THE BLOG

The 'Cambridge Experience': 'Unique' Doesn't Always Mean Good

21/01/2015 17:44 GMT | Updated 23/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Cambridge is supposed to be one of the best universities in the world. In fact, according to The Guardian last year, it is joint second best. That means that as a Cambridge student you receive an impressive quality of education, of course. However, what it also seems to mean is that Cambridge has fashioned itself as beyond criticism.

How can you complain, they say, when it's all part of the 'Cambridge Experience'? - 'they' being a multitude of people, but most often, and most disappointingly, my fellow students, who have internalised the rhetoric of the system and don't want anything to threaten the status of their 'world-class' degree. You know, the one that means you're super-employable when you leave and practically guarantees you a job in management consultancy or 'the City'.

Just being at Cambridge is a privilege, they say, so what right do you have to complain?

Well, I'll be honest: Cambridge isn't all it's cracked up to be.

The 'Cambridge Experience' centres around a series of 'charming Cambridge quirks' which you 'just have to love': eccentric supervisors and academics; formal dinners in fancy halls attended by people in gowns; and so much work squeezed into the famously short terms that the 'week five blues' have become an institution.

Some of these are, of course, more sinister than others. But just because they happen at Cambridge doesn't mean they're all okay.

Recent statistics gathered from the 2014 National Student Survey reveal that only 55% of students here find their workload manageable, while two-thirds of students believe their course applied 'unnecessary pressure'.

This, we are told, is what we should expect having come to such a bastion of academic excellence. Cambridge is the crucible in which the 'future leaders of the world' across all fields are formed and extreme work pressures are essential to this process. Or so they say.

But Cambridge isn't a finishing school for Etonians anymore (at least not predominantly) and this view of degrees as a testing-ground for masculine vigour and intellectual stamina at the expense of academic exploration and development is out-dated.

The reality is that Cambridge is hard, and for many people it is too hard. I don't mean 'hard' here in an academic sense. Of course it is hard in this way, and rightly so. I mean hard in the sense that the overly and unnecessarily stressful way in which Cambridge is set up means that it is hard simply to exist here. Day-by-day it strips away your ability to be a person; to sleep or eat properly; or to maintain any level of normal, healthy personal relationships. At least, this is my experience of it, and it is one that I know to be shared by many of my peers.

Campaigns like Cambridge Speaks Its Mind attest to the prevalence and severity of mental health issues here, as well as the university and colleges' often inadequate responses to them. Of course, not all of this is down to stress. But it doesn't help.

The problem is that lots of these very serious issues are entirely normalised: we all joke all the time about how tired we are; how much work we have to do; how stressed we're feeling. And we all dread the 'week five blues'. Because even after just four weeks here, you are so exhausted that another week already seems too much.

I'm as guilty of this as anyone. I constantly joke that I'm probably not going to sleep (properly, at least) until I graduate, because that's one way of coping. But really, it's not that funny. Not when people are genuinely suffering harm at the hands of this system. When people's welfare is at stake, it's no longer acceptable to write things off as a 'Cambridge quirk'.

In defending this particular aspect of Cambridge's 'unique student experience' - as many do - people are in fact protecting a system that discriminates (albeit often indirectly) against students with mental illnesses, not to mention students with disabilities or chronic illnesses. We all know that Cambridge was founded by and for very privileged men, and it's lovely that they were nice enough to let the rest of us in (eventually), but that's not enough. Cambridge needs to recognise the rightfully broad, or rather broader-than-before, demographic of students to which it plays host and update itself accordingly.

But this isn't even just a question of privilege, because this system disadvantages all of its members. The structure of the terms and the style of learning here mean that we are all being denied the best education. Academia does not thrive on needlessly selfish competition and deadline-orientated essays. We are not only denied the time to look after ourselves as people, but as learners too. There is little time to explore intellectual curiosity and academic creativity, because we are all too busy just trying to get by. Even something so simple as a reading week could make a huge difference.

Whatever it is, we need to do something. Because right now the system is broken, and it's breaking us. And I, for one, am tired.