Someone needs to say it: Cambridge’s return policy has been utterly horrific

“The complete disregard for our mental health has been staggering”

Cambridge colleges are letting students down. Plain and simple. Sure, not all colleges and not all students (for what it’s worth, I’m proud of my own college’s response), but this is not the time for whataboutisms. This is the time to accept that fact that for too many students at too many colleges, they have been met by inconsiderate, careless and dismissive responses from the colleges which are meant to be our “homes”. 

Colleges which claim on their shiny prospectuses to be “a home away from home” or a “friendly and welcoming environment”, but turn their backs on students asking to come back for legitimate reasons to protect their mental health and continue their degree. 

“students should make that decision for themselves” Credits: @aureliopetrucci via twitter

Disclaimer: no-one is asking colleges to act contrary to the law, which currently states that students should stay at home until at least mid-February, unless you study one of the very few exempt courses, or need to return to university for “health-based reasons” – including mental health – or “lack of appropriate study space at home.” Whatever our grievances are with this policy, we can’t change the law. So fair enough, what Cambridge colleges can’t do, is accept all students back to Cambridge regardless. 

But what they can do is listen to us when they say we need to come back to Cambridge, trust that we know our home lives the best, and support us to make the best decisions for ourselves. Trust us, we have a better understanding of our home circumstances than a tutor who we see for five minutes at the start and end of every term. 

Colleges must trust students to determine for themselves whether they need to return to Cambridge Photo credits: Author’s own screenshot from Camfess

This feels like the bare minimum: follow government guidelines, listen to students, support them to return if they feel it’s best for them. Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope even clarified yesterday that students needing to return for exemptions such as mental health reasons, or a bad internet connection, were able to. Yet many colleges are not listening to their students. In fact, a number of students from a variety of colleges have told the Tab that their colleges have been inflexible regarding returning to Cambridge, despite having legitimate reasons:

“It’s been quite obvious that they don’t want any of us to come back” 

A Magdalene student told the Tab Cambridge that they feel “it’s been quite obvious that they don’t want any of us to come back”, with students being told to consider whether returning to Cambridge was “essential rather than just desirable”, despite having already explained their mental health circumstances necessitating their return. 

Students at Magdalene have allegedly been told that the college is “deciding who can come back by ranking out claims and only those with the “strongest claims” can come back”, essentially pitting students against each other and leaving a number remaining in compromising situations. This has led to students feeling “that their case hasn’t been deemed exceptional enough” and “feeling like their mental health has just been tossed around from staff member to staff member.”

The email to Magdalene students also said “most people are having to tolerate a considerable degree of inconvenience and discomfort”

The JCR has further critiqued the college’s response for encouraging students to wait it out at home for a few weeks, leaving students “in a precarious position for their mental health, risking the situation getting worse and forcing disruption partway into the term.”

They are campaigning for the college to review its criteria for returns in line with university and government policy and asking “if a student tells the college that staying at home will be detrimental to their mental health, this should be accepted at face value.” Trusting students to decide for themselves where is safest for them to reside during a pandemic is such a small ask, and implying students should remain at home simply because others have it worse is reductive, dangerous and utterly misses the point.

“My tutor suggested that I intermit, instead of being allowed to return”

Whilst Magdalene are playing games of hardship Olympics, Queens’ approach appears to be treating all students equally – by seemingly rejecting all cases. A Queens’ student claimed: “I asked my tutor if I could return to college, as I qualify for both of these exceptions [and] I was still refused my request. She even suggested that I intermit, instead of being allowed to return.” 

“colleges have failed students” Credits: @camunilabour via Twitter

This seems to fit into a pattern of students feeling like in order to qualify to return, they need to stress the extent to which they are struggling with their mental health, only for colleges to turn around and use this as evidence for them being too unstable to return. Students are being forced to be extremely vulnerable in explaining their personal circumstances, only for this to be used as ammunition against them. 

“My tutor suggested I install a new 4G mast or lay a fiber optic cable to my house”

Queens’ appear to be no more understanding for students struggling with a lack of appropriate study space at home either. The Tab Cambridge were told that allegedly “one student with an unsuitable work environment was told that college could buy him a desk to work on, despite the student having mentioned that there was not space for such equipment in his home”, rather than being able to return to Cambridge. 

The student also claimed that “another student who had no access to internet connection was refused return to college, and when he further explained that in order to complete his term from home college would have to either install a new 4G mast, or lay a fiber optic cable to his house, his tutor suggested that he look into these options.” Yes, you read that correctly. Such responses are facetious, reductive and show a level of sheer ignorance to the difficult situations many people face at home. 

A fun new extra-curricular for Queens’ students! Photo credit: Author’s own screenshot

Many colleges are showing a complete disregard for the nuances within people’s home lives which make them unable to study at home – and these go beyond simply having internet access. Magdalene JCR has described the college’s approach as “extremely stringent”, with the college’s criteria for return going beyond those laid out by Toope. The JCR told the Tab Cambridge that “the criteria they have chosen completely ignores students whose home-lives are detrimental to their mental health and those with no adequate place to study free of distractions.”

There are a plethora of reasons why people struggle to, or in fact cannot, work from home and a *crumb* of awareness of the often complex and overlapping reasons for this would be much appreciated. Just because some of us live in turreted rooms in Cambridge doesn’t mean we have the same luxury at home. 

“I don’t know anyone that has been let back in despite many people emailing in with genuine, legitimate and pressing reasons”

This pattern of dismissal was brought to a head last week with a screenshot of an email from a tutor going viral. The email insinuated that the reason the student wanted to return was because there was a “mega group chat where [freshers were] winding each other up”, despite the student in question having a diagnosed mental health condition which necessitated his return. 

The underlying implication to these responses is that students don’t have any “real” reasons to be in Cambridge and are just “faking” their need to come back so they can doss about with their friends. Indeed, a Homerton student told us “I don’t know anyone that has been let back in despite many people emailing in with genuine, legitimate and pressing reasons to be back in Homerton regarding mental health, welfare or study-related issues.”

“I don’t know anyone that has been let back in” Photo credits: Author’s own screenshot from Homfess

This is so completely out-of-touch with the reality of students’ lives. Believe us, we’re not unintelligent: we know we’re in the middle of the pandemic, we know the lockdown restrictions, and we know the need to act sensibly to keep ourselves and others safe. The overwhelming majority of people returning are genuinely just concerned with protecting their mental health and continuing their academic work. Trust us, we’re not returning to an empty staircase and a ghost town just for the pure thrill of it. 

These feelings about colleges attempting to deter students coming back are echoed by a Caius student who has said their college’s “comments on coming back to uni have indicated how few people they want to come back and I think it is definitely dissuading students who struggle with their mental health from asking.”

 Moreover, comments stressing the danger posed by students returning can feel like attempts to guilt-trip students in remaining at home. Whilst the movement of millions of students does of course pose a risk, hostile emails stressing this can serve to prevent students from asking for help, potentially leaving students in precarious situations. 

“The consistent dismissal of colleges towards their students is honestly insulting”

These responses might show a particularly astounding lack of awareness, but the problem extends beyond one unsympathetic tutor, or one college trying to prevent students from returning. It’s indicative of a wider issue of colleges failing to prioritise student’s well-being. 

The consistent dismissal of colleges towards their students is honestly insulting. Students are opening up about their difficult home circumstances and mental health issues, just to be met with dismissal and essentially a brick wall. Students’ well-being is being left to the whims of tutors or college bodies, with little consideration of the vulnerability it takes to admit that actually, your home environment isn’t a safe or productive place to be, for a variety of highly personal reasons. 

Having to discuss your personal reasons for returning to Cambridge can put students in a very vulnerable situation Photo credits: Author’s own screenshot from Camfess

Colleges claim that decisions are being made on a case-by-case basis, and yet too often there is a lack of consideration for the individuals behind the, often quite desperate, emails of students being forced to beg to return. The disparity between colleges and the frequent lack of humanity and support is leaving students in compromised situations, often at the expense of their degree, mental health or both.

As said before, it’s not all Colleges, meaning it doesn’t have to be this way. Colleges such as Girton have been praised by students for their student-first approach, merely asking students to fill in a form and stressing that if they feel they need to come back in line with the government guidelines they are welcome to. 

In the context of other college’s responses, this policy is almost made to feel extreme, which is ridiculous. Trusting students to make the best decision for themselves isn’t too radical an idea, we promise you. We’re all adults at the end of the day, who are more than capable of deciding for ourselves if a situation is unsafe for us to be in. Colleges like Girton should be looked to as an example of how to follow the government’s guidelines, without treating students with contempt and dismissal.

Colleges need to act with students, to ensure that their well-being is adequately protected in these difficult times. Listen to students when they’re asking for support. Make sure the people who need to return to Cambridge are able to do so in a way that can keep themselves, and the community safe.

Related stories recommended by this writer:

• Cambridge University moves all Lent term teaching online

• Mental health and no internet are ‘permitted reasons’ to return to Cambridge, Toope confirms

• Student Minds Cambridge calls for ‘university-wide’ return policy for students with mental health concerns

• Cambridge will not be offering a ‘no detriment’ policy for students this year

The University of Cambridge Press Office, Queens’ College, Caius College, Homerton College and Magdalene College have all been approached for comment.

Feature Image credit: Jessica Graham