Why ‘the Cambridge bubble’ needs to be burst

Julia Stanyard 3 April 2015

‘The Cambridge bubble’. It’s a phrase we hear bandied around a lot, but what exactly do we mean by this? There is perhaps no better time to answer this question than now, when (unless you are one of those unfortunate third years who have holed themselves up in the library in a feverish pre-finals frenzy) we have all broken out of this so-called “bubble” and scattered across the country and beyond.

Apart from being a highly convenient catchphrase with which to make article headlines, we use it to concisely sum up the slightly claustrophobic feeling of Cambridge life, scurrying between college, library or lab and any other activities we manage to shoehorn in between. We lead a sheltered existence in a small town, quite different to the more open, independent city life of those at other universities.

This is all very well and good. After all, the intensity of the Cambridge system is one of its defining features, leading to the campaign for the Week 5 reading week to alleviate the damaging effects of the rigorous timetable. Added to the system of tight-knit college communities, an enclosed “bubble” is an almost inevitable side effect.

However, speaking as a Girtonian whose travels have taken them across all areas of Cambridge – reviewing pubs as far-flung as The Flying Pig and the Red Bull, venturing as far as Cambridge Regional College (ever heard of it?) for the Culinary Competition, and even spending two terms rowing in a fit of slightly misplaced first-year enthusiasm – I can safely say that some peoples’ “bubbles” are terrifyingly small.

I’ve come across countless people who argue that they just don’t need a bike, not because they prefer walking (which is strange but understandable), but because they just ‘never need to go further than a 10-minute walk’. One friend, a second-year, had never ventured beyond Magdalene Bridge and was blissfully unaware of where Churchill was. A surprising proportion of students seem set to leave Cambridge, despite having spent at least three years of their lives here, familiar with only a tiny area of the city. This situation is just bizarre and, while curiosity may have killed the cat, it seems that these students could do with a generous dose.

Moreover, we normalise this idea by describing it as “the Cambridge bubble”, as though it were an actual thing rather than the product of our own collective imagination. It then becomes not only a cliché but a self-fulfilling prophecy, as we can lapse back into these repetitive, unimaginative habits because we can think of them as the unavoidable consequence of “the bubble” we all inhabit, rather than the result of our own actions.

Getting out of this ‘bubble’ mindset – that we are too busy to concern ourselves with anything beyond our very immediate surroundings – means we can embrace all the varied opportunities that Cambridge can offer and appreciate it properly; not just as a university but a vibrant, diverse and fascinating city.