Cambridge’s formal dinners aren’t a gimmick, they’re a class barrier

Everyone knows that Oxbridge is a pillar of the establishment. I suppose it goes hand-in-hand with Oxford and Cambridge being two of the oldest universities in the world – it means they are prone to clinging onto tradition, maintaining the status quo and upholding whatever practices they want when really they should be looking forwards, not backwards. 

Of course, women have been admitted to the University of Oxford since 1920 and Cambridge since 1947, and with loans and grants from colleges, the playing field is perhaps as level as it’s ever been, socially. But I’m still shocked at how backwards some things still are out there. 

They say old habits die hard, and I guess old traditions do too. Before I came to Cambridge, I thought things like formals and all the old buildings were a nice, quirky aspect of life at Cambridge, but I soon realised all the trappings of tradition are staunchly elitist. Cambridge can’t say all they care about is academic ability, and that the playing field is totally level when things like formal dinners and elitist traditions are putting socially disadvantaged and BAME students off even applying. Because I can imagine it being incredibly alienating to have to adjust not only to a whole new city and university but to a whole new way of life.

For those who went to private or public school, knowing which fork to start with at dinner is common knowledge, but for those unused to big dinners and formal events, small things such as that can be hugely alienating. Despite Cambridge announcing a record intake of state school students in 2019, within a few weeks of being here I realised about 60% of the people I had met went to private school. Considering ex-private school students make up only 6% of the general population, 60% is an incredibly uncomfortable figure. 

Of course, these are only the people I have met, and perhaps are not reflective of the university as a whole, but it’s certainly a stark change from Leeds, where I did my undergrad, and only met about three people over three years who were privately educated. 

That’s not to say that Cambridge should stop doing formal dinners altogether – I suppose for some people they are part of the appeal – but I just wish they would stop taking themselves so seriously sometimes. The culture here is already so intense with regards to the academic side of things, and having the social side be similarly intense and unfamiliar to a lot of people is doubtless putting people off applying. 

I’m lucky in that my college is one of the newer ones, and as a result, the atmosphere is much less oppressive and stuffy. It’s still beautiful and quintessentially Cambridge – but I just hope other colleges will follow in its footsteps and loosen up a bit for the sake of their future applicants who didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in their mouths.

Image: Cambridge University Pakistan Society

Serena Smith

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