The body of Sarah Napuk, the brilliant young Oxford student who took her own life, was found with the study schedule next to it, an inquest into her death was told yesterday. The 21-year-old student at Lady Margaret Hall was found hanged from a wardrobe in her room at the student lodgings by her Canadian-born fiance, Jason Russell.
Miss Napuk, who had been offered a Kennedy Scholarship to Harvard, suffered from acute depression triggered by what she perceived as "overwhelming pressure of work", the hearing at Oxford Town Hall was told. The coroner, Nicholas Gardiner, recorded a verdict of suicide.
Afterwards one of her closest friends maintained that Miss Napuk could have been saved if the university had offered an adequate safety-net to help students who were feeling the strain of academic expectations that came from being at Britain's best-known university.
Rebbeca Tuck, a law student at Lady Margaret Hall who had known Miss Napuk for three years, gave evidence at the inquest. Speaking outside the court, she stressed that other students were at risk because of the pressure.
Miss Tuck said: "Sarah is not the only one in that situation, there are lots and lots of others who cannot cope with the system. It is about time that Oxford came into the 21st century and thought about changing the examination system." Asked if Miss Napuk would have been saved with adequate counselling, she responded: "Most definitely. We know the counselling service is under-staffed and under-funded, but this is a very serious problem that the university needs to look at. I think with the right kind of support Sarah would have got the first everyone expected of her and she would be here now."
Earlier Miss Tuck had told the inquest that a university counsellor had advised Miss Napuk that she ought to be thinking about dropping out of Oxford. This happened two terms before her death.
PC Sean Clarke, from the Oxfordshire force, told the court that he had discovered a piece of A4 paper with a work schedule next to Miss Napuk's body. The death has opened a debate about the pressure Oxford undergraduates are put under. Her parents, Kerry and Angela Napuk, had publicly stated: "We are compelled to issue a health warning to other parents of potentially vulnerable and sensitive young people - don't sent your children to Oxford, it is not safe." They were denied permission by the coroner to send a statement to the court, and did not attend yesterday's hearing.
In 1993 the university carried out a study into suicides at the university under Keith Hawton. It concluded that the number of students killing themselves was "greater than would be expected on the basis of national rates for people in the 18-to-25 age group." Since 1990 12 students, including Miss Napuk, had killed themselves. The inquest had heard that Miss Napuk had suffered from depression in the past and had twice attempted to take her own life with overdoses. The last occasion was in March this year, three weeks before her death.
Professor Ernest Nicholson, the Chair of student health and Provost of Oriel, said: "Undoubtedly we do get these tragic combinations of undoubted academic excellence and too low self-esteem. There is no doubt that Sarah Napuk was very successful in her studies but for some reason she did suffer from feelings of inadequacy.
"We are not complacent at Oxford, the welfare of students take highest priority here. We do believe that we have got a wide counselling service, but we are always reviewing procedures to see how it can be improved.
"I note the criticism made by Mr and Mrs Napuk but we must accept that they are suffering from a huge amount of grief at the moment. What they are saying is bound to be somewhat influenced by that."
Mr Napuk, an American businessman, said: "It is very easy to write off what we have got to say by simply stating we are suffering from grief. What we want Oxford University to do is to take steps which should help prevent young people like my daughter taking their lives in the future.
"One of the first steps they can take is to bring in an outside view to see how matters can be improved. That is what we have been trying to suggest, but we have found their views, I'm afraid, rather arrogant and complacent."
Letters, page 17