“Serious inequality” in travel grants revealed

Colm Murphy 28 October 2015

The Cambridge Student can exclusively reveal a twelve-fold inequality in travel grants awarded to students between colleges.

The figures have led CUSU to condemn this  “gross disparity” and “serious inequality”, but some colleges insist that departmental funds go some way to alleviating the imbalance and JCR Presidents have called it an “inevitablity of the college system.”

An investigation by TCS into levels of expenditure on travel grants by Cambridge colleges has shown that in 2014/15, the highest college spending on undergraduates per student was Trinity College.

Trinity spent on average £167.94 on every undergraduate. Newnham came second highest at £130.33. Overall, Trinity spent £119,235.50 on its 710 undergraduates alone.

At the other end of the scale, Homerton spent merely £13.80 on each undergraduate student, or £7,606 between its 551 students.

When compared with population, this is twelve times smaller than the comparable figure from Trinity.

This comes after TCS revealed the inequalities in scholarship awards and land ownership between colleges.Trinity came top in both occasions, spending £4.4 million on scholarships and awards and owning £730 million in land assets.

Girton spent an average of £20.90 for every undergraduate in 2014/15, whereas Magdalene spent between £19.63 and £28.89 – depending on how much of funds shared between postgraduates and undergraduates went to the latter.

For postgraduates, Trinity spent £74,842.62 in 2014/15, and £93,699.74 in 2013/14. Homerton meanwhile spent £15,041 in 2014/15 on travel grants for its postgraduates.

Overall in 2014/15, the colleges are fairly evenly spread out. King’s spent £113.52, Fitzwilliam £73.82, Gonville & Caius £26.11, Queens’ £26.05, and St John’s spent just over £25 on each of their undergraduates on average.

In 2013/14, Trinity and Newnham also topped the table of travel spending on undergraduates. In that year Trinity spent £164.49 for each undergraduate student, whereas Homerton spent £10.90.

Tied endowments

The sources of funds for travel also vary between colleges. Some, such as Homerton, do not have travel-tied funds.

However Trinity College told TCS that their grants were “mostly funded from monies given or left by alumni or other benefactors” which they are “obliged to distribute them in accordance with the original donors’ wishes.”

Newnham, when approached by TCS, said: “we are fortunate that we have generous endowment funds available for our students to access.”

Trinity’s Senior Tutor, Professor Catherine Barnard, added that the grants gave students opportunities “they might not otherwise” be able to afford. Homerton Union of Students’ President Ruth Taylor said “the disparity is a necessary evil of the college’s lack of specifically tied endowments.”

Harry Gower, Magdalene JCR President, said: “It would seem that the only way to ever avoid a disparity between colleges would be for travel grants to be applied from a central fund, however, due to the college system and the difficulty of tied endowments, this is almost certainly out of the question.”

He added that it is “an inevitability of the college system.”

"Serious inequalities"

CUSU have unequivocally condemned this gap. President Priscilla Mensah told TCS: “Such gross disparities between the colleges is a direct challenge to this University’s assertion that all College provisions, and student experiences, are equal.” She added that it made “CUSU’s fight for equality of opportunity among, and within, the Colleges … more crucial than ever.

“We will continue to pressure the University and the Colleges to stop allowing these serious inequalities to persist.”

Cambridge University, which has recently launched a £2bn fundraising campaign “Dear World… Yours Cambridge”, currently tells prospective students on their website not to “agonise over choosing a College. They have many more similarities than differences”. When informed by TCS of these latest figures, the University declined to comment.

When reached by TCS, a Trinity College spokesperson argued that travel grants were intended for a “wide variety of purposes” including language training, conferences and work experience, so “none could be viewed as average. Per capita figures are therefore misleading.”

They also said that their contribution “lightens the load on faculty and departmental funds, thus allowing more students from other colleges to travel than would otherwise be possible.”

When asked to clarify if departmental funds fully compensated for the twelve-fold inequality in 2014/15, Trinity were unable to comment further, apart from saying that it is “pleased to support Collegiate Cambridge through financial contributions.” Trinity JCR were not available when reached for comment.

A third year who wished to remain anonymous told TCS:“Everybody knows that there are big disparities between colleges but seeing it in black and white is something different. It’s part of a broader narrative of inequalities between colleges. Still, it’s a bit more complicated than the figures suggest.”

She has received a travel grant from Trinity in the past, but does not attend the College.

Homerton declined to comment on whether they believed the disparity between colleges was inevitable or unfair. They said: “Homerton’s provision for student travel, and for student support in general, increased significantly last year and will increase still further next year.”

Homerton’s spent £5,925 on undergraduates in 2012/13, and  £7,606 in 2014/15. However, it is bottom of the league table for the last two years out of available data, and was second last in 2012/13, when those totals are compared with number of students.  That year, Sidney Sussex was last with just under £9.50 per undergraduate.

Homerton cited the “College’s Pilkington Travel Awards” which they say support “ambitious journeys all over the world” and spoke of new grants for Year Abroad students. “We will continue to invest in this area.” A spokesperson later told TCS “we want to do much more.”

Hardship funds

Ruth Taylor, HUS President, told TCS that Homerton “were aware” of  the issue. She added: “I think increasing the value of travel grants that the college gives out is an important project to pursue.

“However, I think [that] aiding the position of students from low income backgrounds who stand to be affected by the government’s plans to scrap maintenance grants, as well those who already encounter financial hardship during their time at university, should be top of college’s agenda.” The scrapping of maintenance grants was raised at the most recent CUSU Council meeting.

Magdalene College Assistant Bursar Helen Foord also chose to emphasise that the College "concentrates its focus on resourcing teaching and student hardship.” Their JCR President, Gower, told TCS that: “Magdalene is not a rich college and prefers instead to focus its resources on our student hardship funds.”

At the most recent CUSU Council, potential disparities between colleges in hardship funds was raised as an issue.

Newnham spokesperson told TCS: “At Newnham, we are committed to addressing financial barriers that our students may face. Grants for academic or career-related travel are of enormous benefit, particularly for students whose circumstances  mean they wouldn’t be able to undertake such projects without assistance.” Girton College were unavailable for comment.

The £4 million college passport

Since 2011/12, £4 million has been spent on all Cambridge undergraduates and postgraduates for travel, according to available data. £2.1 million has been spent on undergraduates; Trinity has spent nearly £500,000. £1.9 million has been spent on postgraduates in the University.

The College that has spent the least in total on travel grants for undergraduates is Lucy Cavendish at £13,813 since 2011/12, although as a small college it is often middle of the table when compared with number of students, spending an average of £35 per undergraduate in 2014/15.

Emmanuel College told TCS they were unable to provide us the figures as it “doesn’t award any travel grants … We support students financially in a variety of ways … [and] assess applications for financial support on the basis of their academic or other merits and any travel involved would be coincidental.” St Edmunds also did not hold the figures when approached.

Hughes Hall, and St Catharine’s have yet to respond to TCS’s freedom of information request, nearly four weeks after their statutory deadline.

Additional reporting: Anna Carruthers and Olly Hudson