The Cambridge Student Union has called for the University to “stop disbelieving students with mental health conditions” amidst returns issuesLouis Ashworth

Student Minds Cambridge and Trinity Hall students have launched open letters calling for “compassion” to be shown by the collegiate University when dealing with returns enquiries.

Current University guidance allows for students to return to under exceptional circumstances, including a lack of a workspace at home and physical or mental health issues. However, students have told Varsity of the issues they have encountered in this process, while the open letter from Trinity Hall students cites colleges such as “Girton [and] Gonville and Caius…[have] policies that prioritise the well being of their students.”

In response to the disparity between the approach of different colleges, Rensa Gaunt, the Disabled Students’ Officer at the Cambridge Student Union, told Varsity that: "Students must be allowed to return if necessary for their safety or health, and staff should trust students' assessments of their situation - we must finally stop disbelieving students with mental health conditions.”

They added that “the University has committed to reducing the significant gap in continuation for students with mental health conditions, and this starts with enabling students to study in a way that is safe for them rather than always defaulting to intermission." 

Student Minds Cambridge’s open letter calls for the University to “prioritise compassion”

Student Minds Cambridge (SMC) released an open letter on Sunday evening (10/01) addressed to Professor Graham Virgo, Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, and heads of colleges, asking “that a standard university-wide approach to allowing students with mental health concerns back to Cambridge is adopted by all colleges as swiftly as possible”, and “that this approach prioritise compassion and students’ welfare”. 

The letter primarily expresses concern “that colleges’ policies [on returns] seem to vary widely, particularly in relation to the exception for students with mental health concerns.” 

Kit Treadwell, co-Men’s Officer at Student Minds Cambridge, gave a statement to Varsity on behalf of the SMC Committee: “We are highly distressed by the university’s chaotic and lacklustre response to what is undeniably a national crisis.”

Treadwell continued: “The pure range of responses, available information, and compassion towards suffering students has been shocking, leaving our peers’ fortunes down to the whims of individual colleges or tutors, with in some cases shockingly patronising and damaging responses.”

“It is imperative that this is delivered before the beginning of term; any further delay or uncertainty can only worsen an already-terrifying mental health crisis.”

The open letter has so far received just over 300 signatures (as of 13/01).

Nearly 100 Trinity Hall students have signed an open letter asking for students to “return on a voluntary basis”

At Trinity Hall, an open letter has been circulated addressing the Acting-Vice Master and Senior Tutor of the College, stating that the current approach of the college - whereby students may only return if “essential” due to “unsafe” home environments or “significant” health reasons - “poses a real risk to student wellbeing.”

The letter proposes that students should be allowed “to return on a voluntary basis, if they believe they meet the legal criteria and they were to self-isolate upon arrival.” 

The letter notes that “many students will not be in a position where study from home is ‘impossible’...[they will be] facing very significant disruption to their learning that will have a tangible effect on their attainment.” At the time of publication (13/01), the letter had received 90 signatures. 

Queens’ College students have told Varsity of the “uncomfortable experience” of gaining permission to return

The official government guidance states that HE providers should consider allowing the return of students without “appropriate access to studying space.” However, one Queens’ student, who asked to return due to an overcrowded workplace at home, was told to do their “best to remain at home” and that they would only be allowed to return if there were at risk of a “major concern” such as homelessness or a serious health and safety issues. They were instead offered a “student support fund” or the option to intermit.

The Queens’ student, who wishes to remain anonymous, said, “It makes me quite sad that Queens’ seem to have betrayed its promise of being a college passionate about access and social mobility.”

“They have quite clearly made decisions that will impact people from disadvantaged backgrounds more...I don’t know if I’ll be able to tell prospective state school students that Queens’ prioritises our education and wants students from all backgrounds to do well.”

Another anonymous Queens’ student told Varisty that, “I did not expect that I would need to share very personal issues and medical history in order to be taken seriously enough to be granted permission to return.” They added that the application for return was “a tough and personally uncomfortable experience.”

Varsity contacted Queens’ College, but they declined to comment. 


Mountain View

Having the choice to return to Cambridge in Lent is an imperative

Selwyn Freshers report “extensive delays” in returns decisions

A first-year student at Selwyn College told Varsity that he faced “stress and uncertainty”  when requesting to return. Despite disclosing to his tutor that he feared repeating a prolonged period of suicidality as a result of social isolation, the student, who has wished to remain anonymous, was asked to describe more about his condition despite feeling uncomfortable doing so. 

He said, “extensive delays and statements that could be interpreted as judgemental made me question myself and my ability to know my own needs at a time when more uncertainty really wasn't what I needed.”

Isabel Roberts, Selwyn JCR President, said that the committee is “saddened and disappointed that this student’s communication with their tutor has left them feeling uncomfortable and exacerbated their uncertainty.”

Roberts said that while many students have had positive experiences in securing a return for Lent term, the JCR will push for the College to adopt “a compassionate Covid policy prioritising student safety and well-being.” 

She additionally outlined the JCR’s goal over the next year to ensure a higher quality of tutor training and consistent support for students, in order to avoid “significant discrepancies based on students’ tutors.” 

Selwyn stated in an email to students that they “will keep our community together” during Lent term. The College has also offered students a ‘Mindfulness Programme’ for the upcoming months.

Varsity has contacted Selwyn and Trinity Hall for comment.