February 21, 2007

The Over-Pressured Hothouse That is Oxbridge


In Oxford, they call it the fifth week blues. A point at which, eight essays and 26 lectures in, you're far enough through the race to be ready to throw in the towel - and yet the finishing line is still a tiny dot on the horizon. It would hit me, regular as clock- work, midway through every term, with a churning anxiety in my stomach and a surge of self-doubt.

What if I couldn't manage the next essay? Who could I turn to for help? What if it wasn't good enough? What if I wasn't good enough? Exhausted, on edge and thoroughly stressed out, I always made it through in the end. But, especially as I emerged from the sheer panic of Finals, I was left wondering at what point getting a degree had become more about psychological stamina than intellectual achievement.

In the past two weeks, the cases of two young men have brought the issue of Oxbridge students' mental health back to the surface. Andrew Mason, a 20-year-old JCR president described as an "exceptional" student who seemed to have everything going for him, was found to have killed himself in his college room. The death, on Valentine's Day, of Paul Duke, a 25-year-old student at Ruskin College, came swiftly afterwards; police are not treating the death as suspicious. Inquests for cases are expected to be held at a later date.

Having lost a close friend to suicide while at Oxford, I realise the futility of speculating on the whys and wherefores of individ- ual cases. However concerns about the impact of the pressure-cooker Oxbridge system on students - that it can exacerbate existing mental health issues and can occasionally prove disastrous for those most vulnerable to the pressures of over-achievement - should not be ignored. Much of this is, tragically, entirely predictable. To put yourself forward for an elite university known for its "work hard, play hard" mentality, to go willingly through a gruelling interview and examination process famous for being a minefield of eccentric questioning and unpredictable intellectual challenges, you must in the first place have a certain amount of drive and determination.

For most students, this energy can manifest itself healthily enough; most people have at least one area outside the realm of academia in which they excel, and manage somehow to balance the burden of tutorials, lectures and essays with a busy social life and a commitment to, say, being at the river every morning at 6am or putting the student rag to bed rather later in the day. But for others this can lead to problems. Pressure can come from the inside as well as the outside - and it does-n't take a genius to realise that overachievers, more than any other kind of people, are vulnerable to a vicious, destructive kind of self-inflicted stress that can all too often become unbearable. This is where the Oxbridge system could - and must - do better. This does, of course, prompt the obligatory in-house joke: "Question: How many Oxford dons does it take to change a lightbulb?" Answer: (astonished) "Change??" But there are, contrary to what defeatists of the "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" brigade will say, ways in which the process could be made less painful and more, not less, effective in educational terms.

Both Oxford and Cambridge, for instance, persist in the eight- week, 16-essay term, a long, dark tunnel which at times can seem interminable and from which you finally emerge blinking and exhausted, good for nothing but sleeping - and preparing for next term. Every other university in the country has embraced longer terms, where the workload is more spread out and students have more time to prepare work rather than cram the night before - which is, more often than not, what ends up happening. There is a culture of faux-intellectual machismo among many Oxbridge students, an attitude that prompts the proud declaration of "all-nighters" and the ordering of six-shot "look at me-I've got so much work to do in so little time" coffees. Instead of rewarding intellectual prowess and well-researched work the system brings the best out of those who can write clearly to a tight deadline and juggle various commitments without undue stress. It brings the worst out of those others who convince themselves that the sword of Damocles is constantly hanging over them and will fall right onto them if they do less than their very best at every single task in hand.

Nowhere does this intensive work ethic take its toll more than during final exams, which for a great many Oxbridge students are the sole verdict on an entire degree programme. Three or four years of work are decided in under two weeks. The continuous assessment option is rarely offered - and, when it is, there are still those who insist on labelling it the "soft" option. I watched otherwise super-capable and thick-skinned friends buckle under the pressure of it all; in the words of my former teacher, herself a Oxford graduate, "Finals turn everyone a little bit loopy."

So why isn't something done? It cannot be right that Britain's two most celebrated educational institutions persist in maintaining a structure of learning that exacerbates the problems of the most psychologically vulnerable. Of course getting an degree should be challenging; of course it should push people to the limits of their intellectual ability. But there is no reason why it should be a survival of the fittest-style exercise in psychological fortitude. It's time to change the lightbulb.

(c) 2007 Independent, The; London (UK). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.