The myth of welfare in Oxford

Another fifth week has been and gone, and one can’t help but reflect on morale around Oxford as the end of term draws closer. Hilary is always a difficult one – there’s a distinct lack of the sunshine, Pimms, and punting that characterize Trinity, or the festive Oxmas cheer to get you through a gloomier Michaelmas. But let’s be honest with ourselves: The dreaded “fifth week blues” seem to permeate much more of life than we might hope. Rarely does a conversation go by without a joke – or a threat – of rustication in our banter. The question is far from a new one, but I’ll ask it again: Why do Oxford students seem to have such a rough go of it? Are we alone in our woes? And what can be done to promote positive welfare practices? 

During the UCAS application process, I was surfing The Student Room for information on colleges, when I came across a post advising readers not to attend Oxford if they had a history of mental health issues. Odd, I thought. Yes, Oxford is Oxford, with all the scary prestige that might be attached to that word, but surely it couldn’t be that gruelling as to come with a full trigger warning? Was it truly so fundamentally different from other universities? 

Something that has piqued my interest in comparative discussions has to do not with university league tables, but certain statistics within them. The National Student Survey (NSS) gives a useful indication of student satisfaction rates with their courses and providers. Until recently, I don’t believe Oxford has participated in the survey, due to an SU boycott regarding concerns over the “marketisation” of students. But I feel this has come at a detriment – it’s a valuable opportunity for us to give feedback on a meaningful level, and see where we rank next to other providers. And the figures are not as glowing as we might think. 

…surely it couldn’t be that gruelling as to come with a full trigger warning?

This same survey is what has ranked St Andrews, my home town, in the top spot of league tables for the last two years, achieving the highest score for student experience. Oxford’s late re-entry to the NSS means that student satisfaction scores are not incorporated into our overall league table standing. If they were included, would we still rank so highly? Perhaps there was an ulterior motive in opting out. 

Looking at specific NSS questions, we get a sense of where Oxford is falling short. The lowest score for providers across the board ironically came from the question: “How clear is it that students’ feedback on the course is acted on?” The score for the UK as a whole was a 60.9% positivity measure – when looking at Oxford in isolation, this fell to 41.4%. On the question, “To what extent does your course have the right balance of directed and independent study?”, Oxford scored a 68.8% satisfaction score in comparison to the UK’s 76.2%. Similarly, the positivity measure for Oxford sat at 65.1% when asked, “How well organised is your course?”, in comparison to the UK’s overall at 72.6%. On these measures, at least, Oxford seems to be lacking. 

Clearly, the truth is that Oxford is different in some way. It should be clear by now that I don’t say this to suggest that Oxford students, or our academic system, are superior by any means. Rather, I feel there is a deep flaw somewhere within the University itself, and the enormous pressure it puts on students. 

The workload is an easy place to start – it’s no secret Oxford puts its students through the wringer. My worst essay crisis came in Hilary of first year, when I somehow found myself with four essays due in one week. At what other higher education institution in the country, bar our chum (on these matters, anyway) Cambridge, would this be acceptable? Thankfully my tutors were quick to give me a reprieve, although the situation could have been avoided entirely if the joint honours schools had been able to communicate whatsoever – alas, this is a topic for another day. 

…measures that would be taken for granted at other universities and institutions must be fought for tooth and nail here.

This flexibility with tutorials does beg the question of why we spend so much energy producing rapid-fire essays when they don’t count for much. They are a useful tool for learning and exam preparation, to be sure, but the onslaught of deadlines creates a rushed atmosphere where knowledge is inhaled and dumped onto a page at the fastest speed possible, rather than consumed in the considered and thoughtful environment of review that one might expect. The archaic tradition of degree classification being entirely dependent on finals is also puzzling, only inevitably creating more anxiety later down the line. 

Perhaps most simply put, measures that would be taken for granted at other universities and institutions must be fought for tooth and nail here. The Educational Recordings Policy, introduced in Michaelmas 2022, was certainly a step in the right direction, but it’s still up to the discretion of each department whether or not they want to disseminate those recordings among students. The DPIR Director of Undergraduate Studies issued an email in recent months stating that Politics lecture recordings were not available to students without a Student Support Plan, arguing that they would “miss out on the drama and sense of event of the lecture”. 

That is, if you have lectures at all. In one meeting, a tutor stated to our cohort that this was a university for “self-starters”, and that if we were unhappy we were free to leave and seek teaching elsewhere – this being in response to a friend asking innocently enough why they only had one contact hour a week that term. In Michaelmas last year I was told the lecture series for my first Oxford paper would not in fact be running until Hilary, and I now know this is an overwhelmingly common experience. I understand niche modules might operate out of sync with the curriculum at large, but for core and introductory papers this seems a glaring issue that we’re told to overlook. The sad reality for many humanities students is that large parts of your degree may be entirely self-taught. 

In any case, the burden of care placed upon students is heavier than it ought to be. 

Term structure presents another confusion. After ramming as much study as possible into the eight-week framework, vacation is not a time for rest, but rather a looming sense of collection paranoia. Friends from other universities were shocked when I told them we have exams – again, not that they count for anything important – straight after Christmas. Of course exam stress and exhaustion at the end of the term are natural, but these feelings are only exacerbated by Oxford’s system, culminating in a pointless exercise (collections) that is still guaranteed to induce guilt and stress in students. And this is without consideration of internships, jobs, and any preparation for the term ahead. 

A variety of other factors compound to make university life, regardless of provider, a more overwhelming experience than it is necessarily stereotyped to be. Extracurriculars should, in theory, provide a welcome break from the chaos of degree work, but often being on committees or in leadership positions can take up an unexpectedly large amount of time and energy, bringing nothing but extra responsibilities and stresses to the table. After all of one’s efforts, they might then log on to Facebook and find a series of anonymous Oxfesses spewing negative feedback about whatever event or activity they had poured themselves into. Once again, I don’t suggest that these occurrences are unavoidable, but rather just that there is a lot going on behind the scenes with each and every student that we can’t possibly be aware of.

…there is a way for student feedback to be at the forefront of welfare without students themselves being required to solely carry the load.

What, then, does welfare really look like at Oxford? It’s tempting to argue in its favour. After all, we have a strong culture of “welfare” within our societies, with most having a welfare representative and plenty of events and support for students who might be struggling. We also have welfare reps (not to mention peer supporters) throughout the collegiate system, who put their heart and soul into running a great welfare week for the rest of the cohort. And for this, they deserve all the appreciation they receive and more. But it seems wrong that these already overworked students are burdened with even more on their shoulders, at a time when we’re expressly told we should be feeling “blue”. Is it fair that the welfare of the rest of the student body comes at the expense of our welfare reps? And how much benefit do we truly derive from these welfare activities? In any case, the burden of care placed upon students is heavier than it ought to be. 

The seemingly obvious solution is for our staff, and our institutions, to do a better job of engaging with student welfare and offering genuine support. It’s clear from speaking to a majority of tutors (at least in my experience) that they do not have the time or capacity to hear about undergraduates or their lives outside of whatever’s been jotted down in this week’s essay. Many seem fundamentally unable to identify behaviours that may be indicative of serious mental health struggles or other welfare concerns behind the scenes. The recent High Court ruling on the University of Bristol v Abrahart case has serious repercussions for higher education institutions. It also brings into question whether universities owe students a duty of care in this respect – I would argue that this is one of the core responsibilities of these providers. Regardless, it’ll be interesting to see the changes that Oxford makes in response to this ruling.

As we approach Mental Health Awareness Week in May (and celebrating University Mental Health Day today!), we should turn our attention to what might be done to better support student welfare. Last year we herded in some alpacas, which were certainly nice but unlikely to improve welfare in the long-term. Instead, perhaps we should prioritise healing the student-staff relationship at Oxford. There is a way for serious discussions about mental health to take place, and for tutors to be appropriately looped in. There is a way for the university to make profit that doesn’t require students being booted out of the city every eight weeks. And there is a way for student feedback to be at the forefront of welfare without students themselves being required to solely carry the load. We just haven’t quite worked out what it is yet. 

Image credit: Julian Herzog via Wikimedia Commons

Image description: The Bridge of Sighs outside Hertford College against a blue sky.