With the gross mishandling of student welfare problems, inconsistencies between colleges on mental health policy (or lack thereof) and an absence of any meaningful University umbrella policy on this issue, the need for drastic change is clear. The tea and biscuits approach to welfare that is all too familiar in Oxford’s supposedly cosy college environments is a blatant reluctance to face the complex and sensitive area of student mental health. The University’s rhetoric in their Counselling Service, OUSU provision, and the existence of college welfare reps sounds hollow and goes nowhere near solving problems with confidentiality and welfare that OUSU has highlighted in its Overview of the Year.
In reality, any significant, all-encompassing institutional policy on these matters is missing. The ratio of students to counsellors at the University is 1667:1. The colleges as autonomous bodies are not bound to comply with the University’s Mental Health Policy. In an investigation by The Oxford Student in February, it was discovered that at least thirteen colleges had no specific policy for dealing with students with mental health difficulties. There is no strong umbrella policy in place to help both the students in question, or the individual colleges to deal with these problems when they arise.
Yet the problem goes deeper than the lack of institutional structure. There have been multiple cases of colleges breaking the University’s confidentiality policy by informing students’ parents of these issues, as well as communicating the issues to other colleges. There have even been instances of welfare reps and peers support team members disclosing the personal problems of students to other students, making a mockery of the student support system that the University so often uses as a defence when under fire for failings in this area.
This is unforgivable. It is harmless, if not particularly effective, to have a JCR welfare rep dolling out condoms and rape alarms on demand, and hosting occasional tea-parties, but if even at this very low level, the confidentiality of students is being undermined, then it is clear that the dangerous failings surrounding this issue are deep-set and all-pervading.
The inconsistency of policy across colleges is something that OUSU has specifically criticised. It is no use having a handful of colleges with an effective mental health policy when many others do not even record the number of cases of this they have had. It is unacceptable for two students with the same illness or issue to be treated differently simply because they applied to different colleges.
Perhaps the University’s collegiate system is so traditional that it cannot provide for issues that are in such a grey area – there is no physical disability, clear-cut ineptitude or rule-breaking on the part of the student, and yet their fitness to study and ability to remain at college is called into question. There have even been cases of colleges dealing with students with mental health issues using academic disciplinary measures. This implies utter backwardness and an unwillingness to deal with difficult and often unfamiliar matters which are difficult to categorise. The University needs to take control of this, create a strong structure to deal with it, and to stop hiding behind OUSU and college welfare provision.