Rustication: restart the clock

Rustication in the past was invariably a form of punishment. Today, the meaning has crept past purely disciplinary boundaries. Official statutes still have it as punitive measure, but colloquially it refers to any period of suspension from College, University or both. Suspension talk now tends to focus more on addressing our ever-present welfare and medical issues, rather than keeping us in line.

The University describes what it calls ‘suspension of status’ (SOS, perhaps?) as “a measure which ‘stops the clock’ for all elements of your degree, including residence, fees and terms for which a particular status may be held”. When Oxford gets too much, suspension of status offers some much needed time out. Reasons for this vary from case to case (e.g. chronic illness, eating disorders, depression, overwhelming stress). Accordingly, terms of suspensions are flexible. Suspended students are typically expected to return after a specified period of time, having fulfilled conditions such as medical approval or completion of additional collections.

‘Rustication’ is certainly anachronistic, but anachronisms are hardly a cause for concern. So, what’s the issue with suspension?

In two words, college system. As “autonomous self-governing corporations”, colleges largely set their own rules. Usually these are guided by central University policy, but on the matter of suspension there is none. Undergraduate and graduate policies on ‘Learning and Teaching’ explicitly pass it off as a college matter, in which problems arise – namely, inadequate provision of support, and dramatic differences between colleges.

How does it work? Who does it? Why? If you can work that out from the inadequate information you’re provided with, you then have the ‘college lottery’ to play. Will yours guide you out gently, or follow you with a boot? Someone already in a position where temporarily leaving has become an option doesn’t need any of this uncertainty.

Differences can be anything from questionable to outright distressing, and it is in these cases that the clocks need to be kicked forward to 2015. We cannot allow the quirks of our collegiate system to have a severe and quantifiable impact on the wellbeing of those struggling the most. It’s unacceptable and dangerous to present students possibly at risk of serious harm with further issues of institutional design.

Versa has highlighted two of the more shocking suspension cases. The examples given are outrageous, and a case-in-point of the variation problem. One interviewee reported being forced off college premises without warning, and another suggested most of their time out was spent dealing with the aftermath of the suspension itself. Their experiences reflect archaic attitudes to mental health, victim blaming and underhand practices serving college, not student, interests, sounding more like witch-hunting than welfare support. To paraphrase, the students were problems, not people.

Some progress has been made: OUSU successfully lobbied for our right to access University facilities, including libraries and the Counselling Service around this time last year. A promising start, but we have some way to go. Accordingly, we’re doing something about it – we being Welfare Crisis. serves as an online rustication repository, featuring essential information, support, student profiles, useful advice and commentary from veterans of the process. Intended as a living document, the more contributors we have, the more effective the resource will become. No longer will there be no easily accessible information on suspension – the University might not provide adequate support, but we will.

Through building an archive of experiences and precedents, we hope to give suspension a human face and make the journey easier for our successors. The University needs to install a solid welfare and suspensions policy so that colleges can follow suit consistently. We should be safe in the knowledge that any student will be treated equally.

We’re looking for contributors, and invite anyone with welfare interest or experience of rustication to get in touch via [email protected] or our Contact page. We already we have OUSU interest, Essay Crisis blessing and dialogue opening up with the various welfare groups in Oxford. Hopefully soon the University will be interested in addressing its own problems too.


PHOTO/Public Domain