Our pressure problem needs a practical solution

Cambridge Defend Education 16 January 2015

Two thirds of us feel that their Cambridge course puts “unneccessary pressure” on them. The results of the recent National Student Survey have come as a surprise to few of us – we all spend our terms living with this unrelenting pressure, which is pleasant for few, and impossible for some.

This is not something to celebrate. Yes, Cambridge is a world-class institution, and yes, we can be expected to work hard. But let us not confuse hard work with relentless stress. How many of your weekly essays are you really proud of? How many of your problem sheets left you feeling truly satisfied? Intellectual endeavour is not a production line.

Fewer than 40% of NSS respondents felt that they were even given enough time to understand the information they were offered. A lot of the time, we are not truly learning; we are being force-fed. The Cambridge experience is unique, but stress shouldn't be its selling point.

Short eight-week terms condense and intensify our studies further. Four weeks of learning are enough to leave us drained, and our collective exhaustion is institutionalised in the notorious 'Week Five Blues'. But they need not be inevitable, and it's time that we stand up to #endweek5blues.

Many other universities mark the middle of term in a different fashion: with a reading week. A week to relax & rest, catch up on work, see your friends, rehearse a play, or read widely, to learn. University life would improve immeasurably. University is about more than handing in work: it’s about conversation, doing sports, dancing, acting, volunteering, writing for a newspaper, debating, politics, and so much more.

Cambridge has lots to offer, and the extra-curricular achievements are remarkable – but imagine just what could be if we had a week to spend freely. It would also give us more opportunity to explore and engage with the city we live in — all the things you never had the time to do: the Botanical Gardens, the Fitz, the pubs around Mill Road, Milton Country Park (do you even know about it?). None of this would be to the detriment of Cambridge’s academic excellence – on the contrary, the quality of our work can only improve if we have a bit more time to follow up that reference or browse the faculty library.

Finally, it would be a small step to relieve the mental illness epidemic in Cambridge. Stress and workload are major contributors to disorders; little time for rest and self-care followed by long periods of inactivity away from friends and support networks, Cambridge exacerbates existing conditions and can even lead to new ones.

It was in a discussion about mental health at Cambridge Defend Education’s “free university” that the idea of reading week campaign was born. In the past year or two, campaigns like “Cambridge Speaks Its Mind” and numerous articles in the student papers have begun talking seriously about mental health in Cambridge. Now we need to begin talking about causes, and take action. A reading week would be a step in the right direction.

The time has come to end the 'Week 5 Blues'.