Student Minds Cambridge calls for a unified response from Colleges regarding students returning for their mental health

Daniel Ellis 12 January 2021
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

CN: discussions of mental health


Following the announcement that all teaching will be online for Lent Term, Student Minds Cambridge has written an open letter to Graham Virgo (Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education) demanding that the university ensures that its colleges take their students’ welfare seriously, following the release of some ambiguous policies about returning to Cambridge. This open letter argues that, in the midst of a viral pandemic, the pandemic of mental health deterioration is not getting the attention it deserves.

On 6th January, students received an email from Stephen Toope (Vice-Chancellor) detailing that students would be allowed to return to Cambridge ‘for specific reasons, including health or safety’. From here, the responsibility of granting permission to students, allowing them to return, has been left to each college’s own discretion.

The open letter points to a concerning disparity between college policies that has emerged since this announcement.

Trinity College have stated that it is permitting ‘very limited exceptions’ for students coming back into residence, such as ‘where it is impossible to study at home’ or if a student has ‘serious mental health issues where the recommendation is that they should not be at home’.

Student Minds’ open letter further reports that at Trinity Hall ‘the process for applying to return is extremely bureaucratic and a decision on whether a student should be allowed to return is made by a panel.’

‘If students have a physical or mental health related reason, students are forced to disclose relevant information to the college nurse or the mental health and wellbeing team so that they, as part of the panel, can assess whether their grounds for return are valid or not.’

‘Clearly this is a significant invasion of privacy and poses a clear risk to student wellbeing as many students may be deterred from applying to return given the need to disclose so much personal information,’ the letter continues.

Beyond this, the letter claims that, as of 10th January, some students’ tutors, at Magdalene, had still not told them whether they would be returning to college for the term, giving them less than a week to prepare for returning to Cambridge, if they are granted this permission at all.

It seems, as well, that Sidney Sussex are attempting to discourage their students from returning to college for term by charging them a full term’s rent even if they are not staying for the entire duration. This might mean that students remain in unsafe situations for fear of having to pay significant college accommodation costs if they return to Cambridge. Similarly, it is creating disparity between these students and those who are not constrained by these financial impositions.

Student Minds Cambridge note that the university is constantly battling claims of classism and under-representation of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This sort of scenario makes it difficult to distance the university from these claims and Student Minds Cambridge hope that their letter will help to balance the inequity between colleges and students that this is causing.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, the letter states that Girton, King’s, Lucy Cavendish and Murray Edwards have all allowed their students to make their own decisions surrounding the necessity of their return to college, though they advise caution in making these choices.

According to their open letter, Student Minds believe that this policy ‘prioritises compassion and students’ welfare’ and they are asking for the implementation of a cross-college policy that embodies this sentiment. In creating this letter, Student Minds are in no way diminishing the severity of COVID-19 and the risks that come with inter-city/international travel. Conversely, they are trying to address the pandemic of deteriorating mental illness that is rampaging across the world simultaneously to this more tangible virus.

As of the 11th January 2021, there are over 290 student signatures on the letter, including the undergraduate president of the Student Union. The letter can be found here:

TCS have contacted Trinity, Trinity Hall, Magdalene, and Sidney Sussex for comment.