The University of Oxford is failing in its duty of care.
This is an institution that embodies ‘Britishness’ like perhaps no other, with its quaint traditions and idyllic aesthetic. But there is another way in which it is an uncannily accurate reflection of the national character: it’s a bit shit at dealing with mental health, and the welfare of its students.
Oxford is hardly alone in this. Mental health is a problem plaguing universities across the country – an NUS survey found that in the 2014-15 academic year, 78% of university students in the UK felt they experienced mental health issues, and 54% of those affected didn’t look for help.
But this problem is exaggerated at Oxford, and the prioritisation of academia above all else is the main culprit. We have a workload that few other students come close to, squeezed into eight-week terms that are about convenience, not care. Once you factor in the social pressures of university life, it’s hardly surprising that so many students here struggle.
Of course, the majority of those struggling with the workload are not in need of medical help: using words like ‘depression’ too loosely risks trivialising mental health issues. But the ridiculous pressure of this environment means everyone is at risk of developing a more serious problem – and everyone deserves to be looked out for.
The university has moved forwards a great deal in recent years, recognising the severe consequences of poor welfare provision, but it still hasn’t found an appropriate mechanism fixing this problem. It seems there is still a reluctance to accept the extent of their responsibility, and the terms of their duty of care.
This is a highly artificial environment, where the vast majority of those responsible for looking out for us are people who were once undergraduates here themselves. The problem is that they were the ones that coped. It’s hardly surprising that our tutors don’t understand our struggles, when most of them experienced few such difficulties.
We’re told repeatedly that things will get tough, that we’ll be pushed to breaking point, but that we’ll get through it. The simple fact is that not everyone does get through it – and if 54% of those struggling don’t seek help, the onus must fall upon the university to actively seek out those in need of support.
The obsession with exam success is inevitable; Oxford didn’t get the reputation it has by letting people cruise. But there needs to be a more effective separation of academic and pastoral responsibilities. At present, everything is viewed through the lens of academia. If someone in trouble doesn’t look for help, the university only notices when the quality of their work starts to slip. In many cases, by this point it is too late.
There seems to be a general assumption that the collegiate system creates a community small enough that any warning signs will be spotted with ease, eliminating any need for the kind of proactive prevention methods taken up by other universities. Colleges are a ready-made mechanism for assessing student welfare on an individual basis – but their effectiveness is limited by the obsessive nature of inter-college academic competition.
At my college (Merton), those in charge are quite visibly unimpressed by our unfamiliar position in the nether regions of the Norrington table, and it is clear to all that remedying this situation is the number one priority. Student welfare is valued too – but it is expendable in a way that exam results are not.
At other colleges too, there are stories of students pushing themselves to their limits, getting a 2:1, and being told they aren’t good enough. It is the university’s job to get each student to do the best they are capable of; this doesn’t always mean getting a first. In fact, more students would probably succeed if they didn’t feel such enormous pressure not to fail.
Mental health is still something of a taboo – but it is becoming less so. At some point, universities must surely start to be judged not only on their academic performance, but on the wellbeing of their students. Oxford is behind the curve; if something doesn’t change, it will no longer be an unfortunate minority of students that suffer, but the university as a whole.