Interview: Cambridge could have a reading week, freshers week and weekend under new SU plans

‘There’s nothing inherently good about a deadline-heavy eight-week structure’

Cambridge could introduce a reading week, full freshers’ week, and a weekend under a proposal by Cambridge SU Undergraduate President, Ben Margolis. The proposal, which is currently under consultation would significantly revise the Cambridge term structure in an attempt to improve both student well-being and academic performance. The Tab Cambridge spoke to Ben Margolis about his plans: 

‘The current nature of Cambridge education is actively detrimental to student’s education’

Critiques of the Cambridge term structure have a long history, with Ben telling the Tab his proposals came about following a breadth of evidence: from last year’s report on student loneliness, to a 2016 report on student workloads and collaboration between Cambridge libraries and the SU’s a few years ago. He said this evidence has led him to believe that “the current nature of Cambridge education is actively detrimental to student’s education.” His proposals attempt to reduce recurring issues Cambridge students face and allow the university to “offer a higher quality of education, and an equally valuable degree, whilst providing a better environment for students.”

Student well-being was a key motivator behind the proposal, with the student loneliness report showing that 75 per cent of students felt lonely on a daily or weekly basis and that 62 per cent agreed that the intensity of the academic workload was a barrier to making friends and having a good social life. Ben described these results as “shocking”, saying that “a lack of social interactions is completely endemic among the student population.”

On average, Cambridge students experience higher levels of loneliness than students nationally

The proposal would add just three days either side of term

Although this is not the first time the SU has attempted to reform the Cambridge term structure, Ben said that proposals have “probably been overcomplicated in the past.” His proposal, which he says would add just three days on either side of term (excluding the longer freshers’ week in Michaelmas) seeks to redress some of the current issues with Cambridge’s education system. 

The revised term structure would still fit within the ten week accommodation lease which most (but not all) students are on, with Michaelmas term being ten weeks long, and Lent term nine weeks. He said this would mitigate some of the main reasons which have prevented the proposal from being implemented in the past since this would mean “colleges don’t lose out on conference incomes.”

Diagram showing the differences proposed changes would make to the Michaelmas term structure

‘There’s a base level of poor well-being and poor mental health across the board’ 

Ben told the Tab that the pandemic had both brought to light and exacerbated issues with the Cambridge term structure, saying “you can see from a glance at Camfess as much as you can from survey data that at the moment there’s a base level of poor well-being and poor mental health across the board.” In his role as SU president he said the primary demand he has been receiving from students is that “you need to get supervisors to take it easy for us, the pace of work is too much to keep up with in this given time.”

When discussing problems with the current term structure, he said “there’s nothing inherently good about a deadline-heavy eight week structure and then nothing for twelve weeks, this doesn’t equate to a good education.” Rather, he said the current structure can be detrimental to students’ academic experience saying “it’s constantly deadline, deadline deadline”, meaning “students can’t explore academic interest or other skills.” 

He said he neither wanted nor believed the proposals to come at a cost to the academic rigour which has come to be conflated with the Cambridge educational experience. He said “courses can still be rigorous and hard work, I just think there’s a difference between that and fitting work into such a short period of time that students are left feeling like they’re not getting what they want from their education.”

“The current nature of Cambridge education is actively detrimental to student’s education”

Cambridge students could get a reading week under the proposal

The aspect of the proposal Ben felt most passionately about was the introduction of a reading week in the middle of Michaelmas and Lent term. He said this was “the most important thing” since it would represent “a clear statement from the university that Cambridge is more than just work.” 

Currently, the middle of term is infamously marked by the ‘week five blues’, which is essentially a way to brush off the burnout and poor mental health many Cambridge students face by week five of term. If passed, Ben’s proposal could help to reduce this burnout. Ben said the reading week would “allow students to have a rest in the middle of term”, which could be used for students to “catch up with academic work, get involved in extracurriculars, socialise and catch up with family and friends.”

The proposal aims to improve students’ well-being and academic experience

Goodbye fresher’s five-days, hello freshers’ week 

Another aspect of the proposal to improve the work-life balance of Cambridge is plans to extend the current “fresher’s five days” (or less, depending on when your supervisors set work!) to allow for fresher’s to have an entire week to settle in before the start of academic work. 

Ben said the current system creates issues since “you come to university and you have your first deadline set before you’ve settled in.” He said this left people feeling “overwhelmed with work”, creating a “cycle of feeling that you can’t get involved with extracurricular activities because they’re missing out.” 

This is something he is keen to change since he believes “the Cambridge experience is so much more than the academic side of it.” He said that a full fresher’s week would allow “people to feel at home, get involved in extracurriculars and make friends” and would represent a “really important cultural shift.” 

Additionally, he said this would help to support student’s welfare since “the friends people make in freshers’ week are really important support networks for 18-year-olds who are often living away from home for the first time.” He believes the current system, throwing students into university life without the chance to settle in, “doesn’t set a good message of what Cambridge is about.”

We could get an *actual* weekend – well sort of

The final main aspect of the proposal is to shift the Cambridge week from Thursday-Wednesday to Monday-Sunday. When discussing the importance of this change, Ben said “what implementing the weekend really does is more of a cultural effect than anything else”, by providing a designated time for students to engage in extracurricular activities. 

He told the Tab he believes the current structure of the week is conducive to an inadequate work-life balance as whilst many students currently do extracurriculars he says this can provide a source of stress for students who may feel that “this is time I should be working, or questioning whether I’m going to fail my degree as a result of taking a few hours off.” 

He said having a designated weekend would hopefully mitigate this by sending a message that “there’s a time where you can prioritise extra-curricular activities. This doesn’t mean students won’t work on the weekend, but it says that if you want to take these days to prioritise stuff which isn’t academic work you can do.”

62 per cent of students felt their workload was a barrier to having a healthy social life

Won’t supervisors just set extra work in the reading week though?

Whilst the proposal aims to make the Cambridge workload more manageable, one concern amongst some students is that faculties will simply increase workload accordingly, effectively mitigating the benefits of a reading week. This is something Ben was keen to counteract, saying that currently “faculties are set a 48 hour limit on the amount of work they’re allowed to set.” He said this can provide a framework for further regulation to protect the purpose of the reading week. 

Although the proposal doesn’t aim to directly reduce workloads, Ben hopes that changes to the term structure will provide scope for further changes. For example, by having a designated weekend he says this could provide an opportunity for Natural Sciences students, who currently have lectures on Saturday morning, to campaign to change this, if students desire.

 He stresses that these decisions are ones he hopes can happen within faculties, saying “I don’t do these subjects and I don’t want to tell anyone how much work they should have.” Rather, his hopes are that “Cambridge education moves into a more consultative and collaborative approach where students can have more of a role in determining if their workload is too high” via the newly-implemented systems of academic reps.

Will Sunday life be a thing of the past?

Perhaps the most vital question posed by the proposal is, naturally, what it would mean for student nightlife post-covid. With the current main student-nights out in Cambridge being Sunday and Wednesday nights, The Tab asked Ben whether he thought the introduction of a weekend could shift these (Saturday Life anyone?)

But club-regulars needn’t worry, Ben said he didn’t think these would change since “student nights are really regular as these are the nights when people who aren’t students don’t go out.” He did, however, suggest that a reading week “would be a huge benefit for Cambridge clubs.” After all, in a week with no deadlines it would be rude not to make an effort to boost the local economy…

Clubs aside, how close are we to realising our reading week dreams? Well, we’re not quite there yet: the proposal is currently in a consultation phase. However, Ben told the Tab he has had “positive conversations with senior staff” already and hinted that “lots of people were interested in the key idea.” 

His main focus, for now, is on “building support” for the proposal. He is currently working on engagement with academic staff, and then will attempt to gain a student mandate at the All Member’s Meeting, open to all students, on the 15th March. Following this, the proposal will go to the General Board’s Education Committee during this academic year for consideration. 

To finish with, Ben stressed the motivations of the proposal, saying that “Cambridge offers more than the deadlines you get set and more than the lectures you go to. Cambridge can be a much more rounded system. 

“You can get as rigorous an education, as much course content and an equally strong understanding of a subject whilst being accessible, enjoyable and fun for students.”

The University of Cambridge was approached for comment. 

Feature image credit: Ben Margolis 

All other images credit to Cambridge SU 

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