Oxford students who are medically unfit to study are receiving inconsistent levels of support across colleges, an investigation by Cherwell shows this week. Freedom of Information act requests were sent to every college for the numbers of students taking time out of their courses for non-academic reasons.
An University-estimated average of six hundred and eighty undergraduate and post graduate students suspend their studies each year for non-disciplinary reasons, such as mental wellbeing.
Statistics obtained by Cherwell, however, indicate notable discrepancies in the attitudes of Colleges towards students who wish to intermit, or suspend, their course.
Averages calculated from University records of students who have intermitted over the past five years reveal great differences between Colleges. While at some it is usual for only two or three students to take time out, others averaged as high as fifteen students intermitting per year.
Both St Hilda’s College and New College have an undergraduate intake of four hundred and twenty students, yet in the past five academic years a total of sixty-one students temporarily withdrew from St Hilda’s, compared to twenty-seven undergraduates at New College.
These findings come as the University’s ‘Fitness to Study’ panel has announced that it is now considering the establishment of a body responsible for adjudicating between student and Colleges in cases where there is disagreement as to a student’s wellbeing and potential need to intermit.
All Colleges questioned by Cherwell stated that they had no ‘policy’ regarding the criteria required to intermit but that cases were treated on an individual basis.
Lucinda Rumsey, Senior Tutor at Mansfield College explained, “We treat all students on an individual level, looking at them on a case by case basis.”
She added, “we would never let students have time out simply because they couldn’t manage the work load – that would not be fair to other students.”
The lack of protocol can be bewildering to students, and results show disparities between Colleges regarding the circumstances under which undergraduates are allowed to suspend their academic studies.
Commenting on the University’s current approach to intermissions Dani Quinn, Welfare Officer for OUSU, said that “there can be confusion or difficulty for students who wish to appeal the College’s decision. It is usually the decision of one member of the SCR, and little is stated about where the student should go next.”
In addition to a lack of clarity regarding the options available to undergraduates, busy academic staff can fall short of meeting the pastoral needs of their students, particularly when there are problems relating to an individual’s mental health.
A second-year student who has now returned to the University after intermitting commented that her tutors were completely unaware that she had any mental health problems right up until they were informed she had suspended study.
She said that, when notified that she was intermitting “[they] replied that they had ‘no idea’ this had been going on, despite the fact that I hadn’t been handing in essays, was turning up to tutorials obviously unprepared, and so on.”
She said, “I think perhaps they were at a bit of a loss as how best to support me.”
Undergraduates who had been successful in taking time out from their degree were content that Colleges had been fully supportive of their decision and described receiving help with financial matters.
Yet many commented that they were less satisfied with the levels of assistance available upon their return to College.
Academic support in particular was highlighted as an area in which Colleges were failing to accommodate students. Undergraduates who had previously spent time away from University stressed that it was vital that they were able to carry out preparatory study prior to resuming their place in college, yet many students experienced difficulties even in accessing academic resources.
Students often found College authorities uncooperative, with one undergraduate recalling their experience of asking to return early to University. “I asked just so I could use the libraries and so on – I come from a small country town with essentially no usable library facilities”, but she explained “it was college policy that I couldn’t come back before the prearranged time.”
An undergraduate who has recently resumed his studies after recovering from illness emphasised that there can be little support for students needing to catch-up with studies, “I had some difficulty contacting busy tutors and obtaining material for the Michaelmas term when I was away, to the point that I decided to come up to Oxford midway through term to speak to them directly.
“In one of the disciplines I am still very far behind and the onus to catch up seems to be entirely on me. On the other hand, in another subject my tutor has been fantastic in giving me catch up tutorials.”
Statistics suggest that the likelihood of students withdrawing completely from University after having intermitted fluctuates across the collegiate system. A sample from the past five academic years indicates that over thirty per cent of students intermitting at Christ Church subsequently withdrew from their studies altogether.
This compares with three per cent of students at New College and eight per cent of undergraduates at Jesus or St Hugh’s who left the University completely after having undergone a period of voluntary suspension. University wide figures indicate that around eighty-eight per cent of the students who intermit will return to complete their studies.