Jared Ndisang at graduation with his mum - the last photo they have togetherJo Ndisang with permission for Varsity

A bereaved mum has told Varsity that her son would still be alive today had Cambridge let him intermit, claiming “the reputation of the University and the college was put before the mental health and wellbeing of my child”.

Jo Ndisang’s son Jared, a Natural Sciences student at Christ's College, died unexpectedly in 2019 after his mental health worsened in his third year.

He had fallen behind on his studies at the beginning of Lent term due to extenuating family circumstances.

"We had life events in January," Ms Ndisang told Varsity. "And Jared returned home in March. And I just noticed he wasn't really himself".

Ms Ndisang became increasingly worried about Jared in the lead up to exams, calling him morning and night. Jared’s condition declined and Ms Ndisang collected him from Cambridge in early June.

"I realised he just wasn't well," she said. "He wasn't even coherent on the phone. So I straight away called the porters... I rang his tutor and she said: yes, come and get him".

Following a meeting with a psychiatrist, Jared asked his tutor to take a break from his Natural Sciences degree, but was refused intermission by his college.

“I was in that meeting, when he asked to intermit at the college and the tutor just shook her head. And I knew there was no point pursuing it. And, at the time, quite frankly, I was more concerned about getting my child well enough. It seemed like we were quickly moved on”.

Varsity reported last year that a finalist was told by their tutor that the University dislikes students intermitting before exams, because they see it as students “trying to sneak out another year to ace the exams unfairly with academic advantage”.

Jared eventually graduated with an unclassified degree, but it wasn’t the outcome he wanted. He had worked hard to get into Cambridge, achieving three A*s and two A’s at A-level to secure his place.

He died a year later of "undetermined causes" but Ms Ndisang remains unconvinced by the inquest's conclusion.

"The pathologist changed her mind three times in one hour", she said. "I feel absolutely that he did end his life. And that's because I have spoken with his friends -  joined the dots".

Ms Ndisang believes that had the University allowed Jared to intermit, he would still be alive today.

“I strongly believe had Jared been granted the right to intermit, we wouldn’t be here right now. You know how hard students work to get into an institution like Cambridge.

“How did my son get to this point? And no one alerted me? Yeah, the fact of the matter is, they don’t have to. And that’s why we need laws to change”.

Ms Ndisang is a member of the Learn Network – a group of bereaved families – who are campaigning for a statute which recognises in law a university’s duty of care.

A statute will ensure students are protected from foreseeable harm, through a university's acts or omissions.

“It’s taken me a long time to get to this place, as in speaking out. But the reason I am is because I know there are a lot of students suffering unnecessarily.

“The only way to get universities to actually have safer practices and processes is to have a statute in law”.

Following a petition signed by 100,000 people, the proposal was debated by MPs in parliament.

The higher education minister decided against pursuing the legislation, but he did not rule out revisiting the statute in future. He advised Universities to sign up to the University Mental Health Charter.

Asked about whether Cambridge had been in touch with the campaign, Ms Ndisang said that neither the University nor Christs’ College had made any attempt to reach out.

“I’m not going to hold my breath,” she said. “I mean that’s the thing with these terrible situations, everyone seems to go very quiet… It has been for years”.

Ms Ndisang learnt following Jared’s death that he had sought out counselling, attending five sessions at the University’s Counselling Service (UCS). At the time, the UCS offered a maximum of five sessions.

“Jared did take up counselling, which I discovered after he died, at university – and that was just prior to me collecting him. But when someone’s struggling like that five sessions isn’t even going to scratch the surface”.

UCS no longer cap sessions at five visits, and a 2021 review into the service found it was "ineffective" and "unsustainable".

The University has said that an “unprecedented” number of students in recent years have arrived at Cambridge with pre-existing mental health conditions.

“Well, Jared didn’t have mental health issues ever previously,” Ms Ndisang said. “I’ve never studied at Cambridge and do not know exactly the pressures. But I did go to university and there is an element of pressure. And I can only imagine that is tenfold when you go to an institution like Cambridge”.

A University spokesperson said: “Jared is remembered as an active and caring member of our community and our thoughts remain with his family and friends. Nothing is more important than the safety and wellbeing of our students and we have recently launched a new Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Plan which includes swifter access to counselling, increased capacity in our support services and our Reach Out campaign to ensure students know where to find help.

"Like all universities we are exploring the best way to work with trusted contacts for each student. This process must strike a balance between protecting the privacy of our students and ensuring they have the right support.”