UPDATE #3 - JCR President’s Blog - The Road Ahead for the Queens’ Undergraduate Community

The 2020-2021 academic year, relative to its predecessors, will be unfamiliar to returning students this Michaelmas. There have been dramatic changes in the way our undergraduate community operates.

This year we’ll have a massive cohort of first years; half a year’s worth of students living off the main site, either in Owlstone or private accommodation; students living in households, outside of which physical contact or proximity will be restricted at best; no more sharing sets in Fisher; second years in Dokett and Erasmus; cashless laundry; a successful group balloting system that was run by a JCR-Queens’ partnership. At least some of these changes are going to be permanent.

Of course, I hope that we will succeed in running a suitably socially-distanced freshers’ week, innovatively repurposing College spaces, re-opening the bar and retaining the means of enjoying a communal brunch. But I am not writing about some short-term fixes while we deal with COVID-19 (assuming it ever goes away), I am writing about the seismic shifts in our undergraduate community’s way of life.

We can but hope that some of our threatened traditions will live on after COVID restrictions ease for good; like gyp-hopping in Cripps, questioning why Jazz & Cocktails lacks jazz and laughing at the JCR committee using a ballot string to warn of chlamydia.

Other changes are bigger and more permanent. They are the move to the quarterly scheme (where we pay for the vacations), the move away from shared sets in Fisher, and the foundation of an undergraduate community in Owlstone Croft. We should expect them to be permanent: the Covid-19 Pandemic has been a catalyst, not a cause, for these huge changes in the way Queens’ JCR members live.

Only this Summer did I realise that the “three-years Main Site accommodation guarantee” had been removed from Queens’ admissions material a couple of years back. Somebody forgot to tell students because we haven’t stopped telling kids about this on open days and school tours… Last year (2019), there was a shortage and we nearly ran out of rooms on the Main Site. The Big QJCR Survey 2020 was completed by over half of first-years, and only a third said they were planning to share in their second year. Even if all the ‘maybes’ shared, there would not have been enough space. All of this was before the national A-level fiasco that saw some 25 more first years be accepted this year.

I loved sharing in second-year. I will be sad to see it go. Yes, the benefits of sharing could have been made clearer and better, but the trend is clear and we have to pick and choose our battles - I’d rather fight for better room allocation, transparency of finances, and better veggie sausages.

It’s a potential (but not certain) threat to the essence of our community, not to have everyone on site, but isn’t it better that we have a sizable community than have some poor souls at the end of a ballot be relegated to live there away from friends? I for one think so. We are not Clare, Catz or Tit Hall where entire year groups move out. I am confident we will remain proudly a ‘friendly college’, and if we don’t then it will be our failure to adapt as much as a product of the move to Owlstone.

There is no Queens’ and Owlstone any more; there has to be ‘Main Site’ and ‘Owlstone’.

Doubtless, there are huge challenges. Do we keep Owlstone stocked with condoms and sanitary products? When clubs are open again, is there a danger of students walking back to Owlstone along the river in the dark? Do we need an optional JCR rep? Can we put a Wii in the Owlstone common room (and can the MCR pay)? Do we need a better bicycle skill-sharing group? In next year’s ballot, do we reward students who went to Owsltone? Will we have to, or will Owsltone be oversubscribed?

But there are equally as many opportunities! We can have events where Main Site residents come down to Owlstone - a sports day or a barbeque maybe. We can hold events in liaison with the local community. Main Site residents will be able to use the ovens of Owlstone friends. We could use the land in Owlstone for environmental initiatives.

The move to quarterly is another major shift. Even after the pandemic, conferencing (which used rooms during vacations and subsidised them, believe it or not) may never be the same again. Maybe a termly scheme will be available for some rooms in future, or maybe not. Either way, quarterly looks likely to be the norm indefinitely.

We’re getting better value for money, sure, but over the course of a year we’ve been hit with a room charge (technically it’s not rent, as I’m frequently reminded) hike, and without the bursary amounts for those on the lowest household income. Queens’ absolutely must have a systematic process for receiving tutorial student support funds, or else we will have a situation of shame or embarrassment getting in the way of a student’s ability to live life at Cambridge to the fullest.

Curiously, this change absolves us of so many of the recurring issues we had at Queens’, and some of the biggest issues coming up from the Big QJCR Survey in 2019. We’ll get accommodation for longer at the end of May Week, we won’t need to move our stuff at the end of every term, and we won’t feel like the needs of conferencing guests are put before our own.

There will be unforeseen consequences of this shift. Do we open the bar during vacations? Do we host quizzes? Does QCBC form vacation crews? Will students be inclined to get vacation jobs in Cambridge and will there be a pressure (against University rules) for those students to keep working into term? Will Queens’ have to warn against New Year’s parties?

Times are changing, and just as well they are matched with a bolstered JCR Committee who have proven that they can deal with changes and step up when required. As students, we like to complain about the College, but if we don’t make this work, it will be a failure of our imagination and resolve, as well.

Tomos Wood

Queens’ JCR President 2020