How Oxford Almost Killed Me, Twice

A response to Morwenna Jones’ article How Cambridge Almost Killed Me

Reading Morwenna’s article was very moving. I was impressed at her honesty and bravery. It also brought back memories of my experiences at Oxford University. When I studied my BA there I suffered from depression and stress, resulting in thoughts of suicide and a burst appendix. These events took place in my final year but after attending a counseling session I found the resolve to get on with my work. I let go of my perfectionism and decided just to enjoy the work and give it my best shot, regardless of the results. Like Morwenna, I took time away from the system to deal with my own problems, convinced that the fault was my own and not a larger systemic one. Two years later when I returned for my MSc I brought a similar attitude with me – enjoy the process and don’t worry about the end product. This had worked at the end of my BA and I thought it would work again, unfortunately I was proved wrong.

Rad

The Second Time Around

During my time between degrees I became more aware of the wider world. The impacts of the recession encouraged me to read up on politics and economics, and attending an event on climate change facilitated my entry into the environmental sector. Using my skills as a philosopher I started to ask more questions of the world around me. I returned to Oxford a somewhat different person, with clearer ideas of my own beliefs and aspirations.

As the year progressed, I struggled to find the enjoyment I had been looking for. However, this time the reasons for my struggle were not due to my own feelings of low self-worth because I wasn’t getting high enough marks. I struggled because I felt let down by the institution. I was now able to be critical and observe the pressures that adversely affected both students and staff. Academics were under much pressure to produce publications, with the mantra ‘publish or perish’ frequently preventing them from dedicating adequate time to their students. Bureaucracy and opaque complaint procedures made it extremely difficult to find effective channels for addressing these issues, leaving me feeling even more disheartened.

These experiences, along with the high cost of the course (which is even greater for international students, who made up 93% of my coursemates), increasingly made me perceive the course as a money-making exercise rather than a project in academic enquiry. This is hardly surprising, particularly in light of this government’s neoliberal policy agenda which has led to funding cuts to universities and an increased emphasis on the monetisation of services.

Two weeks into the course I had wanted to quit and when issues came to a head two weeks before the end I also wanted to quit. I didn’t have the guts for either. Meanwhile, throughout the most difficult periods I was repeatedly told to persevere, with a degree from Oxford University framed as more valuable than my mental health and happiness. Others dismissed my problems saying things along the lines of ‘it’s a degree from Oxford, did you think it was going to be easy?’ These sorts of comments tie in with the larger societal norm that things that are worthwhile also need to be difficult and maybe even distressing. I certainly like a challenge but preferably one I can relish rather than despair at. So, I knuckled down and got back to work.

Coping Strategies

Oxford University creates the perfect milieu in which mental health problems can thrive – it is intense, high pressure and competitive. It encourages perfectionism and is high on criticism but low on praise. Academic achievement and effort are taken for granted as students are expected to produce more and better. Meanwhile, as at school, worth and meaning are found in marks – student’s lives revolve around writing numerous essays all in aid of taking numerous exams all in aid of leaving the institution with a given mark. At the end of one’s degree one’s achievements are summed up in a number.

Outside of the struggle to get high marks the rest of life goes on. Oxford University is often framed as an opportunity to learn about the world and be exposed to new views and whilst these things are possible there is a surprising lack of diversity. Instead, a highly conservative attitude is prevalent in many colleges and whilst this need not be a problem in itself my own experiences saw it manifesting itself in multiple forms of discrimination, including racism, sexism, homophobia and elitism. Thus, the lack of diversity precludes exposure to the diversity that Oxford promises, thereby enabling these negative behaviours to perpetuate. Combine this with an active drinking culture, a constant pressure to be working and needlessly high levels of competition amongst peers and the scene is set for a plethora of mental health problems.

Meanwhile, the University itself is often ill-equipped to deal with the aforementioned problems. It has an international reputation and brand to maintain and this can often confuse the internal complaints process. In wanting to avoid a scandal the University may well try to deal with problems internally, avoiding involvement of the police and the press. It can prove hugely problematic when institutions try and solve problems on their own terms rather than using the recognised and conventional systems, and no one can be sure that these internal processes will result in positive outcomes for all those involved.

There are problems at all levels of the institution and everyone is under pressure. The effects of this pressure can manifest as severe mental health problems. However, rather than address the problems at their source – e.g. the institutional framework, expectations and imperatives – the onus is on individuals to recondition themselves to cope. Whether the answer is in meditation or medication, we try desperately to find ways to fit back in and re-enter the system. We do it because we have been told if we get good marks at school and good marks at university we can then go on to get good jobs. But the recession, high levels of youth unemployment and the myriad social problems our society is facing suggest these rewards are no longer guaranteed.

Excellence 

There is a movement in wider society to focus more on happiness. This has resulted in political initiatives to include well-being as a marker for national success, as well as GDP. I think Oxford University can learn from this process and develop better techniques for more holistically nurturing its students and staff. We are, after all, humans before we are academics. Furthermore, there is a positive correlation between well-being and productivity.

The high levels of unhappiness recorded at Oxford University present an opportunity for the university to rethink how it educates its students and how it treats its staff. Together we can overcome the conditioning that makes us believe meaning and value come from academic achievement. Self-worth and self-esteem need more than high marks. Instead people need to know that they are enough in and of themselves regardless of their achievements, something easily forgotten at an institution of high-achievers accustomed to getting top marks. Fortunately, Oxford University is already endowed with all the resources it needs to bring about this change and all it will take is a concerted team effort on behalf of students and staff, willing to do more than just ask critical questions but address the issues that those questions highlight.

We cannot assume Oxford University is excellent just because we are told it is, that is an example of uncritical thinking, something Oxford University educates against. But we can work together to improve it and ensure it becomes an institution capable of addressing the pressing needs of the 21st century, including widespread mental health problems. Only then can it truly be considered a place of excellence.

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