Are Cambridge colleges failing struggling students?

Ashley Chhibber and Kamila Kingstone 14 November 2013

Concerns have been raised about the absence of a centralised and standardised welfare system within the University, prompted by figures obtained this week which indicate varying rates of intermission across the Cambridge colleges.

Over 500 Cambridge students have intermitted over the last three years, with at least one student intermitting annually from each undergraduate college. This averages at around 1.5 per cent of undergraduates over this period.

 Yet, according to the recently- founded ‘Cambridge Speaks Its Mind’ Campaign, the welfare system is failing many Cambridge students. The campaign organisers told The Cambridge Student: “What is clear from the current system is that it is not working, and that students deserve better… We simply cannot tolerate a system which allows so many students to suffer such avoidable misery.”

The process of ‘disregarding terms’, commonly known as ‘intermitting’, allows students deemed too ill to continue their studies to take some time out of their degree – usually a whole academic year – and return at a later date. Previously called ‘degrading’, it is not to be confused with ‘rustication’, the process by which a student is ‘sent down’ by the University’s Court of Discipline as a punitive measure.

Data collated by the Student Statistics Office (SSO) shows how widely intermission rates differ between colleges. In 2012/13, the percentage of the student body intermitting at each college ranged from 0.29 per cent (Trinity) to 3.7 per cent (Girton), with a mean of 1.6 per cent. This meant that a student at Girton was more than twice as likely to intermit as a student at, for instance, King’s, and 12 times as likely to intermit as a student at Trinity.

Some colleges have consistently low rates of students intermitting: Churchill, Selwyn, St Catharine’s and Trinity all average at less than 1 per cent over the last three years. In contrast, Girton and Downing have averaged at over 2 per cent of students intermitting annually since 2010, and the number of students intermitting has increased year on year.

Geraldine Dufour, the Head of Counselling at the University Counselling Service, informed TCS, “Intermitting can be a very difficult time for students. As a collegiate university, the University of Cambridge provides both centralised support for instance through the UCS and through the Disability Resource Centre, as well as college specific support through a variety of roles such as tutors, college nurses, chaplains and other specialist staff…Intermitting is first and foremost a college matter.”

According to Cambridge Speaks Its Mind, “one of the major problems of Cambridge’s welfare system is that it is still focussed, first and foremost, on academic achievement rather than personal wellbeing. This of course flies in the face of the common-sense conclusion that if students are happy and healthy they will do well – and this need not be a first… We feel that there should be a minimum reasonable standard of training for all those involved in college and departmental welfare… What we need are more compassionate and student focussed regulations on intermission, which are transparent and apply equally to all colleges – the disparity in provision and attitudes is a problem here.”

In 2011/12, a petition was initiated by the ‘Degrading is Degrading’ (DiD) Campaign – part of the Disabled Students’ Campaign – that aimed to remove the requirement for intermitting students to reside outside of Cambridge, to establish university-wide regulations reducing the disparities between colleges in this process, and to rename the process then known officially as ‘degrading’ to something with less negative connotations. It received 1681 signatures. As a result of this petition, the system was renamed in the Statutes and Ordinances of the University, from ‘degrading’ to ‘disregarding terms’.

Less evident is the unification of college welfare policies into a standard policy for the University. It is claimed that flexibility is needed to account for intrinsic differences between colleges (including size, location and the availability of sustained support).

Esther Leighton, who was previously a Disabled Student’s Officer for the University involved with the campaign, told TCS: “The DiD campaign had some huge successes, but there is still a phenomenal amount to do… The name change was a symptom of a problem with the system, and while the name has changed and some aspects of the system have, more should be done to improve the experience of intermitted students.”

Helen Hoogewerf-McComb, CUSU Welfare & Rights Officer, said to TCS: “For many students, intermitting is a productive step which allows them to graduate with a degree that represents their ability, not their circumstances. It is vital that students who are considering this option are provided with the information and support necessary to make their own decisions, and face as few barriers as possible that might prevent them from taking otherwise helpful action.”

Referencing the ‘Degrading is Degrading’ Campaign, and last year’s ‘Students Deserve Better’ project, Hoogewerf-McComb went on to say: “Recent years have seen real change in the process once known as “degrading”, but there is still work left to do. CUSU continues to campaign to ensure that all students who intermit receive fair treatment, clear guidance and a high standard of support. We also run the Student Advice Service which works with individual students, empowering them to make informed decisions about intermission and a range of other issues.”

Click here to read the related opinion piece, and here to see some of the student testimonies we received.