Working 9 till 5: Cambridge’s problem with student jobs

Sophie Dickinson 15 December 2016
Image Credit: Cristian Bortes

Given how infantilising the bedder-spying, porter-guarding, school-dinner fed Cambridge world is, it shouldn’t be surprising that we aren’t allowed jobs whilst we’re here. The difference is that financial issues have more of a pragmatic significance than the slight annoyance of forgetting to put a bin outside before going to bed. It seems like financial security is assumed – and if it isn’t, the solution is not to solve it by getting a job and working. Whilst other universities assume a level of autonomy amongst its students, ours asserts control over even the most personal decisions, including our bank account figures.

As someone who doesn’t receive the maximum bursary, but also am not totally funded by my parents, not being able to work whilst in Cambridge is a significant problem. Before coming to university, I worked hard at weekends and in the holidays to earn for myself. As a teenager this was emancipating; no longer was I reliant on someone else for financial help. It definitely gave me a better work ethic than anything I learnt at school: certainly, those hurried essays scribbled the lunchtime before a lesson were indicative of doing the bare minimum, and largely getting away with it. Working in an adult environment, where the responsibility for not performing well was a great deal more tangible, I simply had to do my best.

It’s astonishing, then, that our university believes academia alone will foster this same attitude. It reveals a great deal about its priorities: we aren’t supposed to consider the world beyond the bubble; reading esoteric medieval texts is meant to sustain us. Of course, this is just another example of assumed privilege. We are meant to be able to afford Cambridge, and indeed our lives afterwards, with no need to exist in the working world. It isn’t valued or prioritised, aside from in reference to internships and summer schemes, or other bastions of nepotism and success. Spending eight hours in a coffee shop to stay above the overdraft line just isn’t valued – ambition and education, the university seems to suggest, lifts us beyond these unskilled, but often necessary, occupations.

The university would also cite the need to spend as much time as possible on our degrees. This is a whole problem in itself, leading to perfectionism, anxiety, and answering every enquiry into our wellbeing in terms of where we are with work. But essentially this argument is unjustified: a Saturday morning in a café; a weekday evening in a bar, takes much less time than an extracurricular. Whilst the benefits might be less fun, financial security is infinitely comforting, and the time management skills learnt would not equate to missed deadlines, but almost certainly a more efficient working routine.

If the University is serious about Access, it should allow us to choose to work for our money. Not only will this give individuals the choice of alleviating financial worries, it will allow students to integrate with people in Cambridge who are not somehow associated with academia. The snobbery of the bubble is part of the Access problem, and so to normalise a relationship with the city that is not based in privilege, but shared concerns, would surely alleviate the outward image of Cambridge. As adults, it seems ludicrous that our occupational concerns are made for us. It seems much more realistic to allow us to make this choice for ourselves: and I genuinely feel the rewards would transform the Cambridge experience.