Grow up, Cambridge – we’re adults

6 November 2018

Every year, nascent adults enter Cambridge with trepidation in their hearts. Although not everyone has lived with their families before coming here and, of those who have, not everyone has carried the same weight of household responsibility. It would be infantilising to assume that everyone arrives at Cambridge not knowing how to cook or clean or do their laundry, but inevitably, some don’t. And yet, at this institution, there are many ways in which this domestic ignorance is perpetuated in the structures – architectural and practical – we inhabit. This may seem to be at odds with a University which claims, however implicitly, to be shaping us into the high-functioning adults of the future, but it ultimately makes perfect sense. The purpose of this infantilisation is to maximise our productivity, to give us more hours to write essays and solve problems. Knowing how to cook anything more ambitious than pasta simply doesn’t align with the University’s vision of itself as not only an academic institution, but the most academic institution.

An immediate manifestation of the structures which aim to subjugate us as children for as long as possible is the lack of functioning kitchens in many colleges. While I’m blessed with a beautiful kitchen that has four hobs and an oven at Newnham, I wonder whether there is a gendered legacy of extending childhood beyond its reasonable expiration date. This is, after all, a University which has only been (somewhat) accepting women for 150 years and has only accommodated women at all colleges for the last forty. For centuries, then, the University has been fostering a culture in which wealthy man-children have lived here and not been expected to be able to sustain themselves because they could rely on wives and maids (sometimes one and the same) to do the chores deemed to be below their station. This leaves us the legacy of formal halls and butteries which provide meals three times a day, and a plethora of minute kitchens which sport a microwave and two countertop hobs, and which can only be used to prepare the most basic of meals. Cooking and grocery shopping takes time – time that could be spent on more ‘productive’ pursuits.

Moreover, for many students, this culinary suppression continues throughout the three years of their degree. In most other universities, students are expected to move out of halls and into houses after their first year; my 18-year-old sister is currently choosing housemates and signing leases. By contrast, I’m nearly 20 and have never interacted with a landlord. Some colleges, of course, own houses which students move into, and a minority of undergraduates choose to shake free of the chains of college rents. However, the general trend for students is to remain on college-owned property. Rent is paid to colleges, and complaints about leaky kitchens and poor heating is directed towards maintenance departments. The resemblance of this to the school campus and satellite boarding houses of my private school is unsettling, but not surprising. It suggests a lot about the type of student that colleges intend to accommodate, as well as their monopolisation of property. If Cambridge is Monopoly, Trinity is winning – they even own the O2 arena.

At Cambridge, we also have swathes of faux-parents who support us to an extent that might seem unreasonable. Much has been said about bedders and the privilege attached to having someone who cleans your room for you; little more needs to be said other than, presumably, we ought to be capable of wielding a hoover and duster every now and then. At Corpus last year, there was controversy when bedders reported students for having overnight guests, particularly those who had not been signed in. In terms of fire safety, it’s understandable that most colleges have a rule about signing people in – to make sure everyone gets out, in the case of a fire – but it’s difficult to navigate the line between being adults who might spontaneously bring someone home and the implicitly almost-parental scrutinisation of your bedfellows. Another parental figure is the college nurse. Although useful as a middle step between going to the GP and googling your symptoms, and important for supporting students’ mental health, the fact that nurses often act as a signpost suggests that something is lacking elsewhere which necessitates the existence of such signposting. Furthermore, we do have a degree of responsibility towards our own wellbeing and that of our peers, and GPs and designated mental health services are often better placed to help.

As well as bedders, some colleges cross the line between service and infantilisation in other ways. For instance, at Emma you can have a certain amount of laundry done for you, for free, every week. The rationale for this is unclear, but presumably it must have some foundation in the concept of time-saving. Laborious though laundry may be, it’s hardly more than a two-hour job – and, in the interests of productivity, you can change things between washer and drier in rest breaks from your essays. The issue is not just one of presumed laziness on the behalf of students, some of whom, as I said in my opening paragraph, do these chores by and for themselves and others before university and during vacations. It’s that certain parts of an adult education are deprioritised in favour of the academic work which, although intellectually stimulating, is not often practically applicable.

Finally, the epitome of the infantilising, work-obsessed ethos of Cambridge is the ban on getting jobs. Fair enough, most students here don’t have time for jobs (although that’s not to say that there aren’t students who have them). It’s absolutely true that they should be able to make the most of spare time to develop themselves into more well-rounded people through societies and clubs. However, this is an ideal and not the reality. Even once bursaries and loans have been taken into consideration, there are still students who need more money. There always will be. Within reason – it would be impossible to balance a full-time degree and a job, and still have time to sleep – it would make sense for students to be allowed to undertake paid employment. As well as obvious financial advantages, it would be useful to develop skills and experience, as well as to have a chance to meet people outside the narrow demographic of Cambridge students. Instead, the burden falls on the vacations to be frantic catch-up time, cramming in internships and working multiple jobs to make up the shortfall. At the very least, being an adult involves a degree of choice; we should have the option to make these choices for ourselves.

Education is much broader than lectures, supervisions, and library time. For an institution which claims to be developing the leaders of the future, you’d think that the University would provide more opportunities for us to use basic skills needed to function in a modern world and afford us the chance to make informed decisions about employment, food, and even laundry. It all feeds into a self-indulgent culture of entitlement and privilege – is that the legacy the University wants to perpetuate?