Cambridge students boycott essays in campaign for reading week

Dan Swain reports on a new campaign by students at Cambridge University.

picture credit: Matt Juden/Flickr
picture credit: Matt Juden/Flickr

Students at Cambridge University are campaigning for the introduction of a reading week, and committing to refuse to submit work during the fifth week of term in order to make it happen. The campaign reflects a growing awareness of the effect of stress and overwork on people’s mental health, as well as the need for collective rather than individual solutions.

Why is a reading week such a big deal? Surely students have more to worry about: fees, cuts, privatisation, sexual violence etc. Isn’t this another example of Cambridge students missing the bigger picture in their little archaic bubble?

But at Cambridge, it is a big deal. Cambridge terms are 8 weeks long. In the course of those 8 weeks, students will be expected to write at least one essay a week, which they are then expected to discuss and defend in face to face supervisions with teachers. This is in addition to lectures, classes, and, y’know, life. According to the campaign, only 55% of Cambridge students find their workload manageable, and a meagre 39% of Cambridge students agreed that they were given enough time to understand the things they had to learn, compared to 70% nationally.

It is this intense programme which gave rise to the phrase ‘fifth week blues’, a widespread and familiar feeling half-way through term. Everyone feels this, but, obviously, not everyone feels it equally. For some, it is not just about ‘feeling low’, but a contributor to depression and other mental illness, and even a contributor towards people dropping out or falling severely behind. One student at King’s College describes this clearly: “The pressure of my degree’s harmfully intense workload – and the total lack of a break from that – led directly to a marked decline in both my mental health and the quality and quantity of my academic output, to the point where I had to take a year out from Cambridge. This kind of unrelenting pressure is unsustainable, unhelpful, and totally unnecessary.” At its core, then, the demand for one of these weeks to be free of deadlines, is the demand to take a tiny step in recognising the diverse needs and capacities of the student body, and make life at Cambridge a little more bearable.

The call for a reading week has been part of campaigns by Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU) on and off for decades, but there has been little action on it. In general, discussion of mental health and the challenges of workload focused on individual solutions: The University provides counselling; the college Chaplain provides board games, tea and cakes (that’s not a joke); people stay up all night helping friends write essays, or write them for them. But in the past, if you couldn’t keep pace, it was seen as an individual problem, with an individual solution. The sudden popularity of this campaign marks an important shift. Students are saying individual solutions are not enough, and demanding (a very small) change to the system. Moreover, they’re taking collective action to do it.

“The structure of the University terms discriminate against students with mental health problems and chronic illnesses,” says Amelia Horgan, CUSU Women’s Officer. “They also make engaging with our learning in any meaningful way basically impossible – we’re constantly swamped with work that we have little say in choosing, on topics that too often bear little resemble to our own lives and interests. A reading week would not fix all of these problems but would make terms less difficult for many students. There have been student campaigns for reading weeks for decades, if asking nicely won’t work we’ll have to try other tactics.”

  • The campaign is initiated by Cambridge Defend Education, and CUSU has agreed to publicise it and support students involved. There will be a rally to #endweek5blues on 18th February at noon in front of Senate House, King’s Parade, Cambridge.


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