The university does not act as a coherent whole so much as a divided federation and nowhere is this more evident than in its attitude towards illness. The news that different colleges have wildly different rates of intermitting – to give an example, last year one person intermitted for every 348 at Trinity, whereas one person intermitted for every 27 at Girton – is not surprising in the slightest.
It might be that some colleges are refusing to allow students to intermit when that would be the best plan for them. I can confirm also that some colleges go the other way, and pressure students to intermit when all they need is support. When I became severely ill last year, my Senior Tutor’s knee-jerk reaction – although he was ultimately extremely helpful – was to tell me I should intermit. My college nurse told me I was a ‘liability to the college’, ‘causing chaos amongst the students’, and could be forced to leave. It was only when I refused, and demanded the college support me that the suggestion of support even came up.
At a time when I was trying to cope with being wheelchair-bound and the possibility that I might be permanently disabled, various members of my college made it very clear I was unwanted. It was only when my Director of Studies had a word with my Senior Tutor that he grudgingly allowed me to stay.
Tutors are employed on the basis, not of their compassion, but of their academic qualifications. And it is not controversial to suggest that the most academic may not be the most empathetic.
Colleges have liability for any misfortunes that occur within their cloistered walls. When a student falls ill, a college will keep that student only if the value of their grades outweighs the risk they pose; yet that ‘risk’ can be interpreted in a number of ways.
There appear to be no guidelines on how ill students are evaluated by their college, or how a college should react to crisis situations. This allows tutors to make arbitrary decisions about the future of already vulnerable students. Such mishandling of ill students is part of the theme I’ve witnessed at Cambridge: that if you’re having difficulties with your studies then you’re not worth the investment.
The Disability Resource Centre (DRC) does a fantastic job of supporting ill and disabled students, but it can only do this with the backing of the university and colleges. Students should not suffer because they belong to a college with a substandard pastoral system. Tutors’ first reactions should be to offer support; the university needs to ensure this is the case.