Tag Archives: higher education

How Cambridge University almost killed me – The tale of Morwenna Jones

OK so you have done your A levels, got exceptional grades and will be heading off to a top university. Seems like a dream come true to be in with the best the country, and even the world, has to offer. However this is not always the case, in fact you’d be alarmed at what could actually happen. So today we’re going to look at the story of Morwenna Jones, a Cambridge University student. She told this recount in the Guardian:

“I had always been what they call a good student. In 2011, aged 18, I had two A*s and two As at A-level, various sporting successes and plenty of friends. I was president of more clubs and societies than the school needed. I was going to Cambridge University to study English. By most measures, things were going OK.

There was a problem, however – I had also developed an eating disorder. Over the two years before I started university, my body fluctuated and metamorphosed constantly. One week I would be a size zero, and my skeletal form would be found hunched scribbling notes instead of eating lunch. The next, I would look “normal” and hide the seemingly endless piles of food I would consume and then bring up again afterwards. Eventually I told my parents, and after six months I was referred for counselling with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service. Once a week I sat in a bleak room and explained to a woman called Lucy that my condition was connected to an obsessive desire to be the best. She listened politely, told me to keep a food diary and then discharged me eight weeks before I started university.

Eighteen months later I was in the passenger seat of my parents’ car, the colleges of Cambridge disappearing into the rain behind me. For a year and a half I had felt completely out of my depth, and finally cracked. No longer was I thought “talented” or “gifted” because I could work for eight hours or read an 800-page novel in a day. At Cambridge everyone I knew could do that. I was no longer special.

I know this might not sound like the world’s worst problem. What did I have to complain about? I was at a top university, with support – in theory – everywhere I looked. But misery has a way of finding you in the most unusual places, and for reasons that can seem incomprehensible, not least to oneself. Inside that bubble, where perfection was the norm, falling short of my own expectations tormented me. I wasn’t a size eight. I wasn’t on track for a first. I wasn’t a sporting Blue.

I dropped out in January 2013. When my parents collected me, I hadn’t left my room in two weeks. For two years I had been killing myself in the name of perfection, unable to enjoy being anything less than the best. As a result I had developed depression alongside severe bulimia.

The fact is that I am by no means unique. Suffering from an eating disorder and depression made me hardly more special among the Oxbridge student population than the A-levels that got me there. Last year a survey by student newspaper The Tab revealed that 21% of Cambridge students have been diagnosed with depression, while a further 25% think they may be depressed. At my all-girls’ college, Murray Edwards, 28% of students have experienced eating disorders. The numbers are reflected more widely – the National Union of Students surveyed 1,200 students and found that 20% believe they have a mental health problem, while 1 in 10 experience suicidal thoughts. Welfare teams at Cambridge alone anticipate 50 to 60 suicide attempts per year.

What I have seen in my time at university is an epidemic of students struggling with mental health difficulties. Every term more students “intermit” – the Cambridge term for taking some time out.

Katt Parkins, a fellow English student in her second year at Churchill College, understands the burden of expectation well. “It has been affecting me my whole life,” she says, recounting how she developed an eating disorder when she was just 11 years old. “I’d always either want to do something perfectly or not do it at all.” She intermitted in February this year, no longer able to cope with the prospect of a low grade. “I was obsessed with perfection. I think one of the reasons I intermitted was because I still really wanted to do well and get a high 2:1 or a first,” she says. “If I’d achieved less, my health would probably have become even worse.”

At Britain’s universities many students crumble as they realise they are only average-sized fish in a much larger pond. Part of the problem is that while we are used to praising or criticising students, it is unusual to sympathise with them. Even to themselves, the whining sounds like “poor me”. But the reality is that the pressure is putting thousands of bright young people at risk of serious mental illness.

Oxbridge is a close-knit collegiate system. Within this system, small communities of extremely motivated individuals live together in the intimate confines of an environment characterised by centuries of academic achievement. Katt Parkins likens it to an Etch-a-Sketch. “You know when you just have to slide off what’s already there and focus on a new drawing?” she says. “It’s like that. You have to focus on your work, so you suppress personal things that you should actually work through. Eventually it builds and builds.”

Students like her are the reason why Oxford academic Nicola Byrom founded the charity Student Minds five years ago, when she was a graduate student. Having suffered from a mental illness herself as a teenager, she wanted to provide students with support.

“There’s certainly historical data that suggests that there is greater prevalence of mental health difficulties in Oxford and Cambridge,” says Byrom. “Living with a small group of competitive people isn’t easy, and you also then have a competitive environment. I think Oxford and Cambridge are probably happy to admit that they pre-select people at high risk of developing mental health difficulties, because they’re taking high-achieving perfectionist young people, who come to be the best.”

But things could be changing. Judith Carlisle, headteacher of the independent Oxford High School, has started a scheme to combat the rise of “unhelpful perfectionism” among her students. It’s called The Death of Little Miss Perfect. Teaching students that “it’s fine not to get everything right”, the scheme includes tests that get progressively harder within a time limit, preventing pupils from answering all of the questions. Its goal, as Carlisle recently stated, is to teach students that “perfectionism is only captured in a moment” and is “not achievable long term”. As well as encouraging students to embrace phrases such as “Have a go” and “Nobody’s perfect”, she’s urging them to avoid “going for something that, if they don’t get it, will destroy them”, and that includes universities. Her advice? “Don’t aim for Oxford if not getting in will destroy you – or if going will destroy you.”.

The last statement might sound confusing, but it sums up some of the ambivalence I feel about Cambridge. If my school had offered a similar scheme, perhaps I wouldn’t have wound up taking a painful, expensive and disruptive year out from university. The pressures of Cambridge broke me but also gave me a whole new perspective on my academic life. If Carlisle aims to teach pupils that “real failing is failing to have a go”, then she also needs to teach them to “have a go” at Oxbridge, and, if necessary, learn from their mistakes.

Byrom is also unconvinced that schools should be warning pupils off Oxbridge altogether. “Schools ought to be thinking about what environment is going to best support a student to thrive through their degree,” she explains, drawing on her own experience of completing an undergraduate course at Nottingham before starting a postgraduate degree at Oxford. “Even for the ‘bad’ perfectionist, Oxbridge could still be a great environment. It’s very difficult to tell someone that a certain atmosphere isn’t going to be right for him or her.”

Meredith Leston and Elise Morton, at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, also identify with the challenges and opportunities provided by Oxbridge. “I knew things were bad when I tried to read my neuroscience textbook and I may as well have been starring at the phonebook,” says Leston, who is about to enter her second year of experimental psychology. “My passion to learn about the brain is what got me into Oxford and it’s what I am dedicating my life to. The things that mattered most to me and defined who I was as a person suddenly barely registered. I felt completely lost.”

Morton agrees. “I remember in the second year just suddenly realising that I was feeling really, really down but without a cause,” she says. “It was when I actually realised just how good my life was that I suddenly went: ‘Hang on, why the hell are you feeling like this?’ I took stock of everything that was good in my life and yet noticed that I was still crying every day. I had to ask myself why I was doing that. I don’t want to say: ‘Oh it was Cambridge’, but I feel like the intense stress of a Cambridge degree has to have an impact upon your mental health.”

Despite all this, however, neither of them has any regrets about their choice of university. Morton graduated this year with a degree in modern and medieval languages. Now studying in Los Angeles, she is also a part-time mental health activist, campaigning for awareness charity Time to Change. She says struggling at university helped her gain perspective. “At first it was difficult to accept that I wasn’t going to be the best. But once I did, I felt able to be more creative and take more risks.”

These issues are problems across all universities, of course. It’s just that they can seem most concentrated where the pressure is greatest. “University is a tough time for a lot of people, whatever university you’re at,” adds Georgina Aisbitt, who works for Student Minds in Oxford. “Your informal support systems, like friends and family, and your formal support systems, like therapists and GPs, are left at home. You add pressure from the university to achieve and you’re putting students in a situation where they are going to be comparing themselves to others. That’s a pretty hefty combination, and it creates quite a tough environment. It’s important that schools try to help their students and promote discussions about mental health.”

When I returned to Cambridge in January I was nervous. I felt that I had tamed some of the anxious, depressed teenager who had struggled before, but would I be able to cope with the isolation? I took a book out of the library and sat in a café on King’s Parade working on my essay for that week. I sat in that café for four hours until long after the sun had set and the bikes had stopped speeding along under King’s College. For the first time since I started Cambridge, I read a book and enjoyed every page.

Eight months later, the perfectionist in me is dead and I don’t miss her. I was discharged from mental health services at the end of last year, and I stopped seeing a therapist in June. The eating disorder will probably always be at the back of my mind, but in many ways it has been a full recovery. I still have to be careful – I don’t drink to excess or sleep in, and I try to avoid environments which I know might be tricky. I feel I now have the mental equipment to deal with life. Excellence is fine, but nobody’s perfect.”

I think lessons can be learnt from this. It is very easy to get sucked in to going to the top universities like Oxbridge or other members of the Russell Group for example, but if it is not right for you, scenario’s like Morwenna’s can and probably will happen. So if you are looking to go to university, here is my advice for you:

  1. Think very carefully about the course you want to study before looking at universities. Not all universities offer every single course and sometimes universities may not offer the course at all.
  2. Once you’ve decided on what you would like to study, then start to look at universities. Think carefully about where you would like to go, and have a browse of the league tables, not just for the current year, but previous years gone by so you get an idea of where they are going. Yes I know league tables don’t necessarily reflect every single part of the university but if the university is slipping down the league tables for the course you want to study, then it can be quite off-putting.
  3. This one is probably the most vital. Before you apply to any of the universities, you MUST go on at least one open day at the university to get a feel for what to expect. If you don’t, then you might find yourself winding up at a university and dropping out pretty quickly as it’s not what you wanted. Remember you are going to be committing anywhere between 3 and 5 years of your life to this course, as well as an awful lot of money with tuition fees alone at £9k a year. Don’t blow that sort of money on somewhere that isn’t right for you. Go to the open days, get as much information as you possibly can out of them, including information on support networks and other options should things not work out, because you never know if or when you might need them.
  4. When applying to universities, remember that universities only want the best candidates. Not all courses require an interview, but for education you do. These interviews are either grouped or paired or individual interviews so be prepared for a variety of situations. In my experience, universities tend to like those students who can use their learning from their A levels and apply it effortlessly to the particular field. In my case, I made reference to a lot of psychological theory, particularly developmental psychology, in my interviews to back up my beliefs. Worked for me as I applied for 5 universities, and got 5 interviews and 5 offers.
  5. Don’t be too down if a university doesn’t pick you. Remember that thousands of other people are competing with you for that place, and you are potentially applying for 5 universities. Do your best to stand out from the crowd, but be true to yourself.
  6. When you do go to the university that you have chosen, if you’ve taken thorough enough care of it, you should feel at home, so make sure you build up a social group, maybe join a few societies that the university’s student union offer you, and maximise your time there. Honestly the years will fly by, so make the most of them.

Student life: share economies everywhere!

Stuff, as all students know, is expensive – and the simple answer is to share it.

Wherever you look these days, you can find examples of the “sharing economy”. People are sharing tools, transport and living space – there are even apps to help you share clothes with your friends. The online collaboration of people choosing to back a project with donations has brought to fruition ideas from the Pebble watch to a new series of Veronica Mars.

The ability of humankind to collaborate effectively was what allowed us to thrive in the first place, and students should make the most of it. Sharing, both directly and through internet platforms, can be highly advantageous when it comes to saving time, money and energy.

Let’s take books as an example. University libraries contain the vast majority of core textbooks. However, they often possess only a few copies of each. You can bet that those who seek out the reading list before the introductory lecture, and those who are the most familiar with library classification systems, will sign out the only available copies on long-term loans. Everyone else is faced with buying a book each. One option would be to visit the local public library, where it is possible to request books which they can order in and anyone can rent out with a library card.

A more sophisticated plan is to find a group of students who are happy to buy different core texts and share them between the group. And the group’s ambitions needn’t end there. You could divide the set reading between group members, get everyone to summarise what they’ve read, and make the notes accessible via a Google group. You can also share PDFs, journals and web resources with one another, creating a vast online revision resource several times larger than could be achieved on your own, and for a fraction of the cost.

Sharing food, and cooking, is always contentious in student houses, despite the obvious benefits. Sharing individual items – such as milk, bread and butter – is probably the trickiest choice, especially in my house where he have the milk wars over blue or green labelled milk (green milk all the way!). Somebody buys more than the rest, somebody uses more, and they are rarely the same person. Better, though still not foolproof, is for everyone to put money in a kitty that can be spent on every day essentials. However, meal sharing is fantastic for reducing costs, saving time and building a sense of community in a student house. Draw up a roster, and don’t forget to specify the washer-upper. I personally wouldn’t choose this option unless my entire house had the same tastes as me, which never happens because I’m a cheap and cheerful type of guy …

The boring bits which make a house run smoothly are exactly the things parents fret about most when they first drop you off at university. You’ll have been loaded up with cutlery, pans, sweeping brushes and colanders. It soon becomes apparent that all your fellow students have turned up with much the same stuff. Now you have six colanders to fit in one cupboard. It just takes a bit of pre-planning to sort this. Parents should be assured that you will go on a group shop with housemates as soon as everyone arrives. That way, everyone can make an equal contribution.

But it’s the big stuff that can be an issue. Larger appliances, like televisions and hoovers, are often missing from student houses because no one wants to buy them. Jonathan, 22, has just graduated from Newcastle University. In his third year, he and his housemates found a way to solve this problem. “None of us could afford a TV at the start of the year. So we divided the cost of a 42-inch television, and agreed that I would buy the other two out at the end of the year when in a better financial position. Knocking off about £20 each for the slight depreciation, I then had TV to myself to take home.”

For the basics, online resources are becoming increasingly popular with students. Sites like Gumtree, Craigslist and Freecycle offer cheap or free second-hand goods from people in your local area. Other sites are available of course, wouldn’t want anyone to think I’m biased (I don’t actually use any of these myself personally, all about Amazon for me) …

All of this leads to one simple conclusion: sharing is caring, and particularly sparing on your wallet (oh yeah, nailed a rhyming triplet for all you English teachers out there). Share economies in an ideal world make student life so much easier. Sadly we don’t live in an ideal world so some of these get neglected. Ah the pain of society sometimes.

£900million of student loans sold to debt collection company

Student loans … the government funding for university students to complete their degrees, which is only paid back when the graduate is earning more than £15k a year, which may well never be the case for some people in the current economic climate.

This morning, according to the Independent, the government has sold almost £900 million in student loans to a debt collection company in an effort to improve the nation’s finances. A debt management consortium bought the loans from the Student Loans Company for £160 million, after Universities Minister David Willetts launched a project to find a new buyer earlier in the year.

Mr Willets said that the loans, which were taken out by students who began courses between 1990 and 1998, were sold to allow the Student Loans Company to concentrate on administering newer loans. He added that the private sector was best placed to collect the outstanding debt.

Of the 250,000 loans sold, around 46 per cent are earning below the repayment threshold, 14 per cent of borrowers are still repaying and 40 per cent are not repaying their loans in accordance with their terms.

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills told The Independent that the loans being sold were the last batch of older, mortgage-style loans, and that no-one with a loan taken out after 1998 would be affected. This is the last batch of these loans to be sold off, representing about 17 per cent of the total taken out. Holders of these older loans will not see changes in their terms and conditions, including on the calculation of interest rates.

He confirmed that the Government is currently “looking at options” on what to do with post-’98, income-contingent loans, and that “no decisions have been made”.

Toni Pearce, the president of the NUS said that the move was “extremely concerning”, and that it “will see the public subsidising a private company making a profit from public debt”. “The impact of this sale won’t only affect borrowers, but will affect everybody. The simple fact is that having these loans on the public books would be better off for the Government in the long run. Selling off the loan book at a discount to secure a cash lump sum now doesn’t make economic sense.”

Aaron Kiely of the Student Assembly Against Austerity said: “It is outrageous that the government has just sold off a public asset worth £900m for only £160m, confirming once again that the Tories care more about the profits of their mates than the lives of ordinary people. This will lead to higher interest rates and a greater burden of debt on graduates, with private companies aiming to make as much profit as they can.”

The project to find a buyer was launched earlier this year, when Mr Willetts said the plan would “maximise the value of one of the Government’s assets”.

The mortgage-style loans have a face value of around £890 million but the market value is significantly lower. The SLC will continue to manage the loan book until it is transferred to Erudio Student Loans in a few months’ time. Erudio is backed by a consortium led by CarVal Investors and Arrow Global, a consumer debt management firm.

Cable urges universities to do more outreach work

Universities in England should switch cash from bursaries towards building links with schools to boost the number of students from poor homes, Business Secretary Vince Cable has said. His call was echoed by the head of the admissions watchdog the Office for Fair Access (Offa) Les Ebdon.

Both told a conference that “outreach” did more to boost applications from poorer students than offering money.

But a university admissions chief said students wanted more bursaries

In order to be able to charge tuition fees of more than £6,000 a year, universities in England have to satisfy Offa that they are working to increase applications and university entry from people from low-income backgrounds and other disadvantaged groups.

Prof Ebdon said: “There is a need for smarter spending based on evaluation of what works and what works are outreach programmes. Most of the money universities are spending goes on bursaries and most of the evidence is that money would be better spent on outreach programmes.”

Some talented people felt university was “not for them”, Prof Ebdon told the conference, which was organised by the Sutton Trust educational charity. “Outreach raises aspiration and it makes them feel university is for people like me.”

He said this work needed to “start early” – at primary school – before key decisions on exam subjects were taken.

Mr Cable told the meeting: “Evidence we have suggests the best way of encouraging social mobility is to do outreach. Getting pupils doing the right combination of GCSE and A-levels is much more effective than bursaries and fee-waivers; targeted outreach is what really works.”

Prof Ebdon said he had been asked by the government to help draw up a national strategy on access to university and student success. This was now with ministers, he said, adding that the “indications are that they are in favour of the proposals we have made”.

He said the sector as a whole had succeeded in opening up universities to less-advantaged groups since the mid-2000s, but the increase had been “from a very low base” and there was a particular problem with “the most selective universities”.

In a report earlier this year, he said there had been “little or no progress” on widening access in those institutions. At the time the Russell Group, which represents 24 leading universities, said “considerable efforts” had been made to improve access but poor schooling meant some pupils were not getting the grades required.

At Wednesday’s conference, Mr Cable said the coalition’s decision to raise tuition fees in England up to a maximum of £9,000 a year had been “immensely unpopular” but applications to universities had recovered to the “second-highest ever” and the proportion applying from disadvantaged areas had increased. “What we did on fee loans was difficult and unpopular, but I feel we have been partially vindicated,” he said.

He was challenged by delegates over the big fall in numbers of people applying to study part-time or as mature students and admitted this was a “big source of concern”.

Prof Ebdon said it was “too early to be certain about the impact of reform”. “More dire predictions have not come about but we will watch with anxiety,” he said. “The general picture is encouraging but there are two groups we are concerned about who seem to be adversely affected… mature and part-time students.”

Cambridge University’s director of undergraduate recruitment Jon Beard told the meeting while Offa was telling the university to spend on outreach, students were telling it to spend on bursaries – and Offa wanted it to listen to its students. He told the conference Cambridge had increased the proportion of state school pupils it was taking to 63% on its measures.

Its outreach work included hosting Sutton Trust summer schools, where teenagers got a taste of life at Cambridge, plus a series of regional events. “The big issues for us are attainment and misconception,” he said, adding that outreach helped by giving people the message that they could fit in.