Cambridge’s pressure shows we’re getting it right

William Hewstone 15 January 2015

Cambridge today stands accused of overworking its students, preventing them from achieving their best, and contributing to a mental health problem in the university. Students are cracking under the weight of unmanageable course work and poor-quality teaching, we are told, and this in the leading student suicide town. As if they weren’t happy kicking King’s students out over Christmas, now they are driving us into depression and anxiety – and so it goes.

The “unnecessary pressure” landed on Cambridge students, so lamented by CUSU and other bodies needs to be re-examined with a more critical eye. AMES, for instance, appears to have received shocking results. Their overall satisfaction figure for last year was the lowest of any Tripos, languishing at 75%, compared with a University-wide 93% approval.

To claim that this is an expression of frustration at extreme workloads is simply not true though, as Cambridge have only released the figures for overall satisfaction by Tripos. Accompanying comments range from anger at poor-quality teaching to stress about high workloads. Not the same thing, you might have noticed, and not easily rectifiable, I concede.

In spite of such challenges, the issues need to be separated, assessed and dealt with individually. A recent drive for action and campaigning from CUSU, admirable though it may be, is falsely based on these misquoted statistics. The predictable student outrage at these headline numbers accompanies a tragic ignorance of the facts, the blame for which must rest with the students rushing to propagate this information. The university takes us for fools by declining to comment on the issue, and with this attitude I can see why.

CUSU's 'Campaigning Cambridge' event this week aimed to increase student involvement in activism and politics. Credit: Jack May

In much the same vein, the Tab ran a well-intentioned and admirable mental health survey last year, which received a substantial response from Cambridge students. With this data, the Tab ran a series of exposés on how Cambridge was a hotbed of mental health problems, including the genuinely shocking stat that 40% of English students had been diagnosed with depression.

What this sensationalist approach failed to do was to take account of any potential sampling biases in respondents to this extraordinary effort to promote mental health campaigns. In essence, when challenged for my response to the headline, I responded that the only conclusive information we can garner is that 40% of English student respondents to the survey had mental health problems.

Unlike the National Student Survey data on satisfaction, which is carried out and analysed by IPSOS MORI, a leading polling firm, these numbers were simply thrown together online. What we needed to know was who reads the Tab, how healthy they were before arriving in Cambridge, how much more likely clever people are to be mentally ill, and so on. The information present was simply not enough to make any conclusive statements.

That is not to say that this is not a serious issue – merely that these efforts were clumsy, and lead to potential ignorance about the true problems of undergraduate life.

Mental health problems and frustration at incompetent staff are no mere trifles. They deserve our most earnest support and the highest quality of intellectual rigour for which we are so famed in our analyses and responses.

By lapsing into the populism of headline-grabbing stats and trusting our peers to be polling experts, we might well end up overlooking those who didn’t, or couldn’t, respond, which would seem even more dangerous.

As for the state of our wider university ‘satisfaction’, the fact is that if we hadn’t reported these kinds of statistics, something would be very wrong. If we are students of the university recently billed as producing the most employable graduates on the planet, we should expect to be in a high-stress, perfection-striving environment.

It should come as no surprise that only 27% of us can always complete our work to our ‘satisfaction’. Indeed, in an environment where the mantra is that there is always more you can do, more to achieve, more to read, and more to know, the real surprise is that that many of us really believe we’ve done ‘enough’.

What I’d like to know is whether the 39% who said they had enough time to understand the things they had to learn really believe they’ve had enough time to understand the political philosophy behind the French revolution, or truly get the workings of gravitational forces.

We are students of the best university in the country, and the second-best university on the planet. If we’re not feeling a little pressured, then what on earth are we doing?