Investigation: Student intermission

 

Other articles in this investigation:

 

The information and stories gathered during this investigation exposed a disparity between different students’ experiences of the same process of intermission.

While some were grateful for the support they received from tutors, others felt that their mental health problems were being treated as disciplinary matters.

While some were given the suggestion that they take a year out, there were several accounts of students claiming to be forced to leave against their will, which they say led to aggravated stress and anxiety.

Some students also spoke of the difficulties of having to sit additional ‘Special’ and ‘Penal’ collections, which often required them to achieve higher than usual pass marks.

The term used to describe the process of intermitting is itself somewhat problematic. An intermission is often colloquially known as ‘rustication’, while the University and OUSU sometimes use the term ‘suspended status’. Several students feel this term has disciplinary connotations (which C + found accounted for proportionally very few cases of intermission).

Intermission numbers increasing

C +’s FOI request showed that 5.3 per cent of Oxford students in 2013/14 intermitted, a total of 1183 students. This figure has increased over the past five years, rising from 4 per cent in 2008/09. Half of all students who took time out of their degree did so for health reasons, while personal and academic reasons accounted for 15.2 per cent and 10.9 per cent, respectively. Of those 1183 students who intermitted last year, 93 of them have now taken more than a year out.

The total figures for postgraduate-only college intermissions were considerably higher. From these 13 colleges (no data from All Soul’s was available), 8.1 per cent of students intermitted, while the average figure for colleges admitting undergraduates was 4.4 per cent. As Christ Church Dean Professor Martyn Percy explained, the “reasons for suspension differ very considerably between the undergraduate and graduate students”.

Intermitting students “don’t need access to the College library”

Last February, the University finally allowed ‘suspended status’ students to “retain their University card and Single Sign On (SSO) access to online resources, including email, and to University libraries”. Yet allowing students to use college facilities remains at the discretion of the individual college, and many of the students we spoke to claimed that their anxieties and problems with studies were aggravated by the fact that they were not allowed access to college resources, and were obstructed from seeing their friends. One commented that the policy made her feel like a “fugitive”.

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Chris Ballinger, the Academic Dean of Exeter College, responding to these criticisms, said, “Since a student who is intermitting is not on a course and learning new material, they don’t need full tutorials, lectures, or access to the College library.”

Another student brought up the issue that the only reason she felt that her intermission went smoothly was because she had a very sympathetic tutor. She told us, “If I hadn’t had a tutor who was really comfortable about it, it could have been a lot worse. However kind people were being to me individually, problems lay in the fact that there felt like there was no centralised system.”

 

Perhaps the lack of a clear centralised system can explain the enormous discrepancies between colleges when it comes to intermission rates. While the lowest rate for 2013/14 was at Brasenose, where 1.8 per cent of students intermitted, 7.7 per cent of Christ Church students intermitted in that same year.

In response to the findings, a Christ Church spokesperson told C +, “A relatively small proportion of Oxford students suspend status at some point during their studies. The Academic Committee at Christ Church monitors the situation systematically and regularly.”

“They thought my mental health problems were the flimsiest of excuses” 

Several of the students we spoke to also highlighted the problem of those with mental illnesses being treated as disciplinary cases. In her discussion of mental health-related intermissions, Balliol’s Molly Rogers told C +, “Mental health is so poorly understood – the tutor might think a student is missing essays and meetings on purpose, but in fact they might have no control over their work.”

Another recalled, “The two meetings I had with college staff were calculated throughout to put the fear of God into me. I got the strong impression that they thought my mental health problems were the flimsiest of excuses.”

Out of the intermitted students surveyed, 37 per cent said they did not think that their college was sensitive to their needs at the time of intermission, and 57 per cent claimed they were not given adequate support during their time away. Many of our interviewees described a complete lack of contact from their colleges – one told us that the only contact she had from the University was about her library fines.

 

In response to these claims, Jayne Taylor, the Domestic Bursar of St Edmund’s Hall, told C +, “A suspension of studies is intended in part to give a student time away from the College community, so that they have the space to deal with any medical, personal or disciplinary problems they may be having. The College therefore keeps communication with intermitted students to a minimum. Intermitted students are encouraged to make contact with the College at other times if they need to.” 

The University responds to C+’s findings

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A University spokesperson told C+, “I would caution very strongly about drawing any conclusions about trends from what are relatively small sample sizes. The make-up of the student body has changed substantially over this period, with increasing numbers of mature and overseas students, which may be impacting on the level of intermissions.

“The University does have central guidelines regarding intermission – this relates to students’ academic progress and access to university services and facilities. College-specific aspects of the intermission process, including access to college premises and services, are dealt with by individual colleges, as they are separate independent entities.”

The spokesperson insisted, “The University does have a centralised mental health policy, which is online, and student mental health is very much on the University’s agenda. It is working on further guidelines to outline best practice and update its central policy.

 

“’Mental Health Issues’ as students understand them can cover a wide range of circumstances – it is dangerous to mix them up. Many students can feel they are “depressed” in a common sense way, but this is different from “mental illness” such as clinical depression and anxiety disorders. If students suspend on medical grounds, this must be done with the evidence and recommendation of a doctor. It is only with the college system at Oxford and Cambridge that there is this extra level of welfare support provided, by clinically qualified nurses, junior deans, welfare deans, peer supporters, chaplains, and so forth.

“It is best if students who are having difficulties reach out for the support available sooner rather than later. Counselling and support services cannot take away all life problems, but they can provide the appropriate support that for many students will make all the difference. University counselling services, including at Oxford, have been developing evidence-based therapeutic interventions, and using professional clinical experience, for many years.”