The private anguish that takes the shine off the glittering prizes

Kim Sengupta and Lucy Ward on the pressures of university life at Oxford
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Oxford students are meant to be among the brightest and sharpest of all - future leaders in their chosen fields. But in the search for the glittering prizes there is a worrying toll: Britain's best-known university has an unenviable and little-debated reputation for student suicides.

Tomorrow the inquest opens on the death of Sarah Napuk, the latest student to take her own life at the university. And the palpable anger and grief of her family about what led to the tragedy has opened a debate on the pressure put on the students under the dreaming spires.

Kerry Napuk has no doubts why his brilliant daughter killed herself. He said: "We can state unequivocally that the primary factor was her fear of failing her third year exams." Her distress was compounded because her tutors repeatedly said she would obtain a first as she was considered "one of the best history students at Oxford".

"Incredible pressures and stress are built into the system. Unless the university recognises and addresses the pressure it creates we are compelled to issue a health warning to other parents with high achieving and sensitive young people - don't send your children to Oxford, it is not a safe place."

One of Sarah's tutors wrote to her parents after her death: "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."

The university acknowledges that students do face a massive amount of pressure, and says it has tried to institute a support system to cope. Twelve students including Sarah have killed themselves since l990. For each of those, dozens of fellow students probably living in close proximity will have been emotionally affected.

The situation had become so alarming that in l993 the university carried out an investigation under Dr Keith Hawton from the psychiatry department. The number of suicides at the university was, the study concluded grimly, "greater than would be expected on the basis of national rates for people in the 18 to 25 age group".

Colleges were advised to consider ways of reducing academic pressures on students, and the university's counselling service and student helpline were both expanded.

Present and former students at Oxford tell of the strains of arriving at university fresh from a glittering school career, only to find themselves surrounded for the first time by equally clever contemporaries.

Where at school they probably sailed through A-levels with hard work but no undue strain, they now find themselves confronting excessive reading lists, weekly two-to-one tutorials in which every knowledge gap will be exposed and, frequently, the prospect of "collections", or tests, after each vacation.

For some, the stress proves too much. One 24-year-old former Oxford geography student describes how her despair at lack of praise and support from tutors prompted her to attempt suicide halfway through her second year.

"I was living out of college in a house with two other girls. We had had a dinner party and I was a bit drunk, but I knew what I was doing.

"I went upstairs to the bathroom and tried to slash my wrists with a razor-blade. I know I didn't truly want to kill myself, because I did it so badly, but there was a lot of blood."

A friend talked her round and the moment was, she now believes, a turning point. "I came to Oxford having always got As at everything. I had never failed, and I had always thrived on praise and success. Now suddenly I just couldn't keep up with the intensity of the rounds of essays and the sheer weight of reading. I decided to lower my sights."

The one time high-flyer made a conscious effort not to give in to her desire to leave university, but to scale down her degree ambitions. She left with a 2:2.

The fault, she believes, was not with the university's counselling system, which was "far superior to anything you would get for free in the real world". More to blame was the overwhelming intensity and expectation of daily Oxford life. "It was no longer enough to be good at your subject - you had to be beautiful, play hockey for England and have a gorgeous boyfriend too."

She is not alone in pointing a finger more at the atmosphere of Oxford, with its eight-week terms and occasionally claustrophobic colleges, than at particular failures in university welfare services.

Another recent graduate remembers "mass hysteria" in her women's college as final exams approached, with Prozac and beta blockers at students' elbows as they revised in the library.

"At one point I just broke down in front of my personal tutor, who was very kind and got the principal to lend me some cash to go home for a week."

Talent that went to waste

Sarah Napuk, 22, hanged herself in Oxford on 10 April this year. She had a Kennedy Scholarship to Harvard.

Ian Hyde, 19, at Hertford College, dived into the path of a dustcart in 1995 after an argument with his girlfriend.

Jonathan Brierley, 20, fell to his death at his south London home in 1994. He had taken a year off from New College to get over depression.

Ajaykumar Chotai, 22, from Kenya, died after an overdose in 1994. He was at Balliol.

Henry Skelton, 21, at New College, fell from a second floor college room after taking a champagne and LSD cocktail in 1993. He had written his own obituary.

Lei Don Lau, 22, from Singapore, died in his room in May 1993 after taking an overdose of anti-depressants. He was a finalist at Magdelen.

Pamela Wray, 21, hanged herself in her parents' loft after leaving a note in a copy of Wuthering Heights in 1993. She was at St Hilda's College.

Tracey Cole, 18, from Exeter, an English student at Lady Margaret Hall, hanged herself "in a moment of despair" in December 1992.

Comments