The Debate: Are Cambridge students any more vile than your average British student?
Cambridge students have been having trouble keeping out of the press recently. What with 2,000 students throwing a raucous party in the park, stripping, vomiting, urinating in flower beds and of course, drinking port out of condoms (only the finest); website Library Whispers finally forced to close after abusive messages such as “Just spat on a working-class person” and the most recent furore surrounding the ‘Rear of the Year’ competition to judge the best female student behind, it’s no wonder a representative from the university is refusing to comment on the latest story. And that’s just this month.
But is this all just normal university behaviour, or is Cambridge just subject to penalisation in the press due to its prestigious position?
Tom Peck argues in defence of Cambridge students, believing that these are simply normal student antics. Amol Rajan disagrees; he opines that there is an entrenched culture of excessive drinking for many students at the university.
Who do you agree with?
FOR: Amol Rajan
Naturally I wouldn’t suggest that Cambridge University is full of vile scumbags alone. There is a vast supply of very decent, kind, and highly intelligent young people in each new intake, and the task of these people is to find those of similar ilk, stick together, and do their utmost to reshape the social scene among students in their own image. This is what I did in my time, which was 2002-2005 – or at least tried to.
For all that, the proportion of Cambridge students who are vile – and worse than that: scrofulous, insufferable, pompous, witless, and oozing entitlement – is significantly greater than at other universities (Oxford excepted). I say this on the basis of my experience as a student, of students who attend other universities, and of all the accumulated evidence our culture has provided over centuries.
There are at least three reasons for this disproportion. First, the supply of students from the public schools; second, the vastness of the egos sported by students who have excelled academically; third, the unusually limitless number of arcane, anachronistic, and deeply vile rituals and assorted tribal practices that the former two factors have endowed Cambridge with over many centuries. Let’s take them in order.
First, it is not axiomatically the case that privately educated pupils are coarser and more vile human beings than those educated at state schools. But they tend to be, don’t they? Thank you. At Cambridge, the proportion of privately educated pupils hovers around one in every two, as against one in every fourteen among the general populace. Therefore Cambridge students are coarser and more vile than the average university student in Britain.
Second, because they have for at least five years – often many more, in the case of those whose parents pay for them to go to prep school too – been told how brilliant they are, and had the results to prove it, Cambridge students from public schools tend not to be altogether lacking in self-regard. Sometimes, as is the case with many female students, the academic excellence of school years becomes a source of crippling insecurity; but generally the pattern is of young people who not only think they will one day rule the world, but feel it would be entirely right and proper if they were to. Their egos tell them that. Entitlement oozes from every pore.
Third, I can’t pretend that other universities, and particularly those afflicted with the curse of privately educated students who play rugby, are without sadistic rituals; but in Cambridge they are vastly greater in number. One example: at Downing, my college, there was a drinking society called the Patricians. By day, they were lovely chaps, the Pats, as we called them. By night, they were vile.
Admittance to the Pats was based on an “8 before 8” test: you had to drink eight pints between midday and 20:00pm without being sick, and the last pint was a ‘dirty pint’. This mixture would regularly contain the following: urine, vinegar, crisps, rain, whisky.
I never tried one.
I can already hear the shrieks of protest. “This happens at Durham too!” or “Ponces! At Sherborne it was ‘9 before 9’”. Fine, shriek away. At no other university, including Oxford, is this sort of behaviour encouraged and practised more vigorously. But rugby-playing dirty-pint drinkers are my very definition of vile, and if you doubt that for a moment, well exam season is nearly finished and, if you fancy a day-trip, I hear the Pats are as thirsty as ever.
AGAINST: Tom Peck
Wearing a YSL polo and a pair of Reebok classics, I drove my 18 year old self up the M11 from Romford to Cambridge with every intention of starting some sort of war on the smug, be-chino’ed, pink-shirted, floppy-haired tosspots I was convinced I would encounter there. A week later quite a few of them were my best mates. More than a decade hence, they still are.
Yes, there are a lot of posh boys (and girls) at Cambridge, but for the most part I found them intelligent, self deprecating, good fun, not too fussed about work and keen to go out drinking – as any student should be. In fact I quickly learnt it’s the invariably comprehensive school educated mathematicians and computer scientists wearing t-shirts that say “Will Work For Bandwidth” (a genuine example) that you want to steer clear of.
Whenever a group of drunk Cambridge kids end up in the papers for streaking through the streets, throwing up in a library, or doing anything else that all the other 18 year olds at the Bolton Institute for Buggering About are up to, they are denigrated as if, just because Sir Isaac Newton might have once dropped an apple where they now prance around with their trousers off, they should all know better.
They shouldn’t. They’re kids. They’re not Messiahs, they’re just naughty little boys, and that anyone cares is never any more than misguided envy.
Firstly, every time a tale of Cambridge debauchery has gained any sort of national traction, it’s almost always because the geeky, ambitious, work-placement chasing editor of the student rag has rung the Daily Mail and gleefully tucked up his more popular contemporaries (there are at least four former ‘Varsity’ editors in the Independent’s newsroom – I’m not one of them).
Secondly, because of the absurdly overblown reputation of Cambridge (and Oxford), parts of the media and in turn the public react as if it were the UN Security Council who have been wearing drag, downing pints and lighting bits of toilet paper hanging out of each others backsides. It’s not, it’s just a load of drunken teenagers, getting up to the same old nonsense that happens every weekend and weeknight the country and the world over.
10,000 kids a year graduate from Oxford and Cambridge. Whisper it, but they’re not all going to be Prime Minister. Quite a lot of them are pretty ordinary individuals, that really aren’t worth getting excited about.
For the most part, though, the Hugos and the Tillys do at least have a bit of brain on them, and an inclusive sense of humour – their saving grace. Have a look at Durham, or Bristol or St Andrews’, where the thick public school kids like Wills and Kate go. The nonsense they get up to is much worse, but no one really cares – why would you?
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