TW: self harm, mental health discrimination, mention of suicide, disordered eating
One of the contradictions that I have been trying to resolve in my life is as follows: how is it that I reconcile the work I do encouraging students to apply to the University of Cambridge when I know, from my experience and from the overwhelming amount of evidence, that Cambridge University has serious problems with student welfare?
Having worked in student welfare, and now working in student access, I’m in a position where I can see the two agendas do come into conflict. Frankly, in an ideal world, they shouldn’t – welfare support at University is an access issue, in my opinion. There’s no use working hard to get school students from difficult home or school circumstances (many of whom have or develop mental health conditions or disabilities before or during University) if the University is so fundamentally bad at keeping them there – or, keeping them there sane, I should say. I doubt the University has ever conducted a study examining how many students underwent mental distress as a result of its haphazard approach to welfare support. Indeed, some recent research from The Cambridge Student has suggested that the University might not have been upfront with its figures around intermission.
The problem with welfare at Cambridge is that it is such a vast and disparate University. Each college is a law unto itself, acts like a little feudal island in a very large umbrella institutions, which has the odd contradiction of being on the cutting edge of research, but also deeply, and I would argue, harmfully, traditional. I’m working on a series of blog posts about the specific problems as I see them, but if you want to read some of my earlier thoughts for context, you can find things here, and here.
An issue of which I have had personal experience, and which I’m sure many other students have had, is one of being expected to reach a certain, arbitrary standard. My own time at Cambridge, especially as an undergraduate, was of being told I was very good at what I did, but also being given the very distinct impression (and often being explicitly told) that my mental health problems were letting me down. Not just me, I should hasten to add, but my college. My college had an investment in my doing well. No problem with this on this on the surface, I suppose – all Universities want the best from and for their students. But my prevailing impression of my own college, Sidney Sussex, was that it wanted the from but not the for. I was identified from my first year as having the capacity to get a first. I was also identified as a problematic student. I had severe depression in my first year, developed an eating disorder, often was so divorced from reality due to my mental health problems that I behaved erratically, and to compound all of that, I was political. I took issue with college policies, I went out on demos, I took part in occupations. Even after the end of my first year, one of the hardest years of my life, when the intense, crippling depression lifted at least a little, to the extent that I was capable of social contact, I still was a problem for the college. An example that sits in my mind was this – during my second year, when I was feeling, for want of a better phrase, a bit better, I confided in a member of the college fellowship tasked with my welfare that I was self-harming as a method of coping, and I needed support. After a long conversation, and a thoroughly macabre tour of my various self-inflicted scars, he informed me that my self-harming wasn’t really the colleges’ concern. The college would only help me if I tried to kill myself (in which case I would be sectioned under the mental health act, I was told in no uncertain terms) or if the college thought I wouldn’t, “get that first.” That phrase tended to haunt me – I wanted a first, but I also just wanted to get to the end of my degree, and frankly the only concerns I had about grades related to whether or not I could get funding for a graduate course. Yet, supervisors, tutors and other members of my college kept repeating it. If I was having a bad week and needed an essay extension, I would often be told that I was in danger of “missing the first” and that this was a matter of concern not just for me, but for the college. It became such a repeated mantra that I, having nothing really to value about myself beyond the fact that I was apparently good at my subject, pushed myself. I worked long hours, but stopped caring about what I did. My subject was not my passion, but my burden. Part of the reason I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome now is that I worked 90-100 hour weeks, all because I felt under immense pressure, which I internalised.
In the end I didn’t get the first. I got a 2:1. A bit disappointing, but what the hell. I tried. Except, on the day of my results, I found myself summoned to a meeting with a senior member of my college, who informed me that I was a “huge disappointment”, that “my academic career was over,” and that I should “leave Cambridge forever,” because I didn’t get a first. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that as the absurd thing it is. At the time, I ended up spiralling into a depressive phase that lasted a month, and, to this day, still tell myself on some level that I am stupid.
I think the way I was treated ties into something related to access work. Like all Universities, Cambridge’s access work has two goals – widening participation, and recruitment. The former involves working with bright kids who’ve maybe not been to the best school or had the best family circumstances to encourage and support them getting into Higher Education. The latter is about recruiting the best and brightest students to apply to Cambridge, or to a particular college. There’s nothing wrong with the latter in and of itself – every University does want the best students. But the issue again is not one of getting in, it’s one of staying in, or staying in one piece. Far too many people I know who have suffered mental health or disability related problems at Cambridge have often been belittled by their colleges on these grounds – colleges, and I know Sidney has done this to several friends, framing their depressive crisis or disability related issue as robbing the college of the “bright student” they sought out and gave a place to. The logic is hierarchical; you are at Cambridge, you should be deferential to the great benevolent college who provided you with a place, no matter how awfully they might treat you. Failure to do so is a betrayal of the college. There’s an undercurrent to this of an abusive relationship that I find deeply uncomfortable. The college will cause you difficulties, then berate you for not seeing that it’s acting in your best interest when it tries to force you to intermit, or throws you out of college accommodation, or disparages your mental health conditions, because you are, apparently, just lazy. Of course, this doesn’t seem to accept the state of play with Cambridge students. Everyone at Cambridge is smart. Many of them will have been the top in their year, if not their whole school. Once you get all of them into one space, however, they stop being “the smart one” – they are just another clever person in a city of clever people. Many students find this disorientating as an experience – but the way to resolve it sensibly is to accept that you’re doing your degree for your own sake, and that grades and all of this nonsense matters to you only as much as you let it. Throw into this mix, however, colleges which expect their students to achieve the best (not a bad thing in itself) but have no concept of how to support them in getting their if they have even the slightest problem, and you have a recipe for disaster.
The evidence that Cambridge’s welfare provisions are severely lacking is pretty solid, and seems to varied that its hard to know where to begin in tackling the issue. One thing I might suggest is getting rid of the Tompkins Table. Never heard of it? It’s a ranking of Cambridge colleges, based on the undergraduate student exam performance. A first class degree wins a college 5 points, a 2:1 gets you 3 points, a 2:2 gets 2 points, a third class degree gets you 1 point, and then no points for getting an Ordinary (non-honours) degree. A couple of things to make clear about the Tompkins Table – it is not, in anyway an official University of Cambridge table, nor are the rankings endorsed by the colleges. It is in fact, rather bizarrely, put together by an ex Trinity mathematician (Peter Tompkins) and published in the Independent. The Wikipedia page on the Tompkin’s table makes the rather sound point that
“Most of the colleges fall within a 10% range of one another therefore the table should be taken lightly with regards to determining the academic standing of the colleges.”
Yet, the colleges do take the Tompkins Table very seriously. I recall that, when a member of Sidney Sussex, the college’s ranking in the Tompkins was a matter of grave concern among the academics. Similarly, in St Catharine’s, the sudden drop of 12 places (from 9th to 21st) was felt as some sort of world shattering event in some quarters. It doesn’t take a genius to see, however, that the Tompkins Table is not exactly the best way of ranking the colleges – for one thing, it’s based on undergraduate performance, and so the graduate and mature student colleges (Lucy Cavendish, Wolfson, Clare Hall, Darwin etc) are always going to be somewhere near the bottom due to having a small undergraduate population. Also, one could speculate whether the table does buy into the mindset of 1st class degree above all else, given its way of ranking colleges. But what has always struck me is that the Tompkins Table does have an impact on the student body. I know of several anecdotal cases where people who were struggling academically were told to get their act together, not because of their health or own academic careers, but because the college needed to rise in the Tompkins Table. People don’t get firsts for a lot of reasons – maybe they don’t work. Or, maybe, you know, they have a disability or a mental health problem, or maybe they are burnt out because they’ve been putting themselves through too much in pursuit at a first. Maybe a particular examiner just didn’t like their work; maybe they had a bad day and that was that. Obsession with ranking in a table which I doubt anyone outside of Cambridge cares about is absurd. I’m reminded of something a senior tutor said to me when I was a sabb – “If my students are happy and healthy, they will do well. This is why I want the best support for them.” Sensible man – but I just questions how people are meant to be happy and healthy in the current results obsessed climate?
I’ve been doing a lot of interview workshops recently with year 13s applying to Cambridge this year. All of them hang on my every word as I give them general tips on how to prepare for interview. I can see that they are pinning so much on getting into Cambridge. I remember having that attitude – it’s almost as if Cambridge is a sort of final chapter, a place where a section of your life can end, where you stop being a child and you can move onto being an adult. When I was 18, finishing my A Levels, I saw Cambridge as an escape from the problems I had at home – a place, I had hoped, where I would not be shouted at for my depression, where objects would not be hurled at me because I was “too sad,” where I would be able to flourish as a person, in a vaguely imagined academic wonderland. The reality was rather different. Many good things came out of Cambridge for me – I matured, I became a comedian, I grew to accept myself as a person…but I also suffered. I’m not the only one. Looking round at the classroom of applicants gives me conflicting feelings – I want them to get into Cambridge because they are, more often than not, kids from state schools who have struggled in life, who haven’t come from stable homes, who’ve had to grow up very fast and who can go a step further to breaking down the inherent elitism of Cambridge. Yet at the same time, I want them to know that the place they dream of studying might well break them, mess them up for no good reason at all, and leaving them struggling to cope long after they’ve exited the Senate House, clutching at their degree certificates. If I weren’t employed to encourage people to apply to Cambridge, would I? I just don’t know.