Intermitting Students Are Being Failed by the System

Sarah Dees 19 March 2019
Credit: Lauren Chan

When I emailed my tutor in December 2018 about intermitting, I knew I was making the right choice. Intermission had already been recommended to me by my Director of Studies and my Tutor after I spent 4 months on bedrest during the Easter break and term of my first year due to several cracked ribs. I was determined to finish my first year at all costs, but there was most certainly a cost to my long-term wellbeing. I’m lucky that my Tutor and I have a close relationship, so when I sent the difficult email explaining that I felt I was no longer capable of physically carrying out my remaining two terms for this academic year, I was met with a sympathetic ear. It turned out my intermission would qualify as a medical intermission, but the difference between this and other kinds of intermission was never explained to me; I was left to trust the paperwork filed by my doctor and my Tutor. Unfortunately, this was just the first of many administrative hurdles to surmount in the coming months.

Over December and January, there was a massive gap in communication as everything was squared away over the holidays. The silence was such that I sent several follow-up emails in early January to make sure the intermission had in fact been approved. Eventually I got the all-clear from my Tutor that this was indeed the case, and I thought that would be it (that was largely the only information available on Cambridge’s website for students who intermit).

My college’s current policy, as far as I’m aware, is that intermitting students must clear their things out from storage. I didn’t know this when I left to fly home in December – even if I had, at the time I left college for the Christmas holidays I was still undecided on intermitting and didn’t think I had cause to worry about storage. However, at the start of Lent term I received an urgent email from the person in charge of storage at my college telling me I needed to clear my things out ASAP. Coincidentally, this email came on the same day I learned my grandmother had passed away.

I sent a flurry of panicked texts to my friends in college – I was in no headspace to deal with trying to move my things to a storage facility halfway across the world from me, when I needed to be with my family helping to make funeral arrangements. I sent a pleading email to the person in charge of storage and was lucky that, after a week or so, he responded sympathetically and informed me that there would be no need to move my things given the circumstances. I was struck by the troubling thought that what led me to intermit in the first place was not a compelling enough reason for college to keep my things in storage, while the passing of a relative was.

Then came the issues with my visa. As an international student from outside the EU, I applied for study at Cambridge on a Tier 4 visa. I asked everyone imaginable at my college about the procedure for either cancelling, extending or altering a Tier 4 visa due to intermission. After contacting half a dozen people, no one had provided any answers. It wasn’t until almost a month after my intermission was approved that I received a message from the International Student Administrator explaining exactly what was going on with my visa, and how I could travel to/from the UK in the coming months. They also explained the process behind reapplying for a Tier 4 visa in the summer, meaning I would also have to repay nearly 1000 USD in medical fees to the NHS. Although it was a relief to have someone finally explain what I needed to do, it was also stressful to be calling consulates while grieving, in the hope of answers which my college presumably should have had. All I wanted to know was something as simple as my immigration status.

Finally came the matter of balloting for my college housing next year. Three days before it took place, I went to find my slot on the second-year ballot and found I wasn’t even listed on it. I frantically reached out to the head of my college’s JCR, my Tutor and the Senior Tutor. Apparently, this was an issue other intermitting students had dealt with, but it once again felt like the college was scrambling for answers as we scrambled to ask them. With the help of a friend in college, my balloting arrangements were sorted approximately 24 hours before balloting was meant to happen.

I never felt like my college was maliciously trying to mistreat me, or make me feel like an outsider. However, the fact that every question I asked seemed unexpected or like it hadn’t been considered by my college made it hard not to feel like I was other, or lesser than, the rest of their students. Intermission is a process that CUSU has estimated between 200-250 Cambridge students undergo each year. It’s a process three other women in my year have already undertaken or plan to undertake in the next year, and yet it was a process that my college seemingly had no idea how to handle other than try their best to give me answers when I knew which questions to ask.

Student finance is a common concern among those I’ve spoken to who are considering intermitting or have since intermitted. Nobody told these students what the impacts would be, or who they could ask to determine the specifics of their situations. This is doubly complicated given that the University’s current position is that students should not undertake study OR employment while they are intermitting. This policy stinks of privilege, and is quite frankly a travesty for those students who don’t have financial security to rely on outside of student finance, but are seemingly barred by Cambridge from seeking employment during their intermission.

There are simple procedures which colleges could implement that would make a material improvement for the students who decide intermission is their best option. If colleges could work out the exact protocol for storage, develop a policy on how students who have intermitted fit into their college’s ballot, and publish clear and accessible answers to how student finance fits into intermission, these would all make huge differences. It’s particularly important that colleges work out where to direct questions of visa and immigration status, especially with Brexit approaching – meaning many EU students will also be thrown into a new and (most likely) difficult immigration process.

No one intermits because they are in a headspace capable of dealing with multiple layers of bureaucracy and confusion. Students intermit because there are external forces impacting them so much that they no longer feel they can study at their full capacity. When three people spoke to me about intermitting at different colleges, my first question to them was to ask if they had a close relationship with their Tutor or Director of Studies. The truth is, if I hadn’t had a good relationship with my Tutor – and felt comfortable enough to ask him relentless questions and press him for answers he ultimately didn’t have – the entire process would have been much scarier and more confusing than it already was. We currently have a system designed to give students respite from stress and physical/mental illness that is great in theory but sorely lacking in practice.

If I can close with any thought, it’s that Cambridge has so far failed to address the widespread problem of intermitting. Although CUSU has recently done incredible work to reform antiquated and frankly harmful policies regarding intermitting students, there is still a long way to go. I never asked difficult questions of my college; I asked simple questions that anyone in my position would have wanted to know. I’m lucky that my college is generally very friendly towards students who intermit and has been compassionate throughout. For those who are not so fortunate, I have serious concerns about colleges failing in their duties towards their students.