The University of Cambridge has a reputation – occasionally deserved, but mostly inaccurate – of being populated by wealthy twits who wear suits everyday, dine daily in three-course dinners, and whose bedrooms are furnished daily by a personal maid, and are supposedly the best and most expensive bedrooms in the country (clearly absurd!).
Sitting by the bank, I hear punt guides repeat these fables once every five minutes. While they makes a good Daily Mail article or a tale for a punt guide, this reputation is harmful: it detracts from the academic merits of this place, which are to be lauded of themselves. And it puts people off coming here, if they are turned off by the idea of extravagant living. Worst of all, the myths about Cambridge’s fees and expenses cause perfectly capable people to turn away, not realising that Cambridge charges the same tuition fees as most other UK universities (for UK students), and has a number of bursaries, and probably lower costs of living than London.
Cambridge has many problems with its finances and its lifestyle (it would be nice to see the bursary system expanded, and it would be very good if students could have more respect for the city, and vice-versa). But the image problem is a problem that will need to be fixed, independently of the others. Very few of us come from aristocratic society or have anything to do with the most chauvinistic drinking societies, yet misconceptions about those things remain, and their effect is very real: partly because we embrace it ourselves, selling ourselves with a sense of mystique to our non-Oxbridge friends and referring to ourselves as ‘Hogwarts’.
Of course we cannot hope to change our image by stopping the Daily Mail from saying what it will say, or by banning punt guides from spreading misconceptions (or outright lies). But ordinary members of the university can help to get rid of this image, simply by not embracing it. This would not have to come with losing some of our beloved and less harmful traditions. Nor would it stop us from being the unique university that we are: our research and teaching rankings do not come from being associated with the Wyverns.