Peace at last, but at what cost?Hugh Venables/Geograph

We talk a lot about academic workloads in Cambridge. Much has been said on the issue, be it the unequal divides between STEM and arts courses, the prospect of reading weeks, or the inadequate systems – from welfare resources to intermission – that the university offers to ease the pressure it places on its students. But I think there is another kind of workload problem that is under-discussed. Often, our schedules are not only excessively overburdened – they are also ridiculously unbalanced.

“When your schedule whiplashes you between periods of intensity and inactivity, you will develop some bad habits”

Let me explain. As a first-year History student I am studying the new course that the department rolled out in 2022, which requires first-year students to study their papers in tandem, rather than one followed by the other. Weekly reading lists effectively doubled in length from the older course. However, weeks three and six are set aside – with no supervisions or lectures – for a very light coursework project. The upshot is that in each of the first two terms of the year, you have six weeks of breakneck intensity, and two of relative inactivity. To make matters even stranger, first-year History exams happen at the very beginning of Easter term. That term is essentially spent without any regular lectures or supervisions, but is instead devoted to two coursework essays. In terms of both the length of the assignment and the amount of reading necessary, first-year coursework is comparable to the workload of a weekly supervision essay. As such, my Easter term workload will be laughably low by Cambridge standards. Not only week by week, but term by term, Cambridge workloads can be dramatically uneven – and owing to supervisions and deadlines, it is impossible to spread out work from periods of higher to lower intensity.

Having more free time than other people might seem like a weird thing to make a fuss about. I can already hear the keyboard-warrior NatScis, with their evening supos and Saturday lectures, typing up some piping hot takes for Camfess in response to this article. Hear me out, for I believe that the irregular workloads students like me face will, in the long run, be to our educational detriment.

“This style of working bastardises what academia is meant to be about in the first place”

When your schedule regularly whiplashes you between periods of intensity and inactivity, you will develop some bad habits. During the crunch weeks of Michaelmas and Lent, for example, I learned to speed read. Or to put it another way, ‘raiding, not reading’ academic articles, which was a genuine piece of advice my coursemate received from our DoS. This sounds cynical, but when you have to learn all about both the emerging early modern global economy and the decline of world communism in a week, what choice do you have?

This is not a strategy that, to put it mildly, lends itself to meaningful academic understanding. More often than not, you’ll be left with an imperfect outline of the general debates surrounding a topic – and nothing else. I can’t imagine that this is good preparation for the later parts of my degree, with dissertations and so on, which might actually require me to slow down for a moment and (heaven forbid) think things through. This style of working slices up degrees into segments that do not follow on from one another, and bastardises what academia is meant to be about in the first place.

“Changing the illogical structures of our degrees requires a national cultural shift”

There is a broader point to be made here about the general stupidity of the British education system. If anyone in this economy still cares about degrees preparing students for their future working lives, let me assure you: unbalanced, uneven schedules like this will not fit the bill. Most jobs demand constant, manageable workloads. Obviously, there will be periods of greater intensity – whether running a holiday sale in retail, or closing a deal in the City – but for the rest of the time, steadiness is the name of the game. However, owing to the anachronistic exam-centricity of tripos courses and British schooling more broadly, students are not prepared for this lifestyle. In my view, something like the American GPA system would be far more effective. Students would learn to maintain the regular, yet not insane diligence of working life, instead of cramming and slacking off in rotation – habits that Cambridge workloads do not merely encourage, but necessitate.

Ultimately, this problem is going to be very difficult to solve. It is not simply a question of faculties restructuring degree timetables (a Herculean effort all on its own). For one, with colleges and agencies profiting from programs run during the holidays, there are monied, vested interests obstructing the very possibility of reading weeks and longer terms. But even these institutional challenges are not the end of it. Changing the illogical structures of our degrees requires a national cultural shift, entirely transcending Cambridge, in how we think about education. Beyond fluff platitudes about ‘transferable skills’ and ‘learning how to learn’, what are we really supposed to gain from our degrees? Do they train us with good habits? Are we developing constructive, organised mindsets and skills that will serve us in later life?


Mountain View

A sick perspective on the workload problem

Not at the moment. The recent workload forum and discussions between the Student Union and the pro-vice-chancellor for education is a promising development, and shows that change is possible. But we have an awfully long way to go.