There is more to Cambridge than supervisions and stress, and the university needs to acknowledge it
Emails are just the beginning
As a fresher, I was told by my director of studies that everyone at Cambridge feels like an imposter initially. The first few weeks of Cambridge can be a very overwhelming time: making new friends, keeping up with a significantly different work style and trying to adjust to the myriad of new information is a unique challenge for any student.
Imagine, then, being told that the work you are facing is so difficult, the opportunity you have been given so great, that you must dedicate all your time to your studies – but even if you do, its likely you will never succeed. This was the message a physics DoS sent out to freshers in an email, yet is indicative of a far wider trend of Cambridge staff putting unhealthy pressure on students.
According to the National Students Survey in 2015, only 37% of students at Cambridge felt that their course did not apply unnecessary pressure, and the proportion of those reporting that the workload on their course is manageable is limited to 53%. Personal accounts reflect this damning indictment across a wide range of subjects.
A second year studying HSPS told Student Minds Cambridge that when studying AMES in their first year, there was “no leeway” when they needed an extension on an essay. They also discuss “graphic readings” which were very triggering, for which they were offered no alternative.
A third year medicine student said that in second year that, “[they] felt a constant strain and inability to keep up with the work. This culminated in exam term where [their] mental health was severely negatively affected by the structure of the exams and pressure from staff.”
Further accounts of supervisor conduct reveal how some students are regularly made to feel that they are ‘not clever enough’ to study here; “In my third ever supervision, my supervisor told me he 'didn't know what to do with me' because I didn't seem to be successfully improving on his feedback. I was really trying to improve in what he said I needed to work on, and I found this feedback incredibly harsh, as I had only done 3 essays and he was acting like he was at a wits' end with me.” (Second year, History).
In reality, there are a myriad of reasons why results can differ, including, but not limited to, mental health, family circumstances, negotiating disadvantages created by minority status and disability. It is these people who are let down when their allegedly ‘cleverer’ peers are lauded for their academic merits with monetary rewards and special dinners. It is not that people who work to achieve their best should not be congratulated, but it should be considered that for some, ones best is far more easy to achieve.
Expectations of workload are a further issue: An MML Finalist discusses being told in first year that “if you study Russian ab initio, you should not pursue any extracurricular activities as the course is too intense to allow for anything other than work in your life”. These demands made by the faculty led to the student in question pursuing no extracurricular activities in their first year, which they said was “very much detrimental to my mental health”.
The student rightfully claims that the expectation of students to study for 8 hours a day during the Christmas vacation was “ridiculous and impossible”, and they see a direct link between the depression and severe anxiety they developed in their first year and the unachievable workload imposed upon them by their faculty.
Even if such accounts are personal, they reflect an ingrained systematic issue. The overarching picture is that there is a distinct lack of coherent guidelines and best practice recommendations set down by the university, leading to the belittling of mental health issues and academic pressure in some areas, sometimes due to the fact that the academic reputation of the fellow at hand is valued more highly than student’s own welfare.
It would be a shame to write an article discussing the issues created by certain elements of the university without highlighting some of the excellent avenues of support which are available. From external sources such as Nightline, Student Minds, Mind and your GP, to university based services such as your JCR Welfare Reps, college counsellor or nurse, Tutor, University Counselling Service or Students University Advice Service – there is not a shortage of support avenues available to those who are struggling (limited as these may be in some cases). Student Minds Cambridge will soon be releasing a website that puts all of these services into a concise, easy to use guide to ensure all students are able to navigate support networks available with ease.
Contrary to the opinion of many in the higher reaches of Cambridge Academia, University should be a time of growth, not a time of restriction. Contrary to popular belief, Cambridge can be quite fun at times, and its myriad of societies give everyone the option to engage in something other than academic work.
The university should take action to ensure all staff are empowering students to do well, rather than consigning them to an existence which consists solely of stress and work. It is for this reason that Student Minds Cambridge condemns the actions of said DoS, and many others like them, for the dangerous impact they can have on students welfare.