Academic pressure makes Cambridge feel like a smaller placeLouis Ashworth

The dust seemed to have finally settled on the Class Lists debate, only for the flames of discussion to be reignited. New ideas and voices on both sides have come to the fore, with a focus on the potential benefit of the existing system for students’ mental health. I’m not interested in giving a judgement. Each person’s reaction to and opinion on the class lists will be different, based on their individual circumstances and outlook on life. However, having listened to supporters of the system, there are lessons to be learnt.

Let’s start with the idea that seeing your name on the Class Lists gives you a sense of belonging. This raises the question of why students don't feel at home when they join. The ‘Cambridge imposter syndrome’, is common and I have seen the dramatic negative effects it can have on a student’s experience and attainment first-hand. This syndrome is nothing new and certainly isn’t exclusive to Oxbridge; feeling like you don’t belong or are out of your depth occurs frequently. It’s an issue the University is aware of, although they don’t necessarily take action to reduce it. On the first day, my Senior Tutor told my parents that many students find it hard to adapt to not being the best anymore.

Cambridge is not an overly welcoming academic environment: supervisions challenge people from the start and there’s next to no time for induction. Lectures are fast paced and often confusing. There are almost no University-wide approaches to help students feel they belong, leading to this attitude of feeling you need to earn academic status. Not only do I believe that this is fundamentally wrong, I question if it is even helpful. First year is meant to be getting everyone up to speed with Cambridge life, but many finish without a clue of what went on, while others still feel as if they shouldn’t even be here. Having your name on a piece of paper in front of an old building at the end of the year isn’t going to change this feeling, and we shouldn’t have to wait an entire year before we feel comfortable in this challenging environment. A deeper, wider change in the culture of academic pressure and acceptance of all students regardless of their individual attainment is needed.

Grade shaming has been a furiously debated topic. The only consensus is that it needs to end, but there is no agreement on how to achieve this. Getting to Cambridge takes a great deal of determination. A determination and work ethic which students carry forward from school into this University. I have never met anyone who appears to be wasting their opportunities here. Despite this, there is often a sense from academics that students need to be pressurised into working harder. The effect on students is that they feel persistently guilty that they are not doing enough work.

Cambridge leads students to focus on putting academic commitments first, often at the expense of personal issues. Cambridge expects its students to work hard and attempt to fulfil their potential, but we put enough pressure on ourselves already. I can’t help but think that if the University focused on looking after the emotional and physical health of students, the grades would look after themselves.

All Cambridge students are used to topping exams. Dramatic shifts from these high grades to the supposed shame of a result below a 2.i, promoted by the highly competitive atmosphere and the reaction of the academics, can have a grave impact on students. Again the reaction will be different from student to student, with some treating it as motivation to perform better and others becoming downhearted. The lesson we learn is the need for flexibility. Changing the attitude from pressure to support and the language from you ‘must’ get a certain grade, to you ‘can’ is imperative.

The ultimate driving force behind this reasoning is the type of student who applies and is accepted by Cambridge. We want to work, it’s why we’re here. The odd person will need extra encouragement but I am frustrated by the attitude that we need the pressure in order to work hard enough. Our internal pressure is sufficient; it can be carefully nurtured by our college but shouldn’t be fuelled to extremes.

Coming off the fence, I do support the abolition of Class Lists, rather than their continuation - even with an opt-out system. I am convinced that they do a significant amount of harm to students. The problems that they are perceived to solve need to be addressed on a deeper level, rather than covered up by the tradition of publishing Class Lists. Abolition will only be the first step; from there we can begin to address the wider issues in a manner that has a substantial and positive impact on students’ mental health.

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