"Cambridge...works its students a lot harder than other universities"Daniel Gayne

Last term, my friend asked me to come to a lecture with him, on the grounds that “we’ve known each other for so long.″ It was Michaelmas of our second year; we’d barely known each other for a year. Once I made this point it was quickly dismissed: “Cambridge time is different - in Cambridge time we’ve known each other for ten years.” Just as dog years pass faster than their human equivalents, it’s normal to get to the end of a Cambridge term feeling as though many more than eight weeks have gone by.

Terms at Cambridge are not only unusually short, they’re also unimaginably intense. For humanities students, weekly deadlines — often halfway through the week — perpetuate an ongoing cycle of stress. By the time you’ve handed your weekly essay in and been to the supervision, you’re unlikely to find a moment to take a break before you start the next one.

The unconventional 'Cambridge week,' beginning on Thursday and ending on Wednesday, adds to this. Placing the weekend in the middle of a busy week means that it’s effectively redundant, and we are rarely able to use it to recuperate. Instead, students work and use their rare free time for extracurricular activities, which are now viewed more as a responsibility than a means to relax by doing something you enjoy. For those who have contact hours on a Saturday, the weekend barely exists at all.

Cambridge’s eight-week terms sometimes feel just as much a part of the experience as matriculation, formal dinners and May Week — another quirk to become accustomed to. However, the intensity of these brief terms fuels and exacerbates the scale of mental health issues in Cambridge: something needs to change.

“The intensity of these brief terms fuels and exacerbates the scale of mental health issues in Cambridge”

The term length at Cambridge is unique, matched only by Oxford, and provides yet another factor that makes life at Cambridge so different from other universities. Typically, universities designate ten or eleven weeks per term, with some offering a 'reading week' in the middle. Similar to a half-term, contact hours stop, offering the opportunity for students to catch up on work, and take a well-deserved breather before completing the second half of the term. Cambridge also works its students a lot harder than other universities, cramming more of everything into significantly fewer weeks.

Feeling Blue, the student-led investigative report into mental health at Cambridge offers a glimpse into the nature of the University’s mental health problems. Although it found that levels of diagnosed mental health disorders remain relatively similar to national levels, the report underlines a widespread issue of “background” levels of stress. Feeling Blue portrays an “endemic” level of situational stress brought on by the workload at Cambridge. Although diagnoses are not above average, student surveys show a disproportionate number of students reporting feelings of immense stress and anxiety. The report cites one survey conducted by The Tab in 2013, where 46% of students reported feeling depressed, be that diagnosed or undiagnosed.


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In the Feeling Blue report, these results are linked inextricably to Cambridge’s intense workload and lifestyle. Many cite the insurmountable amount of work as a major factor that affects their well-being, and the report states that “a large number of students reported experiencing feelings of anxiety or depression” linked to “academic pressure.”

Clearly, the University has an issue with student wellbeing; in a 2017 Mental Health Survey by the Tab, Cambridge came only 27th in student mental health satisfaction, despite coming 3rd in terms of welfare spending per student.

Term-time at Cambridge can feel like a desperate sprint to the finish-line, but it doesn’t have to be so crammed in. Relatively little justification for the shorter terms is given to students; they’re packaged as a fact of life that must be expected.

Extending term-time by even a week, be it a reading week in the middle or an extra week total to spread out deadlines and contact hours would majorly transform Cambridge life. The latter would decrease the need for Saturday lectures and supervisions, but either option would make a massive difference. Not only would it alleviate workloads and reduce pressure, more down-time would mean students would actually have time to address personal problems that arise.

Whether it’s giving students more time to seek treatment for serious conditions or simply offering an extra week to catch up if they’ve been bedridden with Freshers’ flu or missed an essay, the benefits a longer term could bring to student well-being are boundless.

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