Varsity (Cambridge)

For The University of Toronto student newspaper, see The Varsity (newspaper).
Type Weekly newspaper
Format Compact
Owner(s) Varsity Publications Ltd
Editor Louis Ashworth and Callum Hale-Thomson
Founded 1931
Headquarters 16 Mill Lane, Cambridge, CB2 1RX
Circulation Up to 10,000[1]
ISSN 1758-4442

Varsity is the oldest of Cambridge University's main student newspapers. It has been published continuously since 1947, and is one of only three fully independent student newspapers in the UK. It is published every Friday during the University of Cambridge's term time, moving back to being a weekly publication in Michaelmas 2015 after three years as a fortnightly publication since Michaelmas 2012.

In November 2009, the paper won six prizes at the Guardian Student Media Awards, was nominated for a further two, and former editor Patrick Kingsley was named Student Journalist of the Year.[2]


Varsity is one of Britain's oldest student newspapers. Its first edition was published in 1931 as Varsity: the Cambridge University Illustrated (later The Varsity Weekly, and then the Cambridge Varsity Post).[3] However, the first few years saw Varsity get off to a shaky start. In 1932 controversy about some of the stories resulted in the editor being challenged to a duel, and the following year the paper went bankrupt with losses of £100.

A variety of attempts to revive Varsity led to the paper resurfacing periodically over the following decade, but it was not until 1947 that the paper was re-established permanently in its current form. Harry Newman Jr (1921–2001), a graduate from Harvard and the Harvard Business School, then studying for a postgraduate degree at St John's College, Cambridge, decided that Cambridge needed a proper American-style campus newspaper modeled on the Crimson.[4] 'Varsity', the name of an obsolete publication, was used due to a post-war ration on newsprint. Only publications that had existed before the War could be allocated paper. On 19 April 1947 Varsity reappeared again, with the first issue headlining the coming visit of the then Princess Elizabeth to the University. Unfortunately the visit never took place.

In a letter published in Varsity at the end of the year 1971-2, Harry Newman wrote, "Varsity began over a bottle of sherry in John's, matured over a bottle of port in Caius and blossomed with a firkin of ale over the Victoria Cinema, where we pecked out the first issue on trestle tables (without chairs).

"Several of us -- Bill Watson (Professor of Social Anthropology), David Widdicombe (distinguished Q.C.), John Noonan (American Professor of Canon Law), Dave Reece (Canadian Diplomat), Bill Howell (prominent architect), and Geoffrey Neame, among others -- felt that what the University needed, in addition to its latest organisation, Y.A.S. (Yet Another Society), was an American-style college newspaper. ... It was truly an international effort, British (all three), Canadian, American, Hungarian, and Indian."

Geoffrey Neame, "a leading light among the Nightclimbers of Cambridge and the Gentlemen of Caius", was the first post-1947 layout editor. The first Managing Editor was the Scotsman "Wee Willie Watson", a fighter pilot. The second Editor (after Newman) was David Widdicombe, a Queens' student who was also Chairman of the Labour Club.

Varsity's headquarters in 1947 was above the Scotch Hoose, "a restaurant at the corner of the Market and Market Street". At first, 5,000 copies were printed.

In the 1950s, Varsity's offices were in a former shop in St. Edwards Passage, next door to the Arts Theatre.

In 1955, a one-off Oxford edition of the paper was produced by the then editor Michael Winner. Since then the paper has concentrated on the Cambridge audience.

In 1956, the current staff, worried about debts, questioned Varsity's legal status. Solicitors were consulted, who advised that any debts arising from its considerable turnover (advertising income, printing costs etc.) or damages awarded for libel etc. would be the personal responsibility of the current Editor. "Varsity" was promptly converted into a limited liability company - "Varsity Publications Ltd", with a share capital of £100. 50% of the shares were taken by the printers, 20% by the Don who was the senior Treasurer and the rest, at £1 per head, by the current staff.

In the mid-1970s, Varsity merged with the radical campaigning student paper Stop Press. Thereafter, it was known as Stop Press with Varsity for several years, before reverting to its original title in the late 1980s.

Famous contributions

Many of those who wrote for the paper during their student days have since gone on to achieve distinction in later life. Famous ex-editors include the BBC news presenters Jeremy Paxman and David Frost, film director Michael Winner, the late television presenter Richard Whiteley, former Financial Times editor Andrew Gowers, Independent editor Amol Rajan, i editor Oliver Duff, novelist Robert Harris, novelist and biographer Graham Lord, historian Jonathan Spence, Factory Records founder Tony Wilson and BBC1's EastEnders executive producer Matthew Robinson. International Herald Tribune fashion writer and author Suzy Menkes was the newspaper's first female editor.

Some of Sylvia Plath's earliest poems and J. G. Ballard's first published story were written for the paper. Plath also posed in a bathing suit for an article she wrote about summer fashion-wear for the ladies. Meanwhile, comic Peter Cook met his first wife while posing for a Varsity May Ball photo shoot.

The paper has also launched the careers of many news journalists, including in recent times former Observer Political Editor Gaby Hinsliff, Guardian New York correspondent Oliver Burkeman, Guardian music critic Alexis Petridis, author and columnist Iain Hollingshead, Guardian columnist Archie Bland, the Independent's New York business correspondent Stephen Foley as well as former Independent columnist Johann Hari. The BBC and Evening Standard reporter Andrew Gilligan, later known for a row with 10 Downing Street, was once a news editor. Other notable contributors who have had later success in other fields include Michael Frayn, Germaine Greer, Clive James, Gavin Lyall and even the Prince of Wales.

Stories first revealed in Varsity have often gone on to receive coverage in the UK's national press. In recent years reports to capture wider attention have included the leak of the name of Cambridge's latest vice-Chancellor, news about student protests concerning higher education funding, and a host of lighter reports about undergraduate excesses. In 2014 Varsity collaborated with Cambridge's Students' Union to survey the rate of sexual assault at the University; the findings of the survey, published in Varsity, attracted widespread attention from the national press.[5][6][7][8]

In May 1953, Varsity was only the third newspaper in the world to carry a report on James Watson and Francis Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA, after the News Chronicle and The New York Times. The discovery was made in Cambridge on February 28, 1953; the first Watson/Crick paper appeared in Nature on April 25, 1953. Sir Lawrence Bragg, the director of the Cavendish Laboratory, where Watson and Crick worked, gave a talk at Guy's Hospital Medical School in London on Thursday, May 14, 1953 which resulted in an article by Ritchie Calder in the News Chronicle of London, on Friday, May 15, 1953, entitled "Why You Are You. Nearer Secret of Life." The news reached readers of The New York Times the next day; Victor K. McElheny, in researching his biography, "Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution", found a clipping of a six-paragraph New York Times article written from London and dated May 16, 1953 with the headline "Form of 'Life Unit' in Cell Is Scanned." The article only ran in an early edition and was then pulled to make space for news deemed more important. Varsity ran its own 130-word front-page article on the discovery on Saturday, May 30, 1953 under the headline "X-Ray Discovery".


Varsity is published by Varsity Publications Ltd, a not-for-profit company which directly funds The Varsity Trust, a UK registered charity with the principal object of furthering the education of students in journalism.[9] The company also produces a number of other student publications such as The Mays - a collection of short stories and poems by Cambridge and Oxford students. The "Mays" have been published annually since 1992 and are most famous for launching the career of novelist Zadie Smith. She was first noticed by literary agencies after her short story Private Tutor appeared in the 1997 collection.

Advertising in Varsity has traditionally been seen as highly useful by graduate recruiters hoping to attract Cambridge students. As a result, the newspaper is able to distribute free copies to members of the university without relying on student union funding and it was the first student newspaper in the UK to produce a colour section. Varsity's management and funding structure means that it is independent from both the University and Cambridge University Students' Union. In this respect it is unlike the vast majority of similar publications in other UK universities. The only other student newspapers to operate similarly are Oxford's Cherwell and The Saint of the University of St Andrews.

Unlike most student newspapers, the design of the newspaper is allowed to change radically with the arrival of new student editors.


In November 2009, the paper took home over a third of the prizes at the Guardian Student Media Awards, and were nominated for a further two. Patrick Kingsley was named Student Journalist of the Year;[10] Michael Stothard won in the Best Reporter category; Zing Tsjeng was the Best Feature Writer; Ben Riley-Smith was Best Sports Reporter; while Charlotte Runcie was awarded Best Columnist, with Rob Peal runner-up.

For several consecutive years in the 1950s and 1960s the paper won the award for Britain's best student newspaper. (In the mid-1950s it was temporarily banned from entering for the award on grounds that it was "too professional" and other publications should be given a chance to win.) Recently, it was successful in the 2004 Guardian Student Media Awards where it won the prize for best columnist (Archie Bland) and came runner-up in best sports writer category (Sam Richardson).[11] In 2005 Varsity writer Sam Richardson won the Guardian's Student Diversity Writer of the Year award.[12] In 2006, Sophie Pickford was the runner-up for best sports writer of the year.[13]

In 2007, Varsity won the Guardian Student Media Awards' Student Publication Design of the Year.[14]

Notable editors

The Lent term editor also edits a single edition at the start of Easter term, and a separate editor controls a special edition May Week issue (or, in some years, daily May Week issues) at the end of the academic year.


Although Varsity's editors are not paid, they are supported by a full-time Business Manager and Company Secretary (responsible for sourcing advertising to fund the publications, running the office on a day-to-day basis, finance, accounts, tax and administration).

The current Business Manager and Company Secretary is Mark Curtis.

Varsity also has a Board of Directors made up of University academics, long-term associates of the newspaper and student members. The current Chairman is Dr Mike Franklin.


Varsity is now based at the Old Examination Hall on the New Museums Site in the former Godwin Laboratory. Previously, Varsity was based at 11–12 Trumpington Street for over 16 years. The newspaper's move from this 'temporary' home to the new offices occurred in August 2007.


  2. "Guardian Student Media Awards, 2009: Winners". The Guardian. London. November 26, 2009. Retrieved May 27, 2010.
  3. "Bibliographic record for Varsity". Cambridge University Library.
  4. Starr, Kevin (1994–1995). "Judge John T. Noonan, Jr.: A Brief Biography". Journal of Law and Religion. Journal of Law and Religion, Inc. 11 (1): 151–176. doi:10.2307/1051628. JSTOR 1051628.
  9. Extract from the Register of Charities maintained by the Charity Commission for England and Wales
  10. "Guardian Student Media Awards, 2009: Winners". The Guardian. London. November 26, 2009. Retrieved May 27, 2010.
  11. Harris, Rob (November 15, 2004). "Student Media Awards 2004". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-04-29.
  12. "Student Media Awards 2005". London: The Guardian. November 2, 2005. Retrieved 2008-04-29.
  13. "Student Media Awards 2006". London: The Guardian. November 9, 2006. Retrieved 2008-04-29.
  14. "Student Media Awards 2007". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-04-29.
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