“There are few greater temptations on earth than to stay permanently at Oxford in meditation, and to read all the books in the Bodleian.”
Although I most certainly don’t agree with the latter, Hilaire Belloc did have a point. Oxford has operated a short term in perpetuity, with 24 weeks of contact, the rest of the year is supposedly left for that well-needed rest and recuperation. Unfortunately for many, this is seldom achieved. Whether it be simply the stillness and subsequent boredom of the vac after a busy term, or the increasing challenges in the present day to mental health, some students are seeing the vacation period more as something to dread rather than a time of relaxation. Alas, this is the Oxford life, you don’t get the pleasures of being able to relax.
I must admit, I am endlessly jealous of my friends who look forward to going home. Those in the lucky enough position to have a stable home life normally see this time as a way to destress, catch up with home friends, and enjoy those home comforts we miss out on as students (Lurpak rather than olive spread is a favourite of mine). But for others, coming home is not necessarily a base of stability and security, and the vac is merely seen as something to “get over” before they can return.
A 2016 Survey by Oxford University Student Union found that 54% of students felt studying at Oxford had impacted their mental health negatively, with women and non-binary undergraduates twice as likely, and LGBTQ students 2.75 times more likely to experience these feelings. Of course, we cannot assume that the long vacation periods are the cause of this, surely if anything they help? I for one disagree, and would call these ‘vacs’ anything but relaxing. Not only does the overhanging dread of collections mean we are unable to fully recharge, but you should probably read those 19 books you’ve been set by your new tutor. Oh, don’t forget that internship you need to apply for, and the 30 others if you want a decent stab at being employed after you graduate.
The truth is, Oxford does an atrocious job at encouraging its students to use the vacation periods as productive means of relaxing. The instilled culture of working with no means to an end always overspills into the holidays, and the competitive nature of extra-curriculars, whether that be in societies or networking, encourages little preservation for one’s mental or emotional health as they often play catch up out of term time. Our education system fetishizes Oxford to a blinding extent, as the majority of focus is about whether candidates are clever enough to get in. They rarely stop to consider what it’ll be like once you’re actually there. It seems that once a student arrives, they are branded more than capable, and if anyone dare complain about their responsibilities, they are met with little sympathy. “What do you expect?”.
It is imperative that we, as a community, make a significant effort to address increasing mental health concerns over unmanageable workloads at Oxford. What’s more, we must challenge the nature of the vacation we receive as unacceptable in the pressures they continue to put us under out of term time, and strive for healthier connotations surrounding rest and recuperation during these periods. I do wonder if this will ever be possible, as it requires the cooperation of students and institution members alike, to accept that people at Oxford are not superhuman. They are not robotic machines that can maintain pursuit of study for the duration of their course without proper breaks, and without confronting the need for support out of term time as well as during.
As we come full circle, I must admit perhaps Belloc’s comment is more insightful than initially meets the eye. Has a love for academia, and desire to constantly learn and develop one’s knowledge been warped by a competitive need to be the best? Has Oxford systematically controlled us to seek constant academic prowess, never being happy with our own achievements? Has it taught us the association that relaxing is bad, leading to an endemic obsession with study, and neglect to one’s mental health? You best get started then… there’s only 12 million books in the Bod after all.