REVEALED: How your college handles intermissions

Results show shocking disparities between colleges

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It’s no mystery that Cambridge is stressful place. Short deadlines, huge workloads and a competitive environment put significant strain on students’ ability to cope.

Far too frequently students develop mental illness during their time here, with a 2013 Tab survey showing that 46% of Cambridge students are depressed. In addition to this, physical illness is an often overlooked effect of the intensity of term time. While provisions are available at both college and university level, for many, especially those with pre-existing issues of mental or physical health, these are inadequate, and it all becomes too much.

Intermission in theory is a process that exists to allow students who are unable to continue studying to take time out of hectic university life. Previously, the system had been confined to rather specific issues, such as debilitating physical illness or loss of a relative, but with the number of uni-wide intermissions increasing, it has been suggested that some students are intermitting for reasons directly attributable to their workload. Largely, this is linked to serious mental illness – the relationship between mental health and environment is a complex one – but faced with these new challenges, the intermission system seems at best inconsistent and at worst detrimental.

A Varsity investigation previously revealed that intermissions have been steadily rising at a University wide level, which likely reflects a greater awareness among both students and staff towards the issues of mental health.

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Although the process is ultimately handled by the Student Registry, colleges play a key role in the intermission process by either encouraging or discouraging students to seek intermission, and helping the student corroborate the evidence that will support their case for intermission.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Tab has managed to acquire data on the number of intermissions by college. By averaging the rate of intermission over the past 7 academic years and weighting it according to a college’s size, we’ve been able to investigate the extent to which undergraduate intermission is used as a policy at each college. The results, shown below, are rather shocking.

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As is clearly visible, certain colleges show intermission rates far above average, with Downing in particular exhibiting a massive average rate of 2.44%, followed closely by Homerton at 2.24%. Other colleges with high rates including Queens and Sidney Sussex, both topping 2%, as well as Jesus and Kings, who both lie just below 2%.

One particular thing to note is the academically high performing colleges, where the pressure to succeed in exams may be greater, do not show the highest intermission rates. None of the colleges in the top of five of the Tompkins table rank among the five highest rates of intermission, with Trinity in particular showing a close to average rate of 1.39%.

Another factor to consider is the subject make-up of colleges. Essay based subjects such as English have been thought to show highest intermission rates, potentially caused by lack of structure and greater need for self-motivation. This is reflected by the low intermission rates of Churchill and Trinity, both infamous for significant Nat Sci, Mathmo, and Engineer populations.

Downing showed the highest rate of intermission

While it’s important to stress that high intermission rates are not necessarily a bad thing (in fact it likely shows a greater leniency to students who need time out) what is clear based on the significant variations in intermission rates (with intermission occurring over twice as often at some colleges) is that colleges handle intermission differently. These differences are reflected in the diverging experiences of the intermission process which have been reported to members of the Tab, with some students claiming that they felt pressured into intermission despite not wanting to, and others being dissuaded from doing so despite believing it was in their interests.

Perhaps more strikingly, some students reported that their grades were a factor in determining the extent which colleges would support their intermission application, while others felt that speaking out and criticising their college would prejudice their treatment in the future.

One finalist who attempted to intermit told the Tab about their experience with the college.

“My intermission attempt came at a particularly awkward time – the holiday before my Part II finals, after events in my personal life and exam stress finally made me snap. As a result, I was advised by my tutor (whom I had never met) that I would likely be denied an intermission because it was too late in my degree, despite letters from my GP and long term therapist that I was not in a fit state to live by myself, let alone take exams. I was offered an ultimatum: to attempt to power through exams at the expense of my mental health, or to take an ‘honours degree’ from the university with an accompanying letter from my DoS saying that I’d ought to have gotten a 2:1 had it not been for illness (an option that was made out to be looked down on by employers).”

On reviewing our finding’s, former President of Student Minds Keir Murison told the Tab “Most testimonials I’ve heard [from intermitting students ] show that intermission is a very varied experience.”

“I think it is telling that rather than academic pressure being the main driver, it is most likely the treatment students face over issues of mental health and more general problems. If not supported early enough or well enough, students are more likely to intermit. Also the approach that some college’s take is to withhold information, or order people out before anything is confirmed.”

The system at Cambridge needs radical reform to cater to this fact – students should not face different treatment at different college’s – and with mental health a growing problem among young people, this issue will only become more important

It is time to put pressure on colleges to make intermission (and mental/physical health support in general) a more consistent and transparent process.