Inexcusable failings in welfare have been exposed at certain Oxford colleges: students lack pastoral tutors and complain that those they do have are intimidating and subject-obsessed. That this could even be the case at Oxford has provoked horror and disbelief. This is a University that, due to its highly pressurised environment, must guard the mental health of its students all the more carefully. Some areas of Oxford’s welfare are excellent. A wealth of assistance is available for those who know where to look: NightLine volunteers do a tireless and admirable job, and college welfare reps are on hand to offer tea and sympathy.
Yet student-run welfare schemes face an almost impossible task in reaching the most vulnerable if the college’s welfare systems fail: those who feel isolated in a student population so determined to be happy and successful, and who are reluctant to divulge their deepest problems to a peer supporter with a few days training. Without regular meetings with a pastoral tutor who has the student’s own interests at heart, such people will inevitably slip through Oxford’s carefully constructed net of support for weeks or months, until personal issues begin to have a serious impact on academic work.
Faced with problems such as illness or family difficulty, there is also no support that can compare with that of someone influential within the college, yet independent of a fixation with their academic achievement. Every student needs an advocate prepared to defend them from overbearing tutors and the force of college authorities hypnotised by the Norrington Table.