Town vs. Gown: myth or reality?

Lily Rosengard 18 October 2014

In light of last weekend’s Town and Gown 10k charity race, it is pertinent to ask whether Cambridge really has become a city of Town and Gown, or whether it’ still very much a place of Town vs. Gown.

The Town vs. Gown relationship began with the earliest universities, as they needed to be built in cities in order to survive. Cities gave them good infrastructure and a system of governance, as well as a surrounding permanent population and marketplace. Students at these institutions, however, stuck out like a sore thumb through their elaborate dress and Latin tongue, the lingua franca of medieval higher education. This inevitably led to tension between these students and the townspeople. Eventually this led to a dispute at Oxford University which in turn resulted in scholars fleeing and setting up a new institution in 1209: our very own Cambridge University.

Over 700 years later, does this divide still exist? If it does, money is likely to be a key factor in this dispute. We don’t pay taxes; we’re forbidden to have jobs during term-time; and, unlike at most other universities, we spend all of our undergraduate time living in university-owned accommodation. This means that out money (or loans) is not invested back into the local economy. It’s almost as if the scholars, learning from their mistakes in Oxford, wrote into Cambridge’s founding oath of 1209 that Cambridge should be a place of minimal interaction between student and townsperson.

Earlier this year, the well-known Cambridge Classics professor, Mary Beard, commented: “the division of town and gown has grown more obvious in some ways over 30 years.” This seems a realistic observation; as, despite engulfing the entire city, the University can still make the locals feel excluded. It is even feasible to have lived your entire life across from Kings chapel, and not once have passed through its elaborate entrance. It’s as if these locals are treated as tourists in their own city.

In some ways, then, the ‘town and gown’ divide does unfortunately exist, and it seems that Cambridge University tends to maintain this divide. However, a loophole towards unity has been found in the shape of a 10k charity fundraising event. Perhaps this is a reassuring step towards a more integrated future for Cambridge.