Why I Have a Problem With Cambridge

Cambridge University has a major cultural problem with its approach to stress and student wellbeing. The upshot is a scandalous and growing rate of mental health problems in the student body, and, at worst, desperate students in crisis treated with utter contempt. Nobody wins. I’ve been slow to add my voice to the chorus because ‘why would that help?’, but what is a chorus if not a collection of voices? If you’ve had any relevant experiences / thoughts / ideas, I’d love to hear from you.

Below, I say basically the same thing with a lot more words.

“46% of Cambridge students are depressed. To break this down, 21% have been diagnosed with depression, and another 25% think they may be suffering undiagnosed, but for one reason or another have not sought medical attention. Putting this into perspective, a high-quality systematic review has put the national average prevalence of depression at 6.7%. The difference is shocking.”

Tim Squirrel, http://thetab.com/uk/cambridge/2013/06/14/the-tab-mental-health-survey-response/

It was the way the words fell out of my mouth that startled me, like they had a will of their own.

“So I’ve seen exam stress land a friend in A&E at 3am, and another guy I know of got hit by a car on his way to a supervision, but instead of getting medical attention he turned up to the supervision anyway, face bloodied… And these things don’t even surprise me any more.”

Not the usual small talk for a wedding reception. But the discovery was fresh in my mind, and I blurted it out to my cousin amidst the evening’s dancing and cake. Cambridge mathematics undergraduate (me) and Parachute Regiment recruit (him), his feats of endurance dwarf mine; my algebraic acrobatics his. Not a lot of common ground. Except… the pain and excitement of being pushed way beyond what you thought your limits were… the preciousness of rare moments of praise from the best of the best who are slow to be impressed… the disconnection from the rest of the world, your existence locked in a parallel universe whose intensity is hard to describe… the will to sacrifice sleep and sanity and a gentle transition to adulthood on the altar of personal success. The picturesque tourist-magnet of Cambridge might only be the palest imitation of his gruelling world, yes, but I thought he’d get it more than most. I needed somebody to get it.

The comparison matters. In the armed forces, lives depend on the ability to face extreme stress with a near-inhuman level of detached professionalism. Compared with that, seriously, what’s Oxbridge’s justification for driving people to breaking point? It needs to be ironclad when the cost is a mental health crisis big enough to make headlines: “Oxford branded ‘toxic’ after student suicides” [The Sunday Times, 1]. “How Cambridge University almost killed me” [The Guardian, 2].

And it’s getting worse.

[My boyfriend told me that] he had been called up by my college and asked to come to “an important meeting”. He’d been very confused since he doesn’t go to my college, or even do my course, but he went along. He was met by the tutor, who told him that the college were worried that I was a suicide risk and that might be a danger to him, and that “for the sake of his work,” he should leave me.

Anonymous, https://cambridgespeaksitsmind.wordpress.com/2015/02/12/testimonial/

I’ll focus on the maths course, because that’s what I know. It’s famous for its rigour and rapid teaching and uncompromising examinations [3]. Examiners from outside Cambridge report that ‘the breadth of topics covered in the exam questions is… possibly unique not just nationally but internationally for an examination at this level. The exam performance of students at the very top end is spectacular…’ [4]. This breadth is compressed into two or three 8-week bursts per annum; ‘weekends’ and ‘bank holidays’ are not in lecturers’ or students’ vocabularies. I expected to struggle, starting four years ‘late’. But it wasn’t just me. I hadn’t heard that around a third of the exceptionally smart cohort flunk out with a 2:2 or worse, below the threshold for most competitive job vacancies. Cambridge’s resistance to the tide of grade inflation is understandable but was admitted to be ‘probably at the detriment of our own students’ by the (superb) previous Chair of the Mathematics Faculty Board. Remember the kind of academic credentials the students have: applicants need A*A*A at A-level, but A*A*A*A* is normal and 5 A-levels is far from unusual. After interview, only the best 15%-20% gain offers; these few then sit exceptionally hard entrance papers, and unlike other subjects, only half of offer-holders actually make the grade and get in. This is the quality of student that statistically has a 1 in 3 chance of making it through to the job market with a ‘bad grade’. A heavy workload is manageable; the real threat of working intensively and still doing too poorly to make it into a career commensurate with your talents is what weighs so heavily. Either grades aren’t faithfully reflecting performance or performance isn’t reflecting talent. Either is a grievous failure.

Boo hoo, you might think, poor little overachievers discovering life is hard, but the system is genuinely dire. Crises and health problems have become normalised in Oxbridge student culture [6] – clinical depression, eating disorders, anxiety, throwing up after supervisions, chronic sleep deprivation, suicide attempts, a counselling service stretched woefully beyond its means, and crying in the library in the middle of the night, all papered over wafer-thin by a cult of keeping up appearances before a horde of high-achieving peers who seem to have it all made. Evidence indicates that students nationwide are increasingly struggling with the pressure in a world where a degree doesn’t get you a job, and a job doesn’t get you a house; a world where politicians who went to university for free are only too happy to increase the financial burden on new students, then have the temerity to accuse universities of doing too little to promote access. But I know people for whom Cambridge is their second or even third undergraduate degree, people uniquely qualified to confirm that its normalisation of stress is on another level.

We didn’t sign up for an environment that is so toxic, on so many levels, that severe and widespread mental health problems are laughed away as just another one of those silly Cambridge quirks.

Martha Perotto-Wills, http://www.varsity.co.uk/comment/7708

It’s common sense to expect Oxbridge not just to be hard, but exceptionally so. Indeed, it should be. Oxbridge takes the very best of the best academically, and pushes them beyond their falsely imagined boundaries. It’s worth asking whether some of the good that comes from Oxbridge graduates – medical research, comedy, engineering innovation, whatever – would have been achieved otherwise. The question brings to mind the 2014 film Whiplash, a parable about ‘how far is too far’. Since you’re engaged enough to have read this far, I encourage you to check it out and think about it. It deserves the praise lavished upon it, and watching it was a cathartic experience for my friends and I. The greatest drummers, the greatest mathematicians, the greatest ________, will only ever come to be if those with the greatest potential are driven to discover it.


That argument isn’t a magic bullet – it doesn’t give anybody carte blanche, and it certainly doesn’t nullify the duty of care that any institution automatically incurs to the very people it pushes hard. I expect an Oxbridge degree to be academically hard, not hard because of illegible lecturers, nonsensical pacing that ignores how human beings actually learn, bureaucracy that can stray somewhere between Yes, Minister and Kafka, and, worst of all, uneven pastoral support.

“During [your leave for health reasons], you must not enter the University, the college, or any part of the city of Cambridge.”
“But I live in Cambridge,” I said.
“Be that as it may,” the senior tutor continued, “Rules are rules. You must not be seen in the city.”

“It has been brought to our attention that you were seen by a member of college staff on Trumpington Street. We remind you that a condition of your intermission was that you do not reside in Cambridge. Should any further evidence emerge of violations of our agreement, the college will have no choice but to not support your request to return to residence.”

So… I barely leave the house. I get more and more depressed. I’ve stopped seeing my friends in person. I don’t want them to know what I am going through. Right now I am too afraid of losing my place at Cambridge to go any further than the end of my road… I am basically under house arrest.

Anonymous, https://cambridgespeaksitsmind.wordpress.com/2015/02/26/testimonial-my-college-effectively-put-me-under-house-arrest/

Cambridge likes to defend its track record on mental health by pointing out that its dropout rates are low and its counselling provision is extensive [7]. This is a false argument that misunderstands people who drop out. Dropout rates are not a measure of students’ struggles; they are first and foremost a measure of student apathy, and very few Cambridge students are the blasé type. Cambridge was the dream of many a student, and to abandon ship would be an unbearable personal failure. Students would rather risk their sanity to scrape through Cambridge than have an easier time and do much better elsewhere. The stories of those who do move elsewhere speak for themselves: students leaping from 2:2s and 3rds to firsts, and gaining themselves a richer social life to boot.

What of the aforementioned counselling service? Considering the burden placed upon students, it would be unconscionable if there wasn’t a well-established counselling service. Even so, it’s stretched to its limits by the number of students needing help. The university points out that it has more counsellors per head than any other UK university as if that alone is a good thing, without acknowledging the troubling fact that those counsellors are all working flat-out and still the waiting list is often prohibitively long. Shouldn’t it be concerned that it seems to need so many?!

Students are supposed to have a more direct source of pastoral support in the form of a tutor appointed by their college, but for every good tutor there is an appalling one [8]. Students come to their tutors in dire need of help, commonly concerning self-harm, rape, eating disorders, bereavement, and so on, and what training have tutors had in providing support?


They are just academics like any others, who have taken on the responsibility of students’ welfare (in return for some tidy financial compensation) without professional expertise or adequate preparation, and the resulting horror stories of some people’s experiences are the sort anyone would expect in such a situation. After lengthy student protests, one concession was recently made: newly appointed tutors will be given one day of training before being declared fit to manage students’ most sensitive issues. Meanwhile, it appears that existing tutors don’t even get that, and it is unclear whether the new training day is mandatory or optional. There remains no real system of oversight.

Fletcher: it’s about pushing people beyond what’s expected of them. And I believe that is a necessity. Because without it you’re depriving the world of its next Armstrong. Its next Parker.
Andrew: But do you think there’s a line? You know — where you discourage the next Charlie Parker from becoming Charlie Parker?
Fletcher: No. Because the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged.

Whiplash (2014)

There has to be a balance somewhere. Cambridge should be extremely hard, but it should do all it can to help its students thrive in that environment, which means a renewed focus on their wellbeing and the delivery of quality teaching – a tall order when its reputation and league table rankings are based solely on its world-class research. The quality is too inconsistent, rather than consistently too poor [9]. It needs to begin with a comprehensive rethink of its pastoral support, starting with professional training, transparent guidelines for college welfare services to improve consistency, clear statements of the support students are entitled to expect in various common circumstances, and the introduction of an unprejudiced complaints process for those whose grievances cannot be resolved without an impartial eye from outside their college. Currently, there is no real accountability and no recourse for students in vulnerable situations who have been grossly mistreated, and that cannot stand. In parallel, real thought must also be given to structuring teaching in a way that aids both learning and wellbeing – support and teaching are intricately linked [10]. Cambridge’s approach may drive some students to greatness otherwise out of their reach, but how many equally promising students are let down along the way?

Leaving aside moral obligation, change would be in the University’s own best interests. People perform best when valued and treated with care (tech companies are well aware of this, with their free lunches and massages). Welfare shortcomings are making national news with increasing frequency, and crop up in Google searches amongst the more romantic portraits of Cambridge life. Teenagers considering their choice of university are beginning to catch on, and Oxford and Cambridge admissions risk losing a portion of student talent (which is, of course, an important source of research talent) elsewhere. It may also be worth remembering that the revenue stream of alumni donations depends on nostalgia and gratitude from past students towards their college.

The bureaucratic inertia of an 800-year old monolithic institution is no excuse, though is does mean that change won’t happen without sustained application of pressure. In October, I’ll return to my third and final year at Cambridge after intermitting for a year, and I want to help somehow. ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’, blah blah. But what to do? Action at the college level makes little sense for me personally, when my experiences have broadly been good (although they once threatened me with police action for spending a night with a friend – long story). On the other hand, the endless student meetings to orchestrate university-wide action have had their own issues, and have so far led to only glacial progress. [11]

If you have any ideas, or experiences (good or bad) you’d like to share, I’d be delighted to hear from you. It’s right for Cambridge to demand the best, but it has an ethical responsibility to support its students through the challenges it sets. Oh, and the Parachute Regiment? A study found that ‘a more progressive approach to training has reduced the incidence of medical discharge from 14.4% to 5.1% and increased overall pass rates from 43% to 58%.’ [12] Few institutions have Cambridge’s administrative inertia, but if the British Army can swallow its pride and adapt, I believe Cambridge can too.

[1] http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/article1548786.ece
[2] http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/oct/06/cambridge-university-student-depression-eating-disorders
[3] To an extent, every mathematician everywhere is doing the same maths – the concepts are universal. There are even a handful of courses harder, better, faster, stronger than the one delivered at Cambridge. Harvard’s Math 55 is infamously spectacular. It is, however, entirely elective, and nobody needs to struggle through it unless they are fit to keep up. Furthermore, pretty much anyone who makes it to the end of the course has their achievement recognised by an A or A-, unlike the wide spread of grades in the Tripos course in Cambridge.
[4] http://www.maths.cam.ac.uk/facultyboard/teachingcommittee/exreport12.pdf
[5] http://www.maths.cam.ac.uk/facultyboard/teachingcommittee/exreport14_web_version.pdf
[6] http://www.varsity.co.uk/comment/7708
[7] http://thetab.com/uk/cambridge/2013/06/14/mental-health-survey-uni-response/
[8] I happen to be one of the very lucky ones. A contrasting story from somebody less fortunate: https://cambridgespeaksitsmind.wordpress.com/2015/03/04/testimonial-im-aware-of-the-movement-for-tutor-training-among-students-but-i-dont-think-that-discourse-is-helpful/,
[9] Extremes matter. Geeky analogy: in infrastructure design; train delays and waiting times for elevators or taxis are all designed to limit the worst case scenario, even to the detriment of optimising the ‘typical’ experience.
[10] Many academics take their teaching obligations admirably seriously, but even those who do are hampered by the framework they must operate within. Take Fields medallist, Professor Sir Tim Gowers: ‘Whenever I have lectured a Cambridge course, I have always been aware that I have to go artificially fast in order to squeeze the material into the number of lectures I am given. With more lectures, I could make many more additional helpful remarks about how to understand the material.’ (https://gowers.wordpress.com/2011/09/23/welcome-to-the-cambridge-mathematical-tripos/)
[11] Their impact on awareness, however, has been invaluable.
[12] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18432443

Why I Have a Problem With Cambridge

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