The Christmas holidays. Most students start counting down the days to this frenzy of seasonal television, Baileys and pyjamas as legitimate daywear in mid-October. However, not everyone at university is fortunate enough to be able to go home and re-bond with their family and pets for four weeks over winter. Whether it’s because they have to stay to maintain a job, or because they are international students who cannot afford the transport costs for their journey home, a minority of the student population is left behind in Cardiff.
In the process of researching this article, I was surprised to discover that although halls of residence are kept open for students over the Christmas period, the university provides little to no support otherwise. I think that as Cardiff keenly welcomes students from overseas to come and study here, more consideration should be put into their year-round pastoral care. It is not sufficient to suggest that students should leave their homes and their families in order to study and then not maintain the level of support that is offered during term time. However, it is not just international students who stay in Cardiff. As all students are given the option of being able to stay in their houses or halls of residence over the Christmas break, it seems contradictory then not to give any real advice or guidance to those who do choose to stay.
So, what can students who stay in Cardiff expect to experience? The university run multi-faith Chaplaincy on Park Place, which describes itself as ‘a place of friendship, hospitality, reflection, support and dialogue’, remains open throughout December for students to come and visit. It provides a place for students to socialise when halls might seem like a lonely place to be and is open to all, regardless of whether you are religious or not. Also, outside of the university bubble, the city of Cardiff boasts a pretty impressive array of Christmassy events such as markets, festive theatre and open air ice skating.
Although university halls of residence remain open over Christmas, it is not just undergraduates who have the opportunity to stay. I spoke to postgraduate law student Fiona who is planning to stay in Cathays over Christmas. Fiona moved to Cardiff from her home in Ohio in order to study here. When I asked Fiona why she chose to come to Cardiff to study, she said that she was lured here by the low cost of living. I proudly agreed, as I couldn’t name another university whose student union offers double vodka mixers of a dubious quality for just £2.50, or a greasy fry up for a fiver. However, despite money saved through cheap booze and reasonable rent, return flights back to America still prove to be totally unattainable on a student budget. Fiona said ‘My parents are flying to Cardiff to visit me over the Easter holidays. Buying two lots of flights between the UK and America in a year is just inconceivable due to the massive cost.’ When I asked Fiona if the university had provided her with any advice or information about staying in Cardiff over the Christmas period, she said they had not. However, she did feel that ‘there is probably support for international students who choose to stay in Cardiff for the whole year, but these services could be more widely advertised. People tend to be shy about asking for that kind of information if it’s not given to them, especially if the person isn’t entirely familiar with the university yet.’
When doing the research for this article, one of the only pieces of information I found through the university website about provisions made for students over Christmas was a link to the Host UK scheme website. Although this scheme is run via an external organisation, it is advertised on the Cardiff University website underneath the International Students section. Host UK states that it aims to ‘promote international friendship and understanding by arranging for international students studying in the UK to spend a day, weekend or Christmas in a British home.’ There is a £60 administration cost that students have to pay, although some institutions will cover this fee on their students’ behalf. But, after the cost of administration the actual visit is free. Visiting students have the option to stay with their host for a weekend in the holidays, or over Christmas eve, Christmas day and boxing day. Students can request to stay with a host who lives within the vicinity of their university if this is possible, or else the student must state a travel budget that they can afford, and the organisation will find a host whose journey cost is within that budget.
Although it is good that the university is advertising these kinds of schemes, considering the size of the institution, it should really be capable of running schemes like this within the university. Furthermore, if the university runs and regulates arrangements similar to Host UK, students then might feel more confident about applying to them. Additionally, I agree with Fiona in that these resources should be more widely available for students. For instance, the Host UK web link is on the Cardiff University website, but it is not signposted or immediately obvious.
One area of the university that is open all through the Christmas holidays is the multi-faith Chaplaincy located on Park Place. There is food available and students are also encouraged to come and use the communal kitchen if they are in groups too large to accommodate in their own residences. Father Gareth Jones, who runs the Chaplaincy, says ‘Most years there has been a traditional Christmas day lunch at the Chaplaincy. I would hate to think of any student being alone over Christmas. They will certainly be welcome at the Chaplaincy.’ Although a Chaplaincy is traditionally a place where people of religious beliefs congregate, Father Jones was keen to stress the fact that everyone is welcome at the university Chaplaincy, regardless of whether they are religious or not. When asked whether students needed to hold religious beliefs in order to visit, Father Jones said ‘Do students have to be Christian, or believers of some kind to be invited or welcomed? The answer is no. All I’d ask is that they believe in “the division of labour” and don’t leave behind a mountain of washing up! Christmas is a celebration of a birth. I think we can all tap into that.’
Although the university campus may seem uncharacteristically quiet towards the end of December, the Cardiff city centre will still be a hive of activity. Here is a list of the best things to do and the top attractions that will be gracing Cardiff over the festive period:
- Winter Wonderland. This annual favourite has once again popped up on the City Hall Lawn on Park Place. The attraction remains in Cardiff until the 5th of January and includes an open air ice rink and stalls selling festive food and drink.
- The Cardiff Christmas Market. This German-style market pops up on the 14th November and stays until 23rd of December. The market has a huge range of stalls, including Celtic Woodcrafts Ltd, Sarah Bunton Luxury Chocolates, Land of Make Believe and Hurley’s Knit Wear. It’s the perfect place to find one of a kind presents for loved ones.
- Panto! If you feel that Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without minor celebrities donning bejewelled tights and leotards for your entertainment, then look no further than The New Theatre. This year, there will be a pantomime production of Jack and the Beanstalk starring none other than Julian Clary. The production runs from the 14th of November until the 19th of January and tickets start at a reasonable £10.50. No doubt it will prove as comforting as a large glass of mulled wine.
- Seasonal Ballet. If you’re still craving bejewelled tights and leotards but in a slightly more refined scenario, the Russian State Ballet and Orchestra of Siberia are bringing yuletide favourites The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake to St David’s Hall over the festive period. The Nutcracker will be performed from the 19th to the 24th of December, Sleeping Beauty on the 27th to the 31st and Swan Lake on the 3rd to the 5th of January. Student tickets are around £29.50, depending on where your seats are.
- The Royal Arcade. Tucked away in the heart of the city centre, this arcade is transformed at Christmas time; fairy lights are draped as far as the eye can see and all of the shops put up spirit-lifting window displays. However, this is not your average shopping arcade. You won’t find the usual high street chains that litter the rest of Cardiff here. I mean we all have that one relative who really, really loves vinegars, oils and spirits, right? Well my friend, you have come to the right arcade! A trip to the questionably named Vom Fass, which only sells vinegars, oils and spirits, should fulfil all of your gift-giving requirements. Got a friend with tricky dietary requirements? Well, Health With Herbs is sure to have a suitable gift. They stock products such as ‘festive digestive’, an enzyme-based digestive aid to tackle that post-turkey bloat. Alternatively, there are less offbeat shops such as Wally’s Delicatessen, which stocks literally every edible Christmas delight you can think of. And yes, in this case, I do mean literally rather than figuratively. It’s that good.
- Go Ice Skating. Channel your inner Blades of Glory and head down to Planet Ice at Cardiff Bay. It costs £7.90 for a session on the ice including boot hire, or £5.90 if you’re already pro and you’ve got your own blades. Or, if you’re more into watching rather than participating, the ice rink will be reformatting Alice in Wonderland as a ‘pantomime on ice.’ It’s only being shown at 7pm on the 5th and 7th of December and tickets cost £7.
So, if you choose to spend Christmas in Cardiff, there is plenty on offer but you just have to search for it. It seems surprising that an institution as big as Cardiff would keep accommodation open over Christmas for students, but not really offer further support. However, as the university is only really required to provide education for students, is it up to them to make arrangements for people who might not be able to go home? As Cardiff is a capital city, it can provide plenty of entertainment for anyone who resides here over the holidays, but it still seems somewhat unsatisfactory that students seem left to their own devices when the university is aware that not everyone will be leaving the campus at Christmas.