all, the argument goes, we don’t want to risk putting applicants off – especially applicants from less advantaged backgrounds, applicants who are already worried they might not fit in.

Instead, we wait until students get here to reveal that life isn’t quite so rosy after all. We wait until those students for whom the structures and lifestyle are completely unsuited – the lack of coursework, say, or the constant deadlines – are failing, are exhausted and too stressed to function, and then we quietly suggest they intermit, get away from an environment that can be so difficult for so many of us. The university’s access record remains untarnished: there’s no need to monitor the possible problems of massive culture-shock once you’ve got those state-school kids through the door. Deceiving applicants benefits nobody but that institutional instinct to allow problems to be ignored.

If telling applicants just how stressful life here can be were to result in a drop in applications, then the university and its colleges and faculties would have no choice but to take this issue seriously. If discussions about institutional sexism led to a massive gender imbalance, the institution would be forced to improve, or else face the wrath of the tabloids (you can imagine the Daily Mail headlines). Pretending that the difficulties of Cambridge life do not exist will not make them disappear, but for as long as we are complicit in telling the outside world that this is the case, we are merely sticking our heads in the sand.

Moreover, there’s another side to acknowledging the problems within the university: celebrating our attempts to find solutions. If we recognise the prevalence of mental health issues, we can properly praise the University Counselling Service; if we accept that female students are still institutionally disadvantaged, we can point to the stellar work of the Women’s Campaign, to all the hardworking activists who really do care and are fighting to improve the situation here for current and future students. The passion with which our peers strive for change, from RAG to JCRs to political activism, can be one of the most inspiring parts of being a Cambridge student, and we are doing all involved a disservice if we allow this aspect to go unnoticed, for fear of drawing attention to our university’s problems.

Either we think life in Cambridge is so horrible that sixth-formers have to be tricked into applying; or we do genuinely believe the benefits outweigh the difficulties. In either case, applicants have the right to make an informed decision about their own futures, and we have the duty to give them the information. Cambridge should be showing applicants its true face: warts and all.