Is mental health support really that bad at Oxbridge?

Zeireen Fuzurally interviewed students from Oxford and Cambridge and found that the nuance in their experiences is often overlooked in the national conversation about mental health

April 7, 2019
Oxford college

As part of the research for my MSc dissertation last year, How effective is mental health policy in the UK? A focus on University Mental Health, I spoke to seven graduates about their time studying at Oxford and Cambridge – two institutions that are frequently linked with poor mental health and suicide in press coverage of this topic. 

Their commentary revealed generally positive experiences, while still exposing aspects of student support that can be improved in every phase of studying. 

One of the takeaways from my research has been that mental health isn’t just an Oxbridge problem, it’s a higher education issue that will require a whole of sector response.

Below is a sample of the interviews that have informed my research, and will, I hope, contribute a more realistic account of mental health support at the UK’s leading higher education institutions to the critical sector-wide conversations on this topic.  

What are the main barriers to effective mental health provision for young people?

Oxford graduate 1: 

Funding. Everything seems to be linked to this. There is not enough funding for us or mental health in general. The transition period [into adulthood] is also a barrier as mental health provision for young people appears to stop at CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services) and students are expected to transition to adult services. But transition support isn't really there.

What is your view and experience of mental health at Oxbridge and that of your friends? 

Oxford graduate 1: 

Oxford does put an insane amount of pressure on students, but they counteract this in terms of how great their response is. But support is dependent on the college. 

My brother passed away which I had a hard time dealing with while I was applying for university. Oxford was very supportive through the process by accepting my circumstances, while other universities I applied to did not. Oxford offered to defer my place for the following year, give me a personal tutor, peer support, a GP on site and support through the college chapel.

The drug scene, which is rife in social circles at Oxford, does not help students either, and even though tutors and staff monitor this, it is always well hidden and kept underground. 

Oxford graduate 2: 

I had a good experience studying theology at Mansfield College. It wasn’t overly academic. I only stressed during the eight-week exam period where I suffered from anxiety. Today, when I have deadlines, it sometimes triggers the Oxford anxieties.

Oxford/Merton postgraduate: 

I really enjoyed my time at Merton. It was tough, but I coped. Perhaps because I was there as a postgraduate and did not have the same pressures as undergraduates, alongside having the experience of being an Oxford undergraduate [before my postgraduate degree].

Cambridge graduate: 

I really struggled in the first term. I contemplated going home. I felt lonely and spent most of the first term on my own, as I struggled to fit in. Eventually, I got good support, made friends and got used to it. 

I read history and the tutoring classes were intense, but gave me confidence. I struggled with the intense exam period: an eight-week term, then six weeks off and still having to study during the “break”. It was hard to not have much free time. It was really difficult to get good grades, for a 2:1, you had to work really hard and getting a first was impossible and rarely happened.

Do you think there is a difference between Oxbridge and other universities regarding how mental health is handled? 

Cambridge graduate:

Contrary to the misconceptions about Oxbridge and mental health, Oxbridge is better because they seem to have more funding. The collegiate system means smaller and more personalised care, attention and pastoral support. At the bigger universities, because they are so populated and within a centralised system, a student is just a number and there is less personalisation.

I think the reputation they have in the media is unfair, things are sensationalised when it is just a few stories out of many that get blown up.

The respondents were also asked whether they think universities should act in loco parentis as suggested by former universities minister Sam Gyimah. They all supported that call and thought that students shouldn’t necessarily be expected to transition to adult services as it is a very different type of support. Instead, they should be given a specialised service. 

Regarding Oxbridge, most respondents thought that an academic structural change would help students. Adding coursework and spreading deadlines and exams would improve student wellbeing. Additionally, it would help increase admissions of state school pupils thereby diluting the dominate culture of private-school graduates. 

At other institutions, the Oxbridge respondents called for better financial support to provide regular counselling services as well as better careers’ support and peer-to-peer support – services which they have benefited from at Oxbridge. In general, more personalised care, time off and enhanced connections with the NHS are needed.

The responses revealed that even though a number of students felt supported during their studies at Oxbridge, there are things that can improve. The same can be said of the entire higher education sector: a 2017 report, from the Institute for Public Policy Research revealed an almost five-fold increase in the number of first-year undergraduates reporting a mental health condition in 2015-16 compared to 2006-07. 

The NHS is working with Universities UK to improve student wellbeing and universities minister Chris Skidmore recently urged providers to improve their support for students in three phases of studying: student transition, experience and progression (STEPs).The transitions taskforce is to have its first meeting on the 1 April. 

Despite the good intentions laid out in these initiatives, time will tell if there will be more focus on improving wellbeing services during the critical transitional period. 

Zeireen Fuzurally completed her masters at Queen Mary University of London and is now working in policy.

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