I write this as it pours with rain outside; it’s a dull Wednesday in 5th week, approaching 4am in the morning, and the prospect of three translations to do by tomorrow is becoming less of the faint prospect it was a couple of days ago and more of a threatening reality – and the only reason I haven’t managed to do them has been because of the intensity of this past week, which caused me to eventually cave in and chosoe to miss a day of lectures to manage to finish some work.
Oxford terms are a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it type of short – intense to say the least, combining attempts and failures to equalise a work and life balance, squeezing academic work into a length of two months. Only last week, speaking to a friend at Exeter University, did I realise that whilst we heroically trumped along to get through fifth week, the rest of the UK students were enjoying a break from their own terms in the space of time that for us makes up fifth week, and doing some catching up with work in their assigned reading weeks.
I also realised, having followed last term’s Cambridge Union president on Twitter for a few weeks, that Cambridge seem to be far more concerned with the lack of a reading week than our own institution. The Other Place have, in fact, started a campaign called #endfifthweekblues, which has reached 445 signatures as of today- only 55 away from its target – in a very short amount of time. Cambridge students seem to be of the same mind-set as many of us here are: that it is unfathomable that other universities should be allowed to take a week off in the middle of term, whereas we should simply accept the harsh reality – endurance, we are taught the moment we set foot here, is key to reaching the end of each term.
The consequences of the University’s attitude towards the workload is without doubt having a terrible effect on a large percentage of those bravely attempting to thrive academically in the course of an eight week term – and whilst some are courageous enough to make the decision to take a break from it, as the newly founded blog welfarecrisis.tumblr.com which recounts experiences of rusticated Oxford students proves, many are instead suffering in silence with problems connected to mental health brought on certainly not always, but in an alarmingly high number of cases, by the intensity of stress and pressure.
Our terms present problems, which first and foremost must be considered by examining the effect they are having on students’ health –however, the academic aspect contemporarily fits into the equation in which despairing students outnumber the dreaming spires. Tom Marshall, a second year at Queen’s, reflects upon the urgency that many of us sense looming over us: “I do certainly feel like Oxford encourages a kind of rush mentality whereby handing in anything, as long as it meets a deadline, is acceptable; I’d rather take the time to make a piece of work really good”. His words lead us to question ourselves -how can we perform academically to the best of our abilities, if constantly under-slept and overworked?
It’s hard to agree to alleviating the stringent academic standards which Oxford expects of us, as we are all here to receive this very kind of intense and focused teaching – but there is also no denial that there is a very significant difference between high standards, and standards which in turn are ignorant of student wellbeing. Let’s try to put this into concrete terms – the introduction of a reading week for the average PPEist is equivalent to being let off two essays, in the grand scheme of things not that much at all. This does not devaluate an Oxford degree in the slightest – it simply is a step that needs taking if we are to expect students to be able to face continuing their studies whilst contemporarily not damaging their physical and mental health. A reading week would certainly allow many to catch up and prove beneficial to a great number of students, but it would also improve the welfare of a minority, which is greatly overlooked– students suffering from physical impairments and disabilities. Those suffering with these issues need a time in which to rest, recover, and be able to care for themselves – and it is this time precisely which is very much lacking in the kind of high pressure environment that Oxford is. The more people express negativity about their experience at university due to the time constraints it implicates, the more access could potentially be impacted upon, too. There is nothing to question, nor any doubt about it – a reading week is key to making our university an improved, healthier, and more accessible place of learning.
CARTOON/ Harriet Bourhill