Emma’s friends weren’t letting her sleep alone. Desperate, she sat down one Wednesday morning and penned an email to her Senior Tutor.

“I am tired. I can’t describe in words how exhausting it is to have to continue to exist in a constant state of fear”.

“I’m not worried about getting a 2:1 or a 2:2. I’m worried about staying alive”

Although sent within office hours, it received no response. Months later, after she was finally granted her exam mitigation, the email was brought up. She was told that due to its concerning content, she would have to go through a Fitness to Study procedure. “It felt like a threat,” she tells me. Having finally been given the go-ahead by the EAMC (Exams Access and Mitigation Committee) to extend her period of study, she was told she may be forced to intermit.

“I’m just going to knock on peoples doors and cry until something happens”

This was only the culmination of Emma’s difficulties in applying for Double time, or what the University calls Extended Period of Study (EPS) — the mitigation which allows for one year of Tripos to be completed over two years. She went over a month at a time without correspondence from her tutor (who was organising the application), which can at least in part explain the fact it took her over a year to have her application approved. Listening to her tell her story, I am struck by the extent to which she plays an active role at every step. “I joined a bunch of DSC [Disabled Students’ Campaign] Facebook groups,” she tells me. “I had to talk to the NHS to get the medical evidence I needed”. “I had to arrange meetings with the DRC [Disability Resource Centre”. “Everything I’ve gotten was something that I had to go and find out existed from somewhere else”. She is not alone in this. Every single person I spoke to had to find out about Double time from someone, or somewhere, external to their College’s pastoral team. Olivia overheard someone talking about it in her college bar. Rensa’s tutor’s colleague had “happened” upon it. Emma simply did “a lot of googling”.

Double time, or EPS, is a mitigation most students — and tutors — have not heard of. Tucked away on the very last page of the University’s exam mitigation guidance, it’s not something they seem to be advertising. Yet for many, this mitigation is life changing. When I ask Olivia, who was able to take her 4th year on Double time, how the change affected her, a veil of anxiety lifts almost instantaneously. Sat up a little taller, now leaning back against the cushioned booth of the West Hub cafeteria where we arranged to meet, she tells me that “Lent was the first term in Cambridge that I actually enjoyed”. Able finally to focus on anything beyond managing her pain, she explains to me that halving her timetable meant halving the triggers. Halving the flare-ups. Halving the bed-ridden days. Rensa also took 4th year on double time. Before the change, days had been a painful monotony. It was a simple repeat of “waking up trying to have some cereal, trying to figure out why I’m in so much pain and then going back to sleep”. Were it not for Double time, she could not have completed her degree.

“I hid all my health problems because it’s held against you”

Intermission, a mitigation more commonly offered, is “simply not an option” for many, Emma tells me. Not only is it financially untenable for those who cannot return to live at home, but for students with chronic conditions, Olivia explains, it “just puts a plaster on a wound”. Requiring less evidence than a Double time application, Rensa, who later went on to be the Disabled Students Officer (DSO) on the Students’ Union, explains that disabled students without the strength to fight for Double time often find themselves effectively forced to intermit. “I think people just give up,” she tells me. For those with limited support, intermission is the only choice. But other “people in similar circumstances were empowered, and were supported, and didn’t need to leave”.

This discrepancy in the level of support which students receive is brought to my attention again and again. Olivia tells me that the success of your application is “very very dependent on if you have a good relationship with your tutor”. “My college were brilliant,” she explains. “It’s not all doom and gloom”. She pauses, and looks at me with a wry smile. “Well maybe for 98% of people it is”. There’s a stark contrast between this and Emma’s experience. She had to turn to a radical last resort, telling herself: “I’m just going to knock on peoples doors and cry until something happens”. Speaking to Rensa, who worked with a years’ cohort of applicants as DSO, it appears that most people’s experiences fall somewhere between Olivia’s and Emma’s. She reaffirms that “the majority of people have a good time within the tutorial system. Unfortunately, when it goes wrong, it goes really, really wrong”.

“It’s not malice” on the University’s part, Rensa explains, but a level of institutionalised incompetence. In a few cases, the lack of available information on adjustments has meant that students’ Senior Tutors have misunderstood their application, “said ‘I don’t support this’ and [the application] got thrown out”. Training for tutors is not mandatory, and when Rensa raised this to senior University staff, she was met with a chillingly pragmatic response. She paraphrases: “If we made them do training, or we filtered them out based on if they wouldn’t do the job well, there wouldn’t be enough tutors”. The people and processes who students rely on for their access arrangements are ineffectual, and knowingly so. Rensa was told in by senior University staff that “If our processes are so slow that people have to intermit, well then they have to intermit”.

“Going through the process was a “nightmare of pain””

“Whether it’s through negligence or being malicious the outcome is the same, unfortunately, for a lot of disabled students”, says Rensa.

Beyond wanton incompetence, though, there is a deeper problem built into the crumbling foundations of this university, and no amount of support is enough to overcome what Olivia calls a “hostile environment”. “I hid all my health problems,” she tells me, because “It’s held against you”. Even before she applied to Cambridge, she “got the feeling she needed to be healthy” to survive here. And she wasn’t wrong. “There were no options for me in first or second year”. Pre-covid, pre-recorded lectures, pre- the ensuant slightly increased awareness of the impacts of chronic conditions, she “barely scraped through first and second year by a miracle”. Rensa explains that she felt that the University’s priority was not her. “The primary concern was not are you okay, it was, well, what if this affects other people’s exams?”

Disabled students are constantly placed under a bureaucratic microscope, asked to prove their illness to a faceless committee. You are expected to do nothing but work on your degree. It was implied that Rensa’s role on the Students’ Union could harm her application. The Master of Emma’s college emailed her with a similar warning, copying in her Senior Tutor — who is on the EAMC. But these activities can be life-giving. Settling into my seat across from Olivia, I notice a swimming logo on her jacket, and, looking to ease us into what I was aware would be a challenging conversation, I ask her about it. “It changed my life,” she tells me. “As I got fitter, my fatigue was getting better. My pain was getting better”. Having the time to do more than just suffer through each term made her more productive. More importantly, she began to actually enjoy her university experience.

“It seems like the hope is that you’ll just give up”

More than this, you are expected to feel grateful for the bare minimum — for compliance with the Equalities Act, which demands that institutions make reasonable adjustments. The 2021-22 EAMC report states that “assuming that the 20 cases [of students granted Double time] are ‘Home/EU’ students and liable for the fee rate of £9,250, the cost to the University in 2021-22 for these reasonable adjustments is £185,000”. “That’s not true,” Rensa states, carefully maintaining a considered tone. It’s clear that she has had this conversation many times before. She is measured, and calm, but underneath that bubbles a white-hot fury. “You are not allowed to be charged for the cost of reasonable adjustment. It is unlawful to require you to pay to any extent the cost of reasonable adjustments”. Not only is it untrue that you are costing the University any money, but “they’re getting mad that you’re asking them not to unlawfully charge you for the privilege of not being discriminated against”. It’s “completely ridiculous”.

Navigating this hostile environment, all three students tell me, involves what Rensa describes as “knowing the rules of the game”. How do you learn them? “Trial and error”. Cambridge makes it clear that Double time “does not offer part time study,” but instead “Students…are expected to be working full time, but on a reduced workload”. So you can’t use the words part time. You can’t say that 42 hours per week of work is too much. You have to prove, effectively, that you’re currently working 84 hours per week, “which is absurd,” Emma tells me. Is it true, I ask? That working on Double time does mean working 42 hours per week on half the content? “Depends what you count as working,” says Emma. “Is me lying on the floor counting as working? No, not really. But I need to do it, or else I’m not going to be able to work”. Rensa had a similar experience. If you’re spending half your time working, and the other half managing your pain in order to do so, you’re working half the time, “even though you’re spending your whole time trying to make this happen”. The axial rule of the game is simple: “you have to walk this very fine line”. Not ill enough to intermit. Too ill to do a full time degree.

“If you don’t approve this, this person might die”

Winning the game isn’t a simple victory, though. Going through the process was a “nightmare of pain” for Olivia, and Emma lost access to crucial NHS treatment. She had been waiting until her application went through — when she would have sufficient time — to begin treatment. Now it costs her over £100 per hour. When I ask if the process took a toll, she sighs. “I got so much more ill. So much more ill”.

But for those who lose the game, the outcomes are far worse. Not everyone can fight like the three women I was lucky enough to meet. “I don’t know how I did to be honest,” says Emma. Rensa does. “Not everyone is as confident as me. And open. And annoying”. “It seems like the hope is that you’ll just give up,” Emma tells me. And many do. Olivia reflects on a friend who missed the last deadline for Double time. “It’s too late. It’s done. She’s just got to struggle”. She knows people who have been kicked out. People who are fighting not to be. Ultimately, from what she’s heard, “most of the experiences have been negative”. Emma lost the game her first time around. When I ask her how this impacted her, she doesn’t seem able to articulate it. “I mentally and physically cannot repeat this. I can’t do this year again, like because it will…” She trails off. But the letter from her psychiatrist makes clear how deeply the failure of the process affected her. As Emma paraphrases: “If you don’t approve this, this person might die”.

“I fought so hard to stay but I was so glad to leave”

Ultimately, the only real way to win the game is to reach the end — to graduate. Rensa, who is now studying part-time for a Masters degree at UCL, talks about the end of her degree with a sense of bitter relief. “I was so glad to leave. I fought so hard to stay but I was so glad to leave. I was like, Thank God, it’s over”. Leaving her job as the DSO, a similar weight lifted. “It’s not my responsibility anymore. I can just exist”. Existence doesn’t feel like something you should have to fight for, I say. She smiles.

But it is. And there are people fighting. “I don’t want this to happen to other people,” says Emma. “I could not have done more. I cannot do more now,” Rensa tells me of her year as DSO. And yet her work only resulted in one small change: now students on Double time can receive their grades back after their first year, rather than having to wait until the end of their second year. Considering how hard she worked, this small win seems almost an insult. “You’ve got a system that’s highly invested in its own stability,” Rensa diagnoses. Olivia agrees. “Trying to get Cambridge to change is probably harder than getting a cruise ship to avoid an iceberg. There’s just been too much weight and momentum in one direction for too long”.


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Crucially, if things continue as they are, and if this crumbling cruise ship refuses to reroute, people will stop trying to fix it. Olivia doesn’t seem to have any faith in the University. Rensa’s final assessment is similarly pessimistic: “we’ve tried everything we can do as students and it’s not been compelling enough”. At UCL, all she had to do was tick a box requesting to do her degree part-time. “It shows you what is possible when you’re willing. And yeah, there was not a lot of willing here, I don’t think”.

If there is any willingness to change, the University must act sooner rather than later, because goodwill is not a bottomless resource. And it is running low.

A spokesperson from the University told Varsity: “The wellbeing of our community is the University’s priority, and we support students with a huge range of disabilities and medical conditions. We continuously work to make sure students get the help they need, but we recognise that there may be times when individuals are unhappy about aspects of the support they receive. In these cases students should talk to their Director of Studies and college tutor in the first instance”

Details have been Changed for anonymity