Oxford problems: Why things need to move on from 1096

The rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia have become increasingly opaque since my graduation, but I promised a post about the darker side of Oxford, and with great effort it’s finally emerged. Before I start, please note that I’m abundantly aware that going to Oxford is a massive privilege in a lot of ways (some of which I’ve previously discussed here), but that doesn’t negate the gaping areas for improvement. I’ve thought a lot about how to point these out without falling too far into a dank pit of cynicism and unjustified self-pity, but it will no doubt be impossible to navigate the murky waters of talking about the Oxford university experience without occasionally straying from the invisible/non-existent channel of “reasonable, insightful and entertaining commentary”. It is also, as usual, based on my own experiences and opinions, and is intended as a personal viewpoint, not a factually supported study. So please read generously, and start a friendly discussion if you disagree with me or if I manage to cause hideous offence in some way.

P.S. This post is about course pressure and mental health. For the sake of focus, I’m not addressing social issues such as class; other people are doing that better than I could. For obvious reasons of experience, I’m only discussing Oxford, but I know that plenty of courses at other universities are hideously stressful, and this is not intended as a comparison with those.

It's easy on the eye, if not on the mind.

It’s easy on the eye, if not on the mind.

Story time: the personal bit

Here’s a little tale about my first year of uni. In October 2011 I arrived in Oxford with thousands of other freshers, eager to learn how to adult. In the first week, alongside attending freshers’ events, learning to navigate the complex library system, and organising my hectic timetable with a disparate range of tutors, I was given an essay and several other assignments to complete. The workload was relentless throughout the rest of term. Each week, on top of three classes/tutorials and ten or so lectures, I was expected to write a well-researched essay, complete problem sheets and language work, and do a significant amount of extra reading. This isn’t the same for all courses, but is not atypical.

I soon became blindly convinced that I would fail my first year exams if I took so much as an evening off. Instead of realising that the standard I’d set myself was impossible to achieve, I decided I simply wasn’t putting enough time and effort in, and continually stepped up my game until I couldn’t cope any more. I worked through all but a few days of the Christmas holidays, began crying at next to nothing and having panic attacks, and drove my eternally supportive friends to distraction. As I found out after finally seeing a doctor and counsellor, I’d become clinically depressed and anxious. This is something I’ve written about before (in this post), but only in terms of symptoms and survival, not possible causes.

I don’t want to claim outright that my mental health started floundering because of Oxford. Nonetheless, whether or not the course was behind my obsession with work, its intensity certainly masked the fact that my behaviour was disordered. To everyone outside my support network, it probably looked like I was doing fine; my reports from tutors paint a rosy picture, entirely missing the fact I was falling apart internally to the point of almost dropping out. My occasional outward breakdowns were indistinguishable from the standard “essay crisis” with which every Oxford student is familiar, and the fact I’d gradually dropped most of my non-work activities was hardly unusual.

Analysis time: the big problem

If you’re thinking “this girl clearly just couldn’t cope”, you’re missing the bigger picture. By any academic measure, I did cope, but on other counts I have struggled throughout, and I’m definitely not alone in that. I’ve seen cracks appear in the most balanced of my peers, and watched capable people drop out due to the pressure. The “fifth week blues” are experienced by pretty much everyone, and the (excellent) counselling service has been used increasingly over recent years. In a nutshell, Oxford tends to break people. Here are what I view as the reasons for that, and a few ideas for solutions.

Scan 31

The relationship between intention and effect is not always a straightforward one.

Problem 1 : Communication and planning

There’s no real curriculum for most Oxford courses; everything is organised around “papers”, whose content and structure are variable, but which usually consist of eight ungraded tutorial essays plus one exam at the end of the degree. Many courses, including mine, unfathomably include so many papers that it’s necessary to have some terms with twelve tutorials (and therefore twelve rushed, substandard essays), a situation which is widely accepted to be backbreaking. On top of this, there’s often very little communication between tutors, so the workload is often unevenly distributed over different terms, and if someone has several deadlines on the same day, it’s their business to work it out. Reading lists are usually several pages long and come with the caveat that they’re “only a starting point”, failing to acknowledge the several other reading lists the same student is also facing.

Possible solutions: Communicate and plan!

Introducing some kind of syllabus would probably improve matters, although I realise that’s a scandalous modern idea. If it were clear what each student was supposed to have studied overall, tutors could discuss whether the quantity was sensible, and work could be evenly spread. I’m convinced that there’s no need for more than one essay per week in humanities courses. In exams, we only ever use a tiny proportion of what we’ve studied, and as for pursuing knowledge… well, breadth of study is valuable, but I don’t believe all of my topics were so indispensible that they were worth the personal sacrifice necessary to slot them in. If necessary, the workload for each paper should be reduced, or a paper dropped. I studied French and linguistics, not medicine; nobody’s going to die because I missed out a few theoretical perspectives on sound change.

This has all got a bit heavy. Here's an angsty photo from the library to lighten the mood.

This has all got a bit heavy. Here’s an angsty photo from the library to lighten the mood.

Problem 2 : Screwed-up priorities

When I’ve suggested that the workload is too heavy, the response is frequently bafflement that I would consider a reduction of effort acceptable or desirable. This is part of a “work before all else” ethos that makes itself felt in every aspect of the Oxford system; it’s built into the very walls of the university. We’re fed and housed in college so that we don’t waste time cooking and cleaning, and forbidden to get part time jobs, being compensated instead by extra bursaries. This could be a brilliant support system if it were at least partially directed towards wellbeing for its own sake, but when we’re encouraged to exercise or take time off, it’s often implied that the ultimate reason is to allow us to work more efficiently in our newly healthy state.

The worst stories I’ve heard about this mentality have come from colleges renowned for their academic success, where the response to health problems that might cause a dip in performance is usually to send the student home for a year. This works sometimes, but often it’s a disguise for getting ‘problem’ students off the hands of tutors, and abdicating responsibility for their difficulties. Here’s a story about a friend of a friend’s experience at another college.

When it comes to enforcing the primacy of work, students are at leat as guilty as tutors. Despite the fact that your work ethic doesn’t always correspond to your ultimate grade (especially as all the exams are at the end), it’s hard to overstate how all-important studying can seem, and there’s often a subtle competitiveness around who has the most to do, and who’s gone to the greatest lengths to do it. There’s a basic assumption that finalists will disappear from the social scene, and the actual, physical deterioration of people’s bodies over the course of the term is taken as a necessary product of hard work.

A typical development in student appearance over the course of a term.

A typical development in student appearance over the course of a term.

Possible solutions: Take welfare seriously, and encourage students to do the same.

University is supposed to promote personal and academic growth, and Oxford should be allowing for the former as well as the latter. Some proper guidance on time management would have been helpful, and official figures for how long we should spend working could contribute to a healthier mindset. Individual tutors can also help by using reassurance tactics rather than scare tactics; most students are already working hard enough, and need to be told to take a break. Fortunately, my own tutors have been very positive in this respect.

The emphasis has been on academic achievement for too long, and its effect on other aspects of student satisfaction should be taken into account when the university self-evaluates. This means encouraging extracurricular activities for their own sake, not just as CV-boosters or prestige-winners. It also means accepting that, no matter how good the counselling service is, the fact that more and more people are using it is indicative of a failure to sufficiently prioritise mental health at a stage where crises can be averted.

On a personal level, the best coping strategy I’ve found is to strictly divide work time from personal time. This worked moderately well in final year, when I generally worked 9am-7pm, and tried to take at least one afternoon off per week (whole weekends being a distant dream). Still, despite the perspective I gained on my year abroad, sometimes there just weren’t enough hours in the day to stick to my own rules, and I found myself starting to unravel around halfway through each term, becoming overwhelmed by the constant stress.

Where are the students? The students are in the library. As usual.

Where are all the (other) students? The students are in the library. As usual.

Problem 3: Timing

Oxford terms last eight weeks, plus a “settling in” period of up to a week, which often includes mock exams. At the end of term, most colleges are assiduous about kicking students out immediately, with conferences moving in to boost funds for bursaries and the like. While this is understandable, it often means that there are less than 24 hours between the last class of term and the departure time.

The strict eight-week terms mean that individual tutors or colleges genuinely can’t do much to help struggling students, no matter how willing they are to extend deadlines. A friend from college (who suffers from ME and depression) was unofficially told that, once you’ve missed two weeks’ work, it’s practically impossible to complete the year due to the pace of the course. His tutors did all they could to help, but there’s so little room for manouevre in the term that he ended up retaking the year and eventually changing universities.

Possible solution: Reading week

In borderline cases like mine, a few reassuring words from a kind tutor or a few sessions of counselling can sometimes provide the necessary impetus to survive until the holidays, when there’s finally time to recover, but this is far from ideal. An empty week in the middle of term, used properly, would allow students to catch up from whatever inevitable setbacks had faced them that term. I’m sure the administration could provide a whole library’s-worth of reasons not to have a reading week (keeping accommodation cheap, allowing time for research, etc), but plenty of universities manage it, and perhaps there’s a reason only Oxbridge uses the short-and-sharp method.

Ultimately, though, this all depends on the attitude shift discussed above; for a start, an extra week currently carries the risk that tutors would view it as “add-an-extra-essay-week”. If preventative measures to ensure welfare were really prioritised, I can’t believe it would be out of the realm of possibility to extend the term and/or reduce the workload, but this won’t happen until the people at the top realise that, just maybe, the mental health of vast swathes of students is more important than the university’s reputation.

What about all the people who are fine?

IMG_20150301_170629You might claim that Oxford ought to be stressful, and just isn’t suitable for those who don’t thrive under extreme pressure, but the inflexibility of the university harms everyone. Literally anyone can have an unexpected disaster – a bereavement, a family emergency, a bout of flu – and a system that cannot allow a couple of weeks recovery time is ripe for change.

Even if nothing actually goes wrong, it’s ridiculous that a university so full of opportunities should allow so little time to make the most of them. The most balanced students still end up neglecting their creative interests, or missing talks by world-leading speakers at the Union, or skipping deeply relevant and interesting lectures because they can’t fit them in around essay deadlines. And on a purely academic level, it’s not possible to understand a subject in depth when you’re racing through it in a week; the rare opportunity to do coursework highlights how hastily everything else is done.

The end bit

All of the above explains why I struggle to wholeheartedly recommend Oxford to anyone who seems a bit fragile. I’ve had to leave the positives to another post for reasons of concision, but none of what I’ve said changes the fact that I’ve got a great deal out of my degree, and many of the individual people in charge of running it have been brilliant. Unfortunately, I doubt that any revolution will happen in the near future, because such an old and arrogant institution needs a fair few nudges before real change is possible. Regardless, I want to reiterate that the high pressure atmosphere in Oxford is a systemic problem and will most likely exist until the system itself changes. My solutions are not very conclusive, and probably aren’t the best ones, but I’d be keen to hear from anyone with interesting ideas or stories, and – to anyone reading from a position of power in Oxford – please do your best to shake things up!

Magdalen college: beautiful, but apparently monumentally stressful to go to.

Magdalen college (one of the older ones): beautiful, but apparently monumentally stressful to go to.



13 thoughts on “Oxford problems: Why things need to move on from 1096

  1. Rowan,
    Reading your insightful and enlightening blog reminded me of the junior doctor I lodged with for nearly 2 years in the 1980’s. As junior doctors, who were gaining practical experience after the university course, their “weekend shift” began at 9 am Friday in A&E (Casualty) and finished at 9 am Monday every other week. The relentless demand to stay awake all through the busiest part of the A&E week (think drunks and Saturday night) was too much for some who left the NHS after being educated for 7 years at the tax payer’s expense (as it was in the ’80’s). The tales I heard of sleepy doctors at 3am Sunday trying to make life saving decisions were awful. I recall Raj telling me that, after some sleep, he returned to fill in one patient’s notes only to find he had made a wavy line and couldn’t recall the details let alone the ailment! When challenged their superiors comments were “We did it and survived”.
    I gather that now, in 2015, much of this has changed but whether it is by attitude or legal means I know not though I have my suspicions. On the plus side I recall many of their parties as being somewhat lively, drink fuelled, riotous affairs where I heard some quite amazing tales about life that you couldn’t possibly tell your parents. It was only towards the end of my time as Raj’s lodger that the hospital canteens and many of the nurses discovered that I wasn’t medical but horticultural – no deceit was intended but as no one asked they made assumptions but that is all another irrelevant tale..
    Returning to your experiences and suggestions. I am sure that change will occur but fear it will be very slow, though it might be speeded up as the result of some very public and unfortunate disaster.
    Now, I wonder what your next topic will be – pub related, perhaps?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I get the impression that medical students are still pretty badly treated but it sounds like things were awful back then! I suspect you’re right about change being slow, but Somerville seem pretty reasonable about taking student concerns seriously and more colleges could follow their lead for a start… And it probably will be, yes!


  2. A really fantastic post, I really loved reading it and agree with what you’re saying (especially the part about not being able to seize all the opportunities offered)- I completely loved my first year, but agree that some parts were made needlessly stressful. It’s made me cautious about returning for the new term next week… (gulp)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Rowan 🙂

    I found your post to be on the money with a lot of your points: I agree that it is worrying and counter-intuitive in the extreme that the university and the culture around it seems to accept that everyone will be pushed to an inch of their limit, and in many cases beyond it, and if this happens then it is your failing and not theirs, despite how able or intelligent you may be. I do feel that, with the ever-increasing awareness of mental health in today’s society and certainly among students, that we are on the long road to change, I just hope that it can come sooner rather than later 🙂

    Much love,



    • Yeah I hope so too! I would have liked to get involved with more campaigns to fix this kind of thing while I was in oxford, but shockingly I just didn’t have time… A couple of people have raised related points about employers pushing people to work much too hard, and I think it’s probably relevant that a lot of Oxford grads go on to those kinds of workplaces (mainly thinking of finance here). I suspect changing the atmosphere at universities and sending out a bunch of graduates who have been taught to value their own wellbeing can only be a good thing. Of course once profit is involved the consequences of people taking it easier are different, but that really just highlights how unnecessary the workaholic culture of Oxford is.


  4. Thank God you survived, Rowan! I was driving through town today and really missed you – knowing that you were here somewhere beavering away. It is crazy the pressure you were under, I wish we had spent more time together, but I am full of admiration for what you achieved. Good luck with the next steps…Jx

    Liked by 1 person

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