Only 53 per cent of students voted in support of a change in term lengthAndrew Connell

Only half of Cambridge students are in favour of nine-week terms, with a reading week in week five, according to a Varsity survey.

35 per cent of students were against the measure, while a further 12 per cent indicated that they did not know or were undecided.

53 per cent of students voted in support of a change in term length, and 59 per cent “broadly agree” with Cambridge Defend Education’s (CDE) #endweek5blues campaign, started at the beginning of this term. The campaign to introduce a reading week has also been backed by a vote in CUSU Council. Speaking at the first Council meeting of Lent term, CUSU President Helen Hoogewerf McComb argued that a reading week would increase the quality of work submitted and would halt the University from “rewarding the ability to work without sleep”.

She told Varsity: “It seems that a majority of students do support the idea of a reading week and that many more might be in favour of the change, should key concerns be addressed. CUSU will be consulting with students to identify these concerns and develop a plan for the introduction of reading weeks, which would address as many of them as possible.

“Expect to hear a lot more from us on this issue over the coming terms.”

In response to this move by the representatives of the student body, 54 per cent of those polled agreed with CUSU’s decision to back #endweek5blues. Some, however, have another concern. Second year James Sutton told Varsity: “I find it indicative of the general problem that it is CDE, and not CUSU, who are spearheading the campaign.”

Mike Curtis

#endweek5blues has cited mental health and general student wellbeing as driving factors behind the burgeoning movement. Outgoing Trinity JCR President Thomas Hughes-Mclure told Varsity: “A reading week would meaningfully reduce stress without diluting the Cambridge degree. It seems to me that there are few alternatives which would have a genuine impact in the same way that a proposed reading week would.” Trinity College Student Union has officially given its support to the campaign, with many other JCRs and MCRs in the progress of discussing official affiliation.

Despite the weak level of overall support revealed in the survey, planning is underway to develop the movement. CDE are preparing to launch a petition outlining their proposals to the university, with an accompanying FAQ for all potential signatories. CUSU have agreed to help design and promote the petition. CDE intend to hand it to an official university representative during a rally planned for the end of week 5 this term.

At CDE’s open meeting on Monday 26th January, members expressed concern about the impact of the additional costs for students that proposed changes to term length could entail. CDE are seeking to ensure that a nine-week term would not result in financial hardship for students through consultation with individual colleges and the university-wide bursary scheme. However, the 281 participants in Varsity’s survey revealed a widespread ambivalence over CDE’s overall impact; 53 per cent said they were either undecided or didn’t know as to whether CDE’s impact has been largely positive or negative, and a further 14 per cent thought CDE’s impact had been negative.

Only 33 per cent voted positively. This has been reflected in the mixed attitudes regarding proposed protest action. CDE did not respond to Varsity’s requests for comment.

The original motion notes that “the ‘End Week Five Blues’ initiative seeks to draw attention to the unnecessary pressure [on] Cambridge students by encouraging students to refuse to hand in work during Week 5 Lent term”. McComb told Varsity that “While CUSU is not advocating that students take part in the boycott, we are working to make sure that any student who does take part does not experience undue repercussions as a result of engaging in this peaceful form of protest.

“CUSU will be briefing Senior Tutors on the initiative this week and asking them to communicate with DoSs and supervisors about the likelihood of students not handing in work.”

However Sophie Buck, the Female Welfare Officer for Emmanuel College, claimed: “Firstly, this sort of resistance – not handing work in – won’t happen,” and went on to disparage the very idea:  “People need help managing their work, not avoiding it.”

This is only one of many scheduled projects to raise awareness of the issue and campaign: banner drops, wearing a blue felt square in order to show solidarity and fly posting have all been suggested. Increased understanding of the specific methods CDE intends to implement appears crucial if the campaign is to sway the student population further in favour of a reading week. Second year Amy Leach told Varsity that she had “no idea what CDE really even is”, let alone that the #endweek5blues campaign was started by the group.

CDE, although claiming at the open meeting last Monday that “we are the impact”, have not confirmed how they intend to effect this change.

The campaign has also received significant support from Whose University?. They told Varsity: “It is indicative of the widespread nature of the problem that a majority have said they are in favour of a reading week.

“When dealing with statistics like this people also need to be aware that the voices of those students who are saying explicitly that they are facing problems need to carry significant weight as the needs of the most vulnerable students should be taken as a priority.”

Writing for Varsity, Amy Clark and Martha Perotto-Wills attacked the current high-pressure environment of the eight-week term as a process that “undermines people being able to enjoy education as a stand-alone process”. This is in line with the view of CDE member Joscha that education is in need of “more time for intellectual development and real learning”.

Another aspect to the campaign, although targeted primarily at disabled students and those with mental health issues, is the desire to increase student satisfaction of work submitted in supervisions.

It is proposed that a reading week will reduce the infamous ‘week five blues’, named as such because of the feeling of exhaustion that is said to hit during the middle of term.

Buck summarised the experience of many students during term-time: “I feel as though term, for me, is like a hurdle race with eight hurdles, and once I’ve tripped over one (like, if I had a particularly busy week), getting to the finish line really is a struggle as there is no time to catch up.”

A University representative did not respond to our requests for comment.