Degrees like Oxford's PPE (studied by David Cameron) may suit would-be parliamentarians, but exhaust the rest of usDFID

Last week, The Guardian ran an article on the seemingly ubiquitous power of Oxford’s PPE degree, in which former cabinet minister David Willetts praised the course, attesting its success to its breadth: “you end up [graduating] with a broad sense of modern political history […] you’ve cantered through political thought, done [philosophical] logic, wrestled with economics […] [y]ou’ve had to get through a lot of work – 16 essays a term.”

Willetts’s comments will be familiar to anyone studying humanities at Cambridge. It is not uncommon praise that an English, History, or Politics degree here will give you a more comprehensive range over the subject than is available at any other university. To some degree, this is true. Although I once moaned endlessly during the terms I was being forced to pore over poetry written in middle English, spending the first two years of my course building a historical foundation of English Literature has been essential to my understanding of the subject. Now specialising in my final year, the ability to connect the dots between periods, and anchor texts and ideas into wider contexts, has been invaluable.

“It’s no wonder so many of us feel like we’re blagging it”

Cambridge prides itself on laying this extensive groundwork for students. Yet this smugness regularly goes hand in hand with a bizarre and stubborn insistence on cramming it all into just eight weeks. The brevity of term-time here is a badge of honour for the University, as though the ability to grapple with the entire Cold War and reduce it into a 2,000-word essay in the space of three days is more academically impressive than completing the work in a week. Willetts describes how the endless ‘essay crises’ familiar to any humanities students at Cambridge and Oxford is apt preparation for a career in Parliament, but for anyone not aspiring to follow in his footsteps, the onslaught is frustrating and exhausting.

I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve picked up on an area in my reading that has really fascinated me, but, instead of having the time to take the thought further,  I have been forced to discard it in order to cobble together another weekly essay. Humanities students at Cambridge are expected to process and synthesise huge topics and ideas in a matter of days, then walk into a supervision with a top academic and participate in a discussion as though they have grasped it fully. It’s no wonder so many of us feel like we’re blagging it. We may indeed ‘get through a lot of work’, but this is frequently at the expense of academic depth – not to mention our mental health.

Needless to say, mental health problems are endemic at Cambridge, a situation exacerbated by the pervasive idea that being perpetually stressed is not only normal, but essential, if one wants to stay on top of work. The attitude is so pervasive that it hasn’t been unusual for me to suddenly feel stressed about not feeling stressed enough. Inevitably for many, such short terms necessitate catching up in the holidays, bleeding termly work into the time that students should be relaxing and recuperating. This approach is not only passively accepted by the University, but actively encouraged. My own college’s handy ‘study skills’ booklet states that ‘Christmas and Easter are not “holidays” that last for 4-5 weeks’, but should last “a day or two” before students must return to their academic work. I, for one, have ignored this decree entirely, but the pressure that such a statement levies on students leaves us feeling immensely guilty for the time we do choose to take off.

The debate over the eight-week term, has, of course, raged for a long time. I expect the next time it is discussed formally, the terrible spectre of ‘tradition’ will rear its head as it so often does at Cambridge. I’m not holding out hope. But it is surely time to re-examine the idea that the best measure of a course lies in the number of ‘essay crises’ it might be produced, or in the ability to stretch a shallow understanding of a topic across an essay completed on three hours of sleep. Cambridge boasts some of the best teaching, faculties and facilities in the world; there seems to me no sensible reason to rush madly through it for the sake of boasting.

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