Suspension of status is not something widely talked about at Oxbridge. Yet the competitive environment has made the world-famous universities a melting pot of mental health problems.
Why are so many dropping out?
Oxford and Cambridge currently boast the lowest university drop out rates in the country: 1.2 per cent and 1 per cent, respectively. Despite these impressive stats, the number of students with ‘suspension of status’ is rising rapidly, with 69 per cent more undergraduates or postgraduates dropping out for a year since 2011.
Suspension of status takes many names at Oxbridge. Technically, dropping out for a year is referred to as ‘suspension’ at Oxford and ‘intermission’ at Cambridge, but in reality they are known colloquially by their historical terms: ‘rustication’ and ‘degrading’.
Rustication is a rather archaic term, deriving from the Latin ‘rus’, meaning countryside: a hang-up from the days when students were expelled by being sent to their family home in the country. Degrading, another arcane and rather humiliating term, was only formally dropped by the university in 2015.
As these were originally seen as disciplinary procedures, there are still many draconian rules surrounding the process. Before 2017, if you degraded at Cambridge, you were not only expected to leave the college campus, but the city of Cambridge altogether. In 2012, Magdalen College, Oxford was criticised for forbidding students who had rusticated from attending their college ball. At St Peter’s rusticated students are only allowed to leave the college via the back gate, whilst at Keble students are required to pass an additional exam in order to be allowed to return.
However, the reality is that the majority of students who drop out for a year do so for health reasons. In the academic year 2018/19, 1,403 students rusticated at Oxford (almost double the number of 2008/09), with the top three reasons being health (50 per cent), academics (11 per cent) and parental leave (9 per cent).
A certain stigma
As Oxford and Cambridge very much operate on a college level, there are concerning inconsistencies in students’ experiences of taking time out. When interviewing students who had suspended their studies, reactions ranged from ’emotionally humiliating’ to a ‘life-saving experience’, but almost all of them agreed that the quality of support offered was completely dependent on their college and tutors, and that there was still stigma around the process.
Cambridge University Student Union recently conducted a survey of 112 suspended students, and found that 73 per cent found the time away helpful. However, many students whom I spoke to said that whilst they found the experience beneficial in that it gave much needed time for rest and reflection, they also felt cut off from the college community and camaraderie.
… in the run-up to finals, a breakdown was borderline expected.
Many students also said they wished they had better access to support networks. Rusticated students from Worcester, Wolfson, St Anne’s and St Edmund Hall were offered access to the college library and welfare facilities, but sadly they seem to be in the minority.
Dropping out for a year also adds instability at an already unstable time. Many students who decide to rusticate or degrade have difficult family backgrounds, and have to find private accommodation, as they cannot stay in college. Many therefore choose to stay in the city to be close to friends, but this can still be quite an alienating experience; they may be in Cambridge but they are no longer at Cambridge, and this contradiction can be quite a lonely one.
Some students also stated that they were made to feel like an inconvenience, or that their college wanted to get them out of the way. Cynically, Oxbridge may offer suspension as a quick fix solution in order to protect their grades; Oxbridge colleges ‘compete’ in league tables (the Tompkins and Norrington Tables) and colleges that regularly top the rankings have been known to academically ‘manage out’ weaker, struggling students.
Breaking down as a ‘norm’
The growing number of students with suspended status at Oxbridge is really just a symptom of a much wider problem. It is no secret that Oxbridge is a breeding ground for mental health problems: feelings of imposter syndrome; the relentless deadlines; the constant academic pressure; the stress of linear examinations; an extremely competitive, high-achieving cohort thrown into a rather claustrophobic environment — it is no surprise that in a survey by the Tab, 46 per cent of Cambridge students said they thought they were struggling with depression.
At Oxbridge mental and physical exhaustion is the norm. There is a strange sense of academic martyrdom: it is perfectly normal to swap stories at breakfast of all-night essay-writing crises, and in the run-up to finals, a breakdown was borderline expected. Almost my entire undergraduate degree was decided in 15 hours of exams over five days at the end of my third year; no other universities expect so much of their students in so little time than Oxbridge.
Whilst the sheer volume of work is to be expected, the inflexibility of the course structure makes it incredibly easy to fall behind; the brevity of the 8-week terms and the relentless pace of deadlines mean it is difficult to catch up if you are ill for even a week or two. In 2013, I was hospitalised with bacterial meningitis, and my primary concern was when I would return to Oxford — I was more anxious about not getting behind than getting better. I did manage to catch up and avoid taking a year out, but only through overexertion.
A looming mental health epidemic?
Better support also needs to be given to the groups who are more likely to suspend their studies. Students of English and History are more likely to drop out than students of Engineering or Natural Science, probably because of the lack of structure and greater need for self-motivation. Dyslexic students are also more likely to take time out, whilst state school students make up 69 per cent of rustications even though they account for 56 per cent of students.
The general consensus seems to be that whilst suspension of status is a helpful option for many students, it should not be seen as a replacement for real support. It is certainly not a ‘cure’ in and of itself, nor should it be used as a way for colleges to shirk responsibility. The move to online teaching this year will make it easier than ever for struggling students to go under the radar, and the reality is that universities need to be braced for a mental health epidemic as well as a viral pandemic.
Many freshers will be struggling with the aftermath of six months of unprecedented uncertainty and upheaval, and will now be going through a hugely transformative experience under strange and limiting circumstances.
A first-year History student at Oxford may have as little as two hours of contact a week. Now that this brief interaction is moving online, it is likely many floundering students will go undetected.
Now is the perfect time for Oxbridge to revise and centralise their policies to ensure greater consistency between colleges, and guarantee that no student feels punished for needing to take time out. Suspension of status should only be used in conjunction with other support networks. It may be a safety net for some students, but that should not stop Oxbridge from trying to protect students from falling in the first place.