What is the point of intermission?

I had a sobering realisation the other day. I’ve spent a quarter of my life at Cambridge. I arrived aged 18, and I’m now 24. In the intervening time, I got a degree, a job which almost killed me, an MPhil and am now really just twiddling my thumbs waiting till I have enough money to flee for my life and carry on my education somewhere which isn’t so weird. So, no, I’m not in Cambridge because I love it. I don’t hate it as such, either. My view on Cambridge is rather like my view of my neighbours cat. He’s cute and well meaning, but he still keeps bringing me dead frogs, which I then have to clean up.

Thinking back over the time I’ve spent here, one question has repeatedly asked itself in the back of my mind: what is the point of intermission? This is a question with what should be a very simple answer. Intermission is a year’s absence from study at Cambridge, usually for medical or personal reasons. New research by TCS published last week, shows that lots of us have intermitted. But the process should not be controversial at all, but a helpful and empowering means by which students with difficulties can take a break from their studies for the sake of their health.

I first found out about the intermission (or “degrading” as it had been previously named, by someone who had the tact of a rolling pin) when a friend ‘degraded’. He suffered from depression and decided to take a year off his studies. He then vanished, abruptly, and I didn’t see him for several months. I assumed he needed space and while worried, didn’t press him. I later found out that the reason he had vanished was that he had been informed by our college that he was banned from being in the city of Cambridge. The CITY of Cambridge.

I started digging into the degrading process a bit more. It became apparent that it was alarmingly common for colleges to make a “condition” of a students return to Cambridge after “degrading” that they left Cambridge completely. Visits could only be arranged several months in advance, with permission from a senior tutor, and were heavily policed. Students were often given precise, to the hour times they were allowed to be in Cambridge. Several people I spoke to told me of friends who had been forced to stay away from University for a further year, or even refused the right to return, because they had been “seen” in Cambridge. And to top this woeful state of affairs off, the students were officially described as “degraded.”

I hardly need to explain how bad this is, nor how dubiously legal it was for the University to limit a student’s freedom of movement, or their right to visit their friends. So I started a CUSU backed campaign called “Degrading is Degrading,” which resulted in an open letter with almost 2000 signatures being presented to the Vice Chancellor, calling for change. Over two years later – because Cambridge will do things at about the speed which Valve releases Half Life games – the University admitted that the term “degrading” was unfortunate, and that there was “no requirement” to live outside of Cambridge. Huzzah, victory!

Except it wasn’t like that, really. The phrase “intermission” as adopted for a process that was equally flawed. Every time I hear that phrase, it haunts me, because I know there are still problems. Which leads me to ask “what is the point of intermission”?

I ask this because, as a CUSU sabb, as a masters student, and to this day, I still hear stories of students being told that they “must leave Cambridge immediately” if they intermit. More worryingly, I heard of, and worked directly with, students for whom intermission was weaponised against them. A close friend was told that, after a bad bout of depression, her options were to either to intermit and leave Cambridge, or face a disciplinary hearing in her department, where her college would push her never to be able to practise medicine. Character assassination. Blackmail. Utterly, utterly vile. If you want to see more evidence of a broken, inconsistent system, you should have a look at some of the testimonials on this website

I ask “what is the point of intermission” because I think the answer should be clear – it gives students with chronic illness, or mental health problems, a chance to take a breather from their studies. It should not be a way for some colleges to try and force them away from Cambridge. The unofficial “rule” that you cannot be in Cambridge while intermitted is ludicrous. It presumes that everyone has a safe, nuclear caring family who will drop everything to look after their child. Not everyone has this. It’s an archaic, normative middle class model of existence that not everyone experiences. In my case, I considered intermission several times. I could not go home due to emotional abuse from my parents. My college put it to me in very blunt terms: you either stay here and stop being depressed, or you go home and deal with your parents. Neither was an outcome conducive to my mental health. I took the lesser of two evils, and to some extent, I am still recovering from it.

Intermission should be a choice that a student makes for themselves, with advice from medical professionals. It should not be something which a college imposes, unless in extreme circumstances. Its purpose should be to help students, not, in many cases, stigmatise them, or punish them for some perceived wrong.

A disclaimer that needs to be made at this point: perhaps this is not your experience. Perhaps you have intermitted and you received excellent support, you never felt pressured to leave when you did not want to, your college never stigmatised you. I’m glad if that was your experience – that’s how it should be. But so much of one’s experience of welfare at Cambridge is dependent on luck – the quality of your tutor, your college. It’s never truly uniform, but what I’ve seen from the years I’ve been here is that there is something very, very wrong with the way that intermission is handled in the majority of cases. There is a worrying lack of transparency and accountability in the intermission process, which causes damage to already vulnerable people. Research by the student press has called into question many of the claims made by the University about intermission. Something clearly isn’t right. Hence I have to ask: what is the point of intermission?

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