Telling tales out of Oxford

In the light of the recent suicide of another undergraduate, we asked her fellow students about their experiences of life at Oxford. Their testimonies, necessarily anonymous, make disturbing reading. Report by Hester Lacey
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Earlier this year, a female student at Oxford University - let's call her Joanna - was very much distressed at the death of a close friend. Joanna's parents were worried that she would not be able to keep up with the gruelling Oxford schedule; they were sufficiently concerned to write to her tutor to ask him to give their daughter some extra time for her work over the following weeks. Called in to see him, Joanna, however, got short shrift. "He told me that I should not let my grief interfere with my work or allow it to become a reason for not getting my essays in on time. He kept stressing the importance of not letting myself get behind. I felt shocked, upset and resentful that he should be so insensitive."

Shortly afterwards, Oxford history student Sarah Napuk committed suicide. Last week, the inquest into her death recorded a verdict of suicide triggered by "overwhelming pressure of work". Sarah hanged herself in April of this year, a few weeks before her final examinations. Sarah Napuk's parents, Kerry and Angela Napuk, insisted on making a public statement about her death. "We are compelled to issue a health warning to other parents of potentially vulnerable and sensitive young people - don't send your children to Oxford, it is not safe." Mr and Mrs Napuk's concerns were shared by one of Sarah's tutors, who wrote to them, "I am wondering whether Oxford puts really inappropriate pressure on our young people and whether the support and sustenance is there to see people through properly? During the past five years, three of my pupils have taken their own lives... one wonders what can be going wrong."

Oxford University denies Sarah's parents claim that the university is a dangerous place. But the question remains. Last week, the Independent on Sunday interviewed a number of Oxford students, past and present. All wished to remain anonymous, and so their evidence must remain anecdotal. But their stories suggest that Oxford is falling down on two important points; first, that pressures of work at the university can rise to barely tolerable levels, and secondly, that tutors do not notice when students are approaching a level of pressure that could prove dangerous - or even fatal.

A study published in 1993 reported that the suicide rate among Oxford students was "greater than would be expected on the basis of national rates for people in the 18 to 25 age group". Oxford is the only university to keep records of student suicide, so it is hard to say if it has a worse record than other less prestigious seats of learning. But students there certainly seem to have a particular combination of both academic and social pressure to deal with.

In the time leading up to final examinations, students may be expected to work up to 12 hours a day. Robert, an undergraduate taking his finals in summer 1998, is already feeling the looming shadow of the exam period. "At the moment, three or four years work is tested in two weeks of final examinations," he says. "It's a ludicrous anachronism. Every other university I know realises that to get a true picture of students' capabilities they need an extended way to do it - not a two-week short- term memory test. There is an atmosphere of numb fear before the exams. The only thing people talk about is how many hours a day they've worked. Some tutors can only see the value of academic work, and they don't think it's out of the ordinary to tell their pupils to work for ten hours a day."

Academics who cannot see beyond the next essay or tutorial are likely to miss signs of distress. By the time Laura graduated fromOxford five years ago she was suffering from an eating disorder and panic attacks. Her tutor didn't notice a thing. "I'd ring the Samaritans or a counselling line," she says. "I did once try to tell my tutor that I wasn't managing and he laughed it off, said I should spend more time on my essays and less time going to parties. I don't think I've ever partied less in my whole life."

Oxford has not shaken off its reputation as a male bastion and continues to produce problems for many women students. Maria graduated three years ago from a course with a strong male ratio among the students; her tutor failed to redress the balance. "I was in a small group with four male students. I could never make my voice heard and the tutor didn't help. He called me Mousey, because I have a very quiet voice, and when I did speak, when he thought I'd said enough, he would start saying 'squeak, squeak, squeak, squeak, squeak'. He would never have done it to any of the boys. I'd try to keep a brave face on it and smile, but it really wasn't funny at all. One of the men in my group was really embarrassed by it and would say things like 'I can't hear what Maria's saying' but it was hopeless."

Even after the 1993 report was published, the counselling services at Oxford found themselves overstretched. Susan, now working as a journalist, spent a sabbatical year working as a welfare officer in 1994. "We started walk-in surgeries for the first time and it went mad; we were seeing 50 people a week, a lot of very stressed individuals. People could not talk to their tutors; Oxford has a structure of old dons, and you can't sit down with them and say 'I'm pregnant' or whatever. It would be like talking to your granddad. A lot about Oxford simply isn't in the 20th century."

Counselling can be nerve-racking for counsellor as well as the counselled. "There was one girl who hadn't integrated terribly well, she was from a working-class background and was going home every weekend," recalls Susan. "Then she split up with her boyfriend and had no one to talk to. She was self-harming a lot, with razor blades. She said that she wanted to kill herself, and you do think if someone is already using razor blades they'll have no problem slitting their wrists. And there was another bloke, who was so severely in debt that he'd started selling drugs. He got in deeper and deeper with a gang in east Oxford who were coming round and smashing up his house and threatening to baseball-bat his girlfriend. He felt completely hopeless but he couldn't talk to his tutor - it just wasn't part of his tutor's Oxford. I thought he might either kill himself or do a runner. At the time I was sharing a house with an anorexic and a bulimic - eating disorders are rife."

Helping others who are struggling is actively discouraged. "If a friend is so stressed or otherwise troubled that they make demands on you that prevent you from working properly, make clear to them that there are limits on the amount of time and emotional energy that you can spare without damage to yourself," advise the second-year English faculty notes

Even if you are not supposed to bother your friends, help is available. Following the publication of the 1993 report, the university expanded the counselling services available to troubled students. The Oxford student counselling service did not wish to make any comment, but Professor Ernest Nicholson, chair of student health and Provost of Oriel, said at the inquest into Sarah Napuk's death: "We are not complacent at Oxford; the welfare of students takes highest priority here. We believe that we have got a wide counselling service, but we are always reviewing procedures to see how it can be improved." Students also pay tribute to the excellence of the counselling available. But by the time counselling enters the picture, there may already be a serious problem; in the first instance, it is the tutors, in frequent contact with their students, who must take responsibility for their potentially vulnerable charges. What is worrying is that many tutors apparently neither know nor care about their students' emotional, as opposed to academic, well-being.

Counselling, adds current undergraduate Robert, is beside the point when other pressures remain exactly the same. Rather than having an excellent system in place to pick up the pieces, surely it would make more sense to stop students breaking down in the first place. "Pastoral care is not the problem; they are concentrating on the wrong issue. The issue should be what drives people to need it in the first place. When Oxford tells everyone it has a fantastic counselling system it makes it sound as though there is no need to change anything else, and one of the fundamental things about Oxford is that it doesn't want to change."