‘Unnecessary pressure’ on majority of students

Rachel Balmer 15 January 2015

Confidential statistics obtained by The Cambridge Student have revealed that only 55% of Cambridge students agree that the workload on their course is manageable. 

Furthermore, only 38% of students agree that their course “does not apply unnecessary pressure”. 

The document, published by the University of Cambridge, details the responses to the 2014 National Student Survey (NSS) from Cambridge finalists, and shows that on questions relating to workload, students returned very low satisfaction levels compared with their counterparts nationally.

The NSS is targeted at final-year undergraduates in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the responses are used to compile league tables and indicate satisfaction levels. There were 1,798 responses from Cambridge students to the survey, accounting for 57% of those eligible to respond. 

The responses to Cambridge’s survey are also compared with the national picture, where 78% of students agreed that their workload was manageable, and 66% did not feel unnecessarily pressured,which raises questions about the levels of stress placed on students at Cambridge. Also, a mere 27% of students at Cambridge agreed that they could always complete work to their satisfaction in comparison to 60% of students nationally. 39% of Cambridge respondents agreed that they were given enough time to understand the things they had to learn, compared to 70% nationally. 

As the books pile up, satisfaction levels with the amount of work remain low. Photo Credit: Sarah Browning

CUSU’s Welfare & Rights Officer, Jack Wright, told TCS: “It comes as no surprise to hear that most Cambridge students feel unnecessarily pressured and that only a slim majority find their workload manageable. “As always, if students feel overwhelmed and need advice, they should know that CUSU will do its very best to support them."

“If people are interested in campaigning to make things better for themselves and other students, we’re always interested in their input – last year we worked to develop a wellbeing strategy with the University, and Tutor training was introduced this year following years of campaigning from CUSU and the wider student body.”

Murray Edwards JCR Academic and Welfare Officer Charlotte Furniss-Roe commented to TCS: “Trying to balance work, social life and sleep is difficult for most of us – we all knew the workload would be high when we applied and came here but it doesn’t
make it any less stressful when you’re buried in the library, working towards a degree you could get with one essay a term somewhere else. This makes it more important to seek help, and talk openly about the mental health difficulties that inevitably come out of such great pressure.”

The NSS also reveals students’ level of overall satisfaction with the University and with individual Triposes. Whilst the overall satisfaction score for Cambridge remained high at 91%, these levels of satisfaction were not consistent across courses.

Although six Triposes (Education, Chemical Engineering, Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Geological Sciences, Genetics and Zoology) received scores of 100%, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (AMES) returned a significantly lower overall satisfaction rate of 55%.

One Arabic student commented on the workload, saying: “The work done for supervisions is always useful, but with the amount of classwork we’re given, it’s hard to even know where to start. It seems a constant game of guesswork. Now I feel like I’m starting the term even further behind than I was.”

A student of Chinese commented on the quality of teaching for AMES, which received a score of 75% compared with the University-wide average of 93%, saying: “I am not alone, at least within my own class, in my scepticism concerning the teaching quality for Chinese… I have found myself repeatedly frustrated at the poorness of the course, which sometimes shows great promise, but often fails to deliver.”

A final-year Arabist told TCS that the biggest problem with the course is the level of year abroad money given to students: “When I went on my Year Abroad (last year) we were given £1,000 by the university, but had to pay half tuition fees, so ultimately we were still paying about £500 for nothing at all… we get a lot less than almost any other university – some unis don’t take tuition fees and pay for everyone to go to a specific school.”

When contacted, the University declined to comment.

The results of the survey also highlight issues surrounding Cambridge students’ indifference towards CUSU. Cambridge’s satisfaction score declined in 2014, placing CUSU in second to bottom place with an overall result of 37% (a reduction of five percentage points from 2013) compared to the Russell Group average of 67%. The University of Oxford recorded an even lower Students’ Union satisfaction level than Cambridge, at 31%.

CUSU President Helen Hoogewerf-McComb responded to the statistics,commenting: “We weren’t surprised by the news that our satisfaction rating has fallen in the last academic year, with low election turnouts and a lack of candidates standing in elections
serving as an early warning. Whilst Cambridge’s collegiate structure makes student engagement challenging – a problem shared with Oxford University Student Union, which struggles even more in NSS rankings – it is clear CUSU needs to make some serious changes and get better at working with and for the students we represent.”