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It’s not whether you rusticate, it’s where: Suspension of studies at Oxford

Oxford has one of the lowest drop-out rates in the country, with around 0.9% of admissions not completing a degree, much lower than the UK average of 5.3%. Absent from the University’s “facts and figures” section is the number of students each year who suspend their study – or “rusticate” as it’s more commonly known.  

The practice isn’t new – Oxford students have been rusticating for hundreds of years. Historically, however, rustication was not taken as seriously as it is now; Oscar Wilde rusticated for one term merely for returning late from holiday in Greece. 

Today, the rustication experience varies massively depending on your College. Despite the university’s new “Common Approach” initiative to mental health, each college still has a unique combination of policies, JCR involvement, and collections standards for returning students. So with 50% of students considering rustication at some point, according to a Cherwell poll, what exactly does the experience entail? 

How many actually rusticate?

Across the university, around 4% of undergraduate students choose to rusticate every year. However there is significant variation between different colleges, with the rate ranging from 2% to 9%. 

One standout is Regent’s Park, which averages 15 rustications per year, despite only having 166 undergraduates. Proportionally, Regent’s Park has the highest levels of rustications at 9%, with more students rusticating per year than St Anne’s, a college with nearly triple the undergraduate population.

While Regent’s has greater assets per student than four colleges, as a Permanent Private Hall and not a college, it was not included in the wealth redistribution scheme attempting to alleviate inter-collegiate financial disparity. With mental health often cited as the cause for rustication, colleges that are already struggling with essential funding might not be able to sufficiently support students. 

When approached for comment, Regent’s Park told Cherwell: “Suspensions can be for many different reasons: health – both mental and physical, personal and academic. We have a robust system of mental health support and welfare provision within the College, and the number of suspensions bears witness to our being willing to entertain requests for suspension in order to support students through challenging circumstances.”

Experience of rustication

The majority of colleges impose a restriction on rusticated students’ access to college facilities. St Hilda’s suspension of status regulation states: “The presence in college of undergraduates who are not on course are a potential distraction to other students.” Lincoln students are required to obtain written permission from their Senior Tutor before visiting College premises. 

Library usage across colleges broadly follows the same pattern, with permission being required from a college authority. The difficulty of obtaining permission and the reasons needed, however, differ between colleges, with some requiring a student to petition for access to specific college resources, such as archives, before being granted entry. St Anne’s students are categorised alongside other guests, gaining access to the library so long as they form an agreement with the Librarian. Balliol, by contrast, only allows library access by “exceptional appointment.” 

Some college JCRs, such as those at Lady Margaret Hall and previously at St Edmund Hall, have dedicated representatives for suspended students. Multiple colleges refer to the JCR Welfare Officers and peer mentors as points of contact for support. These schemes are largely unregulated by colleges, existing primarily within the JCR, and do not provide a source of consistent, centralised support that may be needed. 

In response to a request for comment, the University referred Cherwell to the Common Approach, which aims to “ensure that each student at Oxford can receive excellent support, regardless of their course or college.” Similarly, when asked for their policies, all colleges told Cherwell that students have continued access to University mental health services. The page for the Common Approach, however, does list the “college community” as the first source of support. 

Collections for returning students

College policies concerning collections for returning students are a major source of discrepancies in the rustication experience. Many colleges have students sit collections alongside their new cohort, with no grade requirement for resumption of academic studies. Pembroke has some students sit collections to “assess the student’s level of knowledge,” but does not use them as a barrier to re-entry.

Some colleges, however, do impose a required grade in collections for students to resume their study. University College displays a particularly stringent policy, which it grounds in the College’s need “to assure itself that the Student is academically prepared for return to College following a period of suspension.” Therefore, at least one collection is taken with specific grades required. Previous versions of their handbooks stated that students who failed these return collections could cease to be college members, but the College declined to comment on their current policy.

The most common pass mark for Colleges that impose such requirements is a 2:1, which can be a high bar to clear for students who’ve been suspended for a year. Students in these colleges are usually allowed library access in the weeks before their exams to facilitate their studies.

The discrepancies in college policies regarding collections means that one student’s minor roadblock might be another’s second entrance exam.

Finals results of those who rusticate

Students struggling and choosing to rusticate are more likely to achieve lower degree classifications. However, the large gap in achievement prompts questions regarding college support for students suspending their studies and how effective rusticating is as a process for maintaining a high standard of work. 

Graduating with a First is the clearest benchmark of academic success. While 39% of all Oxford students graduated with first class honours in 2021/2022, for students who rusticated, that figure was only 27%.  

On the other end of the spectrum, while only 5% of Oxford students achieve a 2:2 and a miniscule 0.6% graduate with Third class honours, these rates rise to 11% and 4% respectively for students who have rusticated at any time. Since the vast majority of graduate schemes require a 2:1 or higher, these students are expected to fall further behind their peers after graduation. 

In addition to these disparities in results, around 10% of students who rusticate end up failing to complete their degree. Again, it is important to emphasise that there are significant variations between colleges. Regent’s Park, Teddy Hall, and LMH all have more rusticating students failing to complete their degree than graduating with Firsts, but Somerville has over double the amount of students achieving a First than failing to complete. There, a term before their students return, they are in contact with both the Academic Office and their tutors. It seems clear that the support structures in place for returning students have a significant effect on their ongoing success. 

The effect of COVID

Students disproportionately rusticated in the 2020/21 academic year when COVID-19 restrictions reached their peak. However, the impact of COVID on suspensions was not equal across all colleges. Somerville had the largest increase from 8 students in 2019/20 to 23 in 2020/21. In the same period, Worcester saw the amount of students rusticating jump from 7 to 16 and Regent’s Park numbers doubled. Other colleges, however, appeared largely unaffected, with both St Hilda’s and New College dropping from previous years’ figures.

Furthermore, rustication numbers have not returned to the levels they were before the pandemic. This is in line with recent studies conducted by the University which show an increase in mental health problems both during and after the pandemic. 

What do the students think?

A Cherwell poll showed that around 50% of students had considered rustication during their time at Oxford. Considering that only 4% of students rusticate every year, what explains the reason for the low uptake?

The poll also asked students who had contemplated rustication why they hadn’t gone through with it. 51% of respondents were afraid of social isolation/stigma, 29% were worried of falling behind academically, 16% were concerned about finances, and 4% thought their college lacked the resources to support them through it. 

Written responses to the question ranged from one student saying “I realised rusticating wouldn’t solve my problems. I had to face them head on, rather than delay them” to another claiming “My college wouldn’t let me! I had no legitimate academic or mental reason apparently.”

Rustication Discrepancies 

To rusticate, students need to work closely with their College as an institution and make a personal case as to why they need to suspend their studies. However College policies and guidelines can be confusing and unclear, while prospective support during rustication may seem insufficient. When combined with social stigma, these factors go a long way to explaining why most students don’t seriously consider rustication. 

The personal nature of rustication already makes it a difficult experience to capture, but the diversified attitudes and actions of colleges offer no help: devolution of procedure to the colleges regarding rustication leads to vast differences in outcomes for students. 

There is no university-wide standard for the responsibilities of rusticated students. The resources and academic support provided during and after rustication also depend on the particular college’s guidelines. Colleges exist to provide a smaller, more supportive, academic community, and their individual nature is framed as an asset to the University, however in helping rusticating students, their differences appear to do more harm than good.

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