Prof Bhaskar Vira in conversation with Erik OlssonTobia Nava for Varsity

Hands in pocket and legs crossed, Prof Bhaskar Vira leans against the window and smiles for the photographer. The pro-vice-chancellor for education is dressed smartly, wearing a light navy suit jacket and a striped shirt. He flashes another conniving grin on cue.

“I’ve got to be in West Hub for 10,” he informs me, now pushing back comfortably into his chair. It’s early Monday morning and we’re sitting in a conference room a few metres from his office inside the Old School’s building. Nestled between Senate House and Clare College, Old School's is home to the University’s central operations. It's not exactly the hub of activity I imagined it would be: copies of Varsity scatter the unloved desks of an empty bull-pen. Some sad-looking pencils are strewn over another.

The University, I'm told, operates a hybrid working model, with many still choosing to work from home. Though I doubt Prof Vira has ever had this luxury. Cambridge lecturer since 1998, fellow at Fitzwilliam soon after, and head of the Geography department up until recently, Vira has, by his own admission, “done almost every job in the University”.

Now pro-vice chancellor for education, Vira is keen to explain what the role actually entails. “Anything to do with the educational provision in the University comes under my remit: that’s undergraduates and postgraduates,” he says. "Because education is delivered really as a partnership between colleges and departments, [I have] an oversight role". On today’s agenda: the University’s student mental health plan for the next three years. 

The University wants to clean up its act (and image) on student wellbeing: this interview no doubt forms a small part of this rehabilitation.

Over a four month period last year, five Cambridge students committed suicide (or are suspected to have died by suicide). Prior to the interview, I'm told that any specific discussion of these suicides is off the table, with many of the inquests into the deaths are ongoing. The warning is an immediate reminder of what's at stake for the University.

The recently announced plan captures to a certain extent the urgency of this crisis. Recognising that Cambridge can be "challenging" for some, it emphasises a "proactive and preventative approach".

What is the University’s mental health plan?

Last year an external reviewer branded the mental health services at Cambridge as “ineffective”, “untargeted” and “unsustainable”. A review said that there were “wide variations” of support levels between colleges and expressed concerns that “senior tutors, tutors and other college staff with a welfare role are overstretched and are dealing with often significant issues and a high level of demand risk”.

The BBC spoke to current and former students, with one student revealing that the university’s fitness to study hearings “felt like probation hearings, like I was on trial, talking to complete strangers about stuff I hadn’t properly unpacked with a therapist yet”.

Another student told the BBC that they were left with the impression that “as far as college were concerned, if I were to die they wanted it to be not on their property”.

She continued: “The steps that were taken were to protect the reputation of the college and their liability in case anything were to happen”.

In response to this, the University have set out a new ‘Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Plan 2022-2025’ which aims to “develop a whole-institution approach to student mental health and wellbeing”.

The new plan acknowledges that “life for some at Cambridge can be challenging” but highlights that the new plan aims to create “a genuinely supportive and inclusive place to live and study”.

The new plan pledges swifter access to counselling, increased capacity within the University’s mental health advice and sexual harassment and violence support services. The plan also promises to educate staff and students in leadership positions about the importance of mental health and “rationalise governance arrangements across collegiate Cambridge”.

The plan also vows that the University will set up a University student wellbeing team “with an emphasis on prevention and early intervention”.

Crucially, the new mental health plan suggests that workload may be addressed in the future. The plan says the University will “continually seek input and feedback from students to understand which aspects of their academic life and student experience have the greatest impact on their wellbeing and mental health and take action to address reported concerns (such as workload)."

The University has acknowledged that they have a “long way to go” with the new mental health plan. However, the University has also asked for “the help of everyone across the University.”

The Student Union have backed the proposals made in the plan saying that they will “hugely benefit students”, and congratulated the University for “extensive time and money being put into student wellbeing”.

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Yielding occasionally to alliterative jargon like "Suicide Safer", the plan is nonetheless a step in the right direction, allocating greater funding to staff training, mental health services, and out of hours support.

The report acknowledges that Cambridge is “distinctively placed as a collegiate institution” to deliver hands-on support. With its one-on-one supervisions and tutorial system, Cambridge offers a uniquely intimate education: the University is much more present in our lives that it would be at another institution. Do students as a result expect more from the University than they would at any other? “I do, and I think they are entitled to expect more”.

“We all know that the last three or four years have been particularly challenging for young people,” Vira says.

He’s notably reluctant to say explicitly that the mental health of Cambridge students is in crisis: “People have already been talking about a real crisis in mental health, I think that’s the terminology that’s used,” he says. “We do know that this is widely reported”.

Vira points to the pandemic, discussing extensively the effects it has had on a whole generation of students. But he also attributed mental health concerns in Cambridge to the “genuine phenomenon…of climate anxiety”.

Tobia Nava for Varsity

“You don’t need to be someone who avidly reads the newspapers to be worried about the world,” he explains.

While the effects of climate change are acutely felt by many of my generation, it’s difficult to take this comment seriously. Not only because we are discussing mental health in a Cambridge specific context, but because it's being said by a figurehead whose establishment has strong, institutional links to BP (a giant of the oil industry who has recently declared record profits). Besides, in my experience, the intense Cambridge term doesn’t often leave much time for existential angst.

Vira singles out the counselling service’s turnaround times as a key achievement of the University. All students who were referred to the University’s counselling service (UCS) in Michaelmas were offered an appointment within three working days, meeting all the targets set by the University in October. Students deemed to be in the high risk category were offered an appointment within one working day and were all seen in two.

From the figures provided by the University, it's still unclear how long students have to wait for their second or third appointment. Progress certainly, but, as the plan states, “we know we have a long way to go”. 

Reflecting the acting vice-chancellor's admission to Varsity last term, the plan also identifies - albeit fleetingly - workload as a potential area of concern.

“Is Cambridge too hard?” I ask Vira. He hesitates slightly. “So let's start from the beginning,” he says. “We take students who are already self-achievers. Our average intake is higher than our published requirement…they are very self-motivated to continue at that high level. Cambridge continues to match that expectation”.

Vira puts this pressure down to the competitive instinct of Cambridge students. "I'm aware of students that are constantly comparing themselves with peers and that creates another sort of pressure in terms of the workload," he says. But doesn’t the University create that competition? The ranking system not only encourages but facilitates a culture of comparison. “It does and it doesn’t,” says Vira. “At least these days it’s not public knowledge…I see [competition] manifesting much earlier than the exam season… that sense of peer competition is wider than just the ranking system”.

He continues: "People are comparing themselves with each other in terms of the amount of time they spend in the library or the conversations they have with each other about the work they are putting in".


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Vira doesn’t dismiss workload concerns completely, however. “I think there are questions around the demands we make of you... we haven't solved the workload, but we are taking it very seriously now”. He seems to suggest that it’s not so much an issue of workload, but the organisation of work. “So in many subjects, certainly in Michaelmas term, it’s not unfamiliar for people not to have a huge amount of deadlines in the first 3 or 4 weeks. And then all their deadlines bunch in weeks 5 and 6 of term”.

“I did the tripos 30 years ago and most of what I learnt in the tripos is still in the curriculum, and they have also added on much more,” he says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we are doing too much”.

Mental health is clearly a sensitive issue for the University, and Vira is typically measured. An economist by training, he’s forensic in his analysis and careful not to dismiss the concerns of any interested parties. While I do recognise there is only so much Vira can say, his occasional impartiality does risk translating as equivocation or ambivalence.

I leave the meeting, however, with the sense that Prof Vira is on the side of the students. A father of two himself, he empathises with the Covid generation of students, and that is clear at several moments in the interview. So, at least for now, I'm optimistic. Cautiously so.