Fairy Tale Expectations: The Culture of Privilege at Cambridge University

27/05/2014 15:08 BST | Updated 23/07/2014 10:59 BST


A view from the Bridge: King's College, Cambridge

Flaunting your gown around town, blowing £200 on May Ball tickets, or getting your mates or wider society to fund your Gap Yah trips abroad: there are a number of actions available to Oxbridge students that serve to fuel the stereotypes of an elitist institution harbouring privileged students, out of touch with the rest of the world.

Currently doing the rounds on social networking sites is a link to a donation page set up by a Cambridge undergraduate who is asking for £5000 so he can get to his sister's wedding. The figure reflects the price of renting a helicopter, which he hopes will take him from his final exam and to the wedding ceremony in the faraway land of Wiltshire.

The student, Louis McBride, has the best of intentions. However, the sum of his message, which includes various online pleas and a YouTube video, acts as an inadvertent symbol of the sort of privilege and sense of entitlement that Cambridge has tried to rise above but has been haunted by for years. By setting his video within the grounds of King's College, and through a (well-intentioned) 'share' of his scheme by the college's library, McBride's video inescapably represents the university as an institution, converting a private fundraiser into a public concern.

Whilst many online commentators find the appeal objectionable, others have been quick to respond that it's harmless fun, that we should 'give the guy a break'. One pundit writes:

Should we shut down Hearing Dogs for the Deaf [sic] because those blind people need the dogs a bit more? Or the BHF because dying of cancer is more painful? It's a bit of fun, if you can't spare the cash don't give any.

This is to have missed the point. Regardless of where the money would or would not be better spent, this stunt is not just 'a bit of fun'. Indeed, as the donations made are from private individuals, the money is hardly the core of the issue at all. What is objectionable are the attitudes and assumptions underlying this supposedly light-hearted jaunt.

What the video and the pleas seem to indicate is an immunity to reality, a prerogative of ignorance and superiority, both of which are already and unfortunately associated with the Oxbridge student. The expectation is that we should get want we want - that a solution, no matter how extreme, is our right -, even in Louis's self-diagnosed 'painful situation'. Hiring a 'top end' helicopter to take you to your sister's wedding is not normal (even Cinderella put up with a pumpkin), but here his fairy tale expectations appear normalised.

We, the student body, are aware of the actuality of Louis's case. We understand and empathise with a fellow student in need. However, neglecting to consider the public appearance of such actions is a failure to act responsibly within a community. 'Student', let alone 'Oxbridge student', is a loaded term, already saturated with pejorative connotation. And any action which reinforces the perception of a Cambridge student as elitist or decadent does a disservice to the ongoing collective endeavours of those who seek to pull the university out of a shameful past.

In a case like Louis's, we must consider the external perspective. Most of us would never consider renting a helicopter (not even Louis's cheaper option, a steal at £2000), let alone asking for crowd-sourced money to finance it. The common response, however painful, is to accept that once in a while we have to swallow the lesser of whichever evils present themselves, and choose between missing an important exam or an equally important wedding.

The deeper problem at hand is how to tackle the thinking that underpins these actions, and no easy solution is within reach. Like racism, sexism, and other ugly ideologies (which are not exclusive to a single social stratum), the lack of awareness implicit in this behaviour is born of ignorance, and perpetuated in insidious forms.

Laughing at a joke, for instance, about women belonging in the kitchen, serves to perpetuate that sexist trope, irrespective of your deep-seated prejudices, or lack thereof. The cry of 'harmless fun', whether referring to a mild joke or a rented helicopter, extends from those who see only the surface of the situation through a narrow lens. If we do not stand in opposition to the insidious forms of a continuing sense of entitlement, such as this stunt, we collude in its perpetuation.

We wish Louis luck in his attempts to get to the wedding. But acts like this only serve to reinforce the notion of an Oxbridge elite. We the privileged have a social responsibility to acknowledge the advantage that our opportunities afford us, and to understand how our behaviour - whether we like it or not - will be seen to bespeak the values and attitudes of the university more broadly. Anyone wishing to avoid the perpetuation of such stereotypes will recognise that actions like those of McBride are a setback towards our goal of overcoming socially divisive entitlement and elitism.