CUSU Presidential address – on reading week

CUSU President speaks out on #EndWeek5Blues

#endweek5blues cde CUSU helen hoogewerf-mccomb president reading week WU

Charles Darwin has this gem his time after finishing his BA:

“I do not know why the degree should make one so miserable, both before & afterwards; I recollect [William Fox was] sufficiently wretched before, & I can assure I am now”

This might seem familiar to many of you who have been through the exam period here. It certainly rings true for many more who have graduated and escaped the dreaded bubble. CUSU’s 2014 annual survey showed 43% of students felt their experience at Cambridge had a negative impact on their mental health. 21% felt it had a negative impact on their ability to study and 27% felt there was a negative impact on their confidence.

Many of us are actually mentally ill

And before you stats geeks start calling selection bias: this wasn’t some little poll – more than 2,300 people completed it and, because the full survey focuses on many areas of student life, there is much less risk of self-selection than a lot of similar surveys conducted in the University. National surveys like the NSS are also flagging up warning signs, such as the fact that only 39% of Cambridge students feel they are given enough time to understand their work.

To give it credit, the central University has started to recognise the problem and take some responsibility for student welfare – an issue which has historically been understood to be solely the business of the Colleges. 2014 saw the release of the University’s Strategy for Student Wellbeing which states:

“The University is endeavouring to provide opportunities and support for all students to develop themselves to be able to pursue their lives and careers when they leave the University – not just in terms of academic qualifications, but also in terms of self-esteem, personal resilience and self – confidence.”

CUSU President 2014-15

Clearly it is not yet succeeding in this endeavour, but the fact that this is on the University’s radar is a great sign. By starting to tackle issues such as mental health, academic stress and sexual harassment, there is scope for huge improvement in the lives of students at Cambridge. This emerging institutional focus on issues of student welfare is one of the biggest reasons campaigns like #endweek5blues might finally gain traction when more than 30 years of reading week campaigning has thus far failed.

They might have a chance because the University is actively seeking solutions – real, workable solutions – to welfare problems in the student population. The proposal to restructure term into two 4-week blocks, sandwiching a reading week, is neither a nebulous concept nor a radical experiment; it is reality in a vast number of University’s across the UK. A reading week would give students a chance to catch up and consolidate learning that currently slips away in the frantic pace of term. It would give disabled students – who generally cannot take undergraduate courses at Cambridge on a part-time basis, as they have the opportunity to do at many other Universities – a cushion against the impact that health issues may have during a period of continuous study.

It would do all of that while maintaining the same number of teaching weeks and the work content in a current Cambridge term.

Can’t just wave a magic wand

To be clear: if some are approaching this issue naively, I certainly am not. I’ve been campaigning on student welfare for more than 5 years. I’ve seen campaigns fail, but I’ve also seen some big ones succeed and been part of enough to know the difference. Remember tutor training? I worked to push that through last year and even helped design what it would look like. I’ve spent a year on the Counselling Service’s Executive Committee and I worked with the University to develop that student wellbeing strategy.

I am not new to this.

I am not pretending these issues are simple or easy to change.

I have a pretty good idea of the scale of effort required to get Cambridge to even consider changing its term structure – it’s huge. I’m also well aware this will not fix every problem and there will still be a lot to do if we are going to make Cambridge a healthier place for students. Financial implications of longer terms must be considered carefully but, with most colleges charging us for at least 10 weeks of rent already, we might find it less challenging than you would think.

And even if the ask is too big, too daring, at least it will get people – academics and students alike – talking about and taking action on the underlying issues of stress and mental health that have been evident at this University since Darwin’s day. In my eyes, that can’t really be a bad thing.

For those of you taking part in #endweek5blues: I wish you the best of luck.