“Enough”: Fierce debate erupts over reading week

Jenny Steinitz and Anna Carruthers 23 January 2015

CUSU have this week voted to back the new campaign for a reading week.

At the first CUSU Council meeting of Lent term, those present voted to support the campaign for nine-week terms, and publicise the ‘No More Week 5 Blues’ campaign. The campaign, started last week by members of Cambridge Defend Education (CDE), argues that a reading week should be added to the existing term. The suggested break would take place just after week four.

Reading week is an established tradition at many other universities, and currently there is also a parallel campaign being undertaken by the Oxford University Student Union (OUSU). CUSU Council predicts that it will be well-received among Cambridge students too, especially in light of The Cambridge Student’s breaking of the results of the National Student Survey’s findings last week. The NSS revealed that 62% of Cambridge students who responded felt under “unnecessary pressure”, and that just 55% of students considered their workload to be manageable, compared to 78% nationally.

CUSU President Helen Hoogewerf McComb argued to the Council that “this institution should not [merely] be rewarding the ability to work without sleep”, and that a reading week would encourage the focus to be more on quality of work. The Cambridge Defend Education group welcomed CUSU support, commenting on their Facebook page: “Even [CUSU have] realized that ENOUGH IS ENOUGH”.

However, some members of the CUSU Council argued that further research needed to be done before undertaking a campaign for such comprehensive change. Churchill JCR President Freddie Downing commented: “There are real problems related to mental health in Cambridge and, thankfully, we’re more aware about this issue than ever before. As an institution Cambridge
University does not do as much as it could to ensure the welfare of those who are particularly vulnerable.”

In spite of this, he added: “I can’t see how termly reading weeks is the solution. My experience is that most people do find a balance, although it can get hectic at times. A reading week is unnecessary in that respect. Moreover, ‘Week Five blues’ does not
legitimise depression or other mental health problems. We need to discriminate between the majority who are just a bit fatigued
mid-term because of the tough work schedule and who just need a pick-meup and those whose problems are more serious and need real help.”

Mark Danciger, writing in The Tab, also expressed some concern about the #nomoreweek5blues campaign, calling it a “hashtag monster.” He accused the campaign of being reductive of mental health issues, and controversially commented that: “If [students] don’t think they can handle the workload, then don’t apply to Cambridge.”

Hesham Mashhour, writing for Varsity, objected to the proposals on the basis that international students could be hardest hit by an additional week in term, with few chances to return home for recovery purposes. He added that “there are serious financial
issues to consider here.”