Students must campaign to abolish the Tompkins Table

Amelia Oakley 29 November 2015

The Tompkins Table is not the problem. The problem, and the reason why CUSU’s move to scrap the table is in the best interests of applicants and current students alike, is that the Tompkins Table is currently the most visible evidence that there might be some inequality in the collegiate system, even while it operates on the premise that all students start their degrees on an equal footing. In the context of college finances, student backgrounds, and academic provision and resources, the Tompkins Table is just another data set. But without that context, it’s just an excuse for some of us to pat ourselves on the back, and do we really need another one of those?

Colleges are not equal, but we need to acknowledge, as the Tompkins Table does not, that it’s not because some of them are full of clever students who work hard and some of them are not. How would we explain, in that case, why Murray Edwards and Newnham are always near the bottom? It could have something to do with the gender achievement gap across the University; the fact that fewer women take STEM subjects, which have a higher percentage of Firsts, in part due to stereotypes about ‘male subjects’ which begin in primary school; or the relative lack of financial aid available to those students compared to those studying at Trinity, for example. It should go without saying that it is not because women are inherently worse at achieving Firsts, but that’s exactly what the Tompkins Table promotes.

When news broke that the motion against the Table raised by CUSU President Priscilla Mensah had passed, it was mentioned that she has studied at Girton College, which also consistently appears nearer the bottom of the Tompkins Table. The implication of including that irrelevant information is that only those on top of the Tompkins Table really have a right to talk about it.

Aside from the fact that Mensah is not a representative of Girton in her role as CUSU President, the suggestion that the Tompkins Table is only a problem for those who didn’t work hard enough to get their First ignores the systemic inequalities in colleges, of which students are not the cause. When the Tompkins Table appears each year in the Good University Guide, it gives applicants a distorted image of the real information which might affect their decision. We should be able to inform applicants from lower income backgrounds of the colleges which will best support them, and one of the ultimate goals of Access work here must surely be to one day be able to honestly tell those students that they will receive the best support from all colleges, not just a few.

Scrapping the Tompkins Table leaves room for more open and informed discussions about the inequalities between colleges. It is the Tompkins Table itself which irons out those differences as if Cambridge is a fantasy football league which resets after each season. The backgrounds of applicants and current students, the level of support available for disabilities and mental health, and the extent to which our essay-based examinations reward a certain kind of answer cannot and should not be ranked in a table, but that doesn’t make them less valid points for all members of the University to discuss.

As it stands, the combination of public class lists and Freedom of Information requests could allow anyone to reconstruct a form of the Tompkins Table if they wished. The only way to ensure that it is part of a bigger picture of the University, rather than the only picture that applicants have, is to release more information about college disparities, not less. The move against the Tompkins Table is not about censorship, but about greater transparency, and that is what will genuinely help Cambridge move forward.