Dropping out of Oxford: Reasons, Risks and Results

When I first set out writing an article on Oxford drop-outs and what they were up to now, I thought I would be talking to buzzing young people bored by university life and on their way to creating the next Facebook. But instead of a nest of tech start-ups, what I found was a whole range of people, from the now-famous-and-made-it to students who suffered from mental illness. And unfortunately, the spectrum of drop-outs was heavier on the mental illness side.

Oxford has one of the lowest drop-out rates in the country; 1.6%, compared to 8.6% nationally. But from anecdotal evidence (the University does not publish data on dropped-out students), it seems that many of the few who leave Oxford do so due to mental health issues, ranging from stress to depression to anorexia.

Not surprisingly, even fewer of the sufferers themselves were willing to talk to me about their personal problems, on why they have left or are seriously considering leaving. Instead the examples come from friends of friends, or swirl around the bottom of the internet in anonymous forums featuring plaintive pleas for help and advice. A third-year English student told me of one friend who managed to get into Oxford while still battling anorexia in hospital, but was overcome by the disease alongside with the stress of Oxford life. She left Oxford soon after arriving. Another friend developed depression while at university, but did not seek help or tell his friends for the longest time; the source characterised his college as possibly having been even a bit too supportive. By giving him options to choose from, instead of firmly insisting that he leave immediately and seek help, she thought his college had hindered his recovery from depression rather than helped it.

Yet at the other end of the spectrum of Oxford drop-outs, there are the well-known who have climbed to the top, either in spite of or because of their decision to drop out. Examples include the actress Kate Beckinsale, the band Foals, and the recently deceased comedian Mel Smith. One dropout is Polly Toynbee, the prominent Guardian columnist who matriculated at St Anne’s in 1966 to study history and stayed less than a year, and who was kind enough to tell me about her experience of dropping out of Oxford. Before starting university, she took a gap year where she worked for Amnesty International in Rhodesia until she was thrown out under Ian Smith’s government, then imprisoned briefly in South Africa. Consequently, she says, “the ‘real world’ seemed to press in, and Oxford seemed somehow irrelevant”. Moreover, her first book was published during her first term, which she says was a “mistake, as it set me up to be some kind of Oxford celebrity, which I wasn’t”.

Toynbee’s college was “not at all” supportive of her decision; “I was frightened by fearsome threats that I would regret it all my life and however hard I begged they would never, ever, take anyone back”. Her academic family put her under great pressure to get a first; her great aunts, one a don, lived “up the road” and came to talk to her tutors to find out how she was doing. But today, her only regret is that “it seems a spoiled thing to do now that students have to struggle so hard and are weighed down with so much debt… I was just lucky in a very different era, not to need a degree in days when only one in seven went to university. Now, it’s a basic necessity, and even then you may still end up waiting tables.”

However, there are other options before dropping out. One is taking a year out to ‘pop the Oxford bubble’. Colin Jackson, a finalist in PPE at LMH, spent the past two years in his hometown New York to work for the Obama campaign, and later for a smaller city-level campaign. He says, “My experience in the smaller campaign was very informative: let’s just say I’ve gained a lot of respect for full-time activists. But even though I had a less positive experience for the second half of the year, I’m grateful to have gained it. After all, if I hadn’t, I’d still be sending CVs to my local congressman right about now, looking for a job which today I know isn’t quite what I expected.”

Another option that allows a student to refrain from dropping out is changing the degree course. For example, in this year’s Maths and Philosophy degree intake of 16, two students have switched degrees – one to Philosophy and Theology, which required a change of college in Hilary, and another to Philosophy and Italian. Elliott Thornley, the former student, is now at Mansfield and says while he would have tried to stick with it at least until prelims exams, but “[he] might have decided it’s just not worth it.” Meanwhile, he has found catching up on another course “tough, but not unbearable”.

While these stories indicate that some happily find a way to enjoy Oxford by changing course or taking a break, there are many stories of students who are unhappy with an Oxonian’s life but who nonetheless choose to plough on. After all, Polly Toynbee’s words ring true: nowadays, a university degree is simply a basic necessity.