NEWFLASH: Your experience isn’t universal

A longer version of a Varsity column about welfare provisions in Cambridge – focussing on viral welfare campaigns. Sorry I didn’t upload this sooner:

Normally I don’t read the Tab because, quite frankly, I already have enough reasons to walk around in a grump. But then the Tab wrote an article about “Whose University?” .Yes, I read it, and yes, I’m still pissed off about it.

In summary, two Tab journalists attended an open meeting organised by “Whose University?.”  The meeting was rather long. This, apparently, was justification for portraying WU? as a whinge fest, some sort of weird cult for the privileged. I wasn’t there, but have been reliably informed that all journalists present agreed not to publish anything said in confidence. Which they then did.
I take issue with a rather poor argument which the article in question, and many of the Tab commenters, seemed to make: I/we have never had a problem with welfare in Cambridge and/or we are a very privileged University with pretty buildings and formals, THEREFORE there is nothing wrong. It basically seems to come down to a belief, on the part of those making it, that their experience is universal. Which is…um….what is it called now?…oh yes, total wank.
Let’s get some perspective. Everything in this University is fragmented. Every college is doing its own thing, and no one seems to be talking about whether any of it is any good. This is most evident in welfare provision. As a student, I had an awful time. Thanks to my college, my mental health suffered hugely and I underwent several experiences that have damaged me and haunt me. You may not have had that experience. I’m really happy for you. But don’t you dare and tell me that my experience is invalid; that I made it up.

For more than a year, “Cambridge Speaks Its Mind” have been publishing testimonies about welfare at Cambridge. Some of them are horrific: rape survivors told that “boys will be boys”, students evicted from their rooms and forced to go back to abusive homes. But among the testimonies, you get occasional glimmers of hope – people who have been well supported. These campaigns are not trying to claim that welfare in Cambridge is awful across the board. CSIM write that many examples of good practices exist, but that there are common problems which students (and the University) need to be made aware of so things can change. I challenge people who think that welfare problems don’t exist at Cambridge to read through all of the CSIM testimonies and tell me that every single person there is lying or oversensitive.

The opposition that CSIM and WU? face is not just from a deeply traditional University, but from a worrying normalisation of misery by the student body. While traditions like the Week 5 Blues may seem like a bit of joke, they embody an attitude which stigmatises those who are facing difficulties and do want to speak out. How many of us have felt unable to confide in a friend for fear they will belittle us, since apparently we have so much to be grateful for?

CSIM and WU? are trying to improve a broken system. Some people spend a wonderful three years at Cambridge. Others suffer here. These two realities co-exist. Is that so hard to fathom?


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