Students pay price for high expectations: Three tragic deaths among students at Oxford have highlighted fears about excessive pressures on young undergraduates. Diana Hinds reports

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The Independent Online
AN OXFORD University report into student suicides is expected to show that there are no more at Oxford than among students or young people generally.

The report, by academics, students and college doctors on the Oxford Student Health Committee, is due to be published in the next few weeks and comes hard on the heels of a spate of student deaths at the university.

Tracey Cole, 18, a first-year English student, hanged herself in her room at Lady Margaret Hall before the start of the autumn term. Last month Henry Skelton, a 21-year-old fine arts student at New College, fell to his death from a window after taking LSD; an inquest recorded an open verdict.

Last week Pamela Wray, 21, a modern languages student in her final year at St Hilda's College, was found hanged at her home; an inquest into her death was opened and adjourned yesterday. Her father, John Wray, said later that she was due return to St Hilda's from the family home at Halliday Hill, Oxford, on Monday. 'Pamela was working towards her final exams but to my mind she didn't find any great difficulty with her work . . . We had a happy family Christmas together.'

Between 1976 and 1990 21 Oxford students committed suicide, according to the report, which draws comparisons with national statistics for young people and with evidence from other universities, including Cambridge. The 1991 national suicide figure for 15- to 24-year-olds, from the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, is 396 males and 77 females.

Figures for student suicides are not recorded nationally, but Nigel Huddleston, a vice-president of the Oxford Union of Students, who has worked on the report, said he believed the average figure for universities was about two to three per year.

Geoffrey Skelsey, assistant to the vice-chancellor at Cambridge University, said he thought two or three Cambridge students committed suicide each year. The recent Oxford deaths have prompted concern over whether students at Oxford and Cambridge are under more intense academic and social pressures than students at other universities.

Georgina Ferry, Oxford University press officer, said: 'I think we wouldn't be ashamed to say that these are very much the brightest students, who have always had very high expectations of themselves; the pressures they are under are therefore particularly high.'

Dr Elizabeth Frazer, Dean of New College, which is setting up a working party to look at student drug abuse, said: 'Most of the students who come here have been top of their schools. When they arrive they are no longer top but matched by their peer group, and this can be a problem for some of them.' About 55 per cent of Oxford students come from public schools, and Dr Frazer said those from other backgrounds could experience difficulties in adjusting: 'The Oxford colleges are much more like the major public schools than your average comprehensive school.'

Henry Skelton had attended a public school. Dr Frazer said she believed his problems were 'a mixture of very complicated things. Henry was an exceptionally talented student, and most very clever students are insecure about their work. The cleverer you are, the more insecure you are likely to be.'

Louise Clarke, of the National Union of Students, denied that the experiences of Oxbridge students differed substantially and did not believe they were any more likely to commit suicide. 'It's a media myth that if you go to Oxford or Cambridge you will strive more towards academic excellence,' she said. Mike Brown, at Glasgow University, said there had been one student suicide there in the last two years. 'I get the impression that for people for whom going to Oxford or Cambridge is unusual, there is a greater expectation on them,' he said.

Emma Westcott, women's officer at the Oxford Union of Students, described the atmosphere at the university as 'very combative and very competitive. The public school environment is better at preparing people for the sort of education that Oxford offers . . .

'One of the problems is that people are expected to be academic, but to be blase about it: it's not fashionable to show you care about your work.'

(Photographs omitted)