From the beginning of this year, I’ve been working to make positive changes in the handling of intermission by the University. This project was inspired in part by the amazing campaign on suspending (their word for intermission) at Oxford University. My counterpart as SU President at Oxford is the wonderful Kate Cole, who got interested in student politics through her work on suspension. She herself had suspended and felt that there was nowhere near enough support available. She founded SusCam, a campaign that works on many elements of suspension. They were a big part of the campaign to get Oxford to change the name of the process from “degrading” to “suspension,” and they also run socials and provide support to suspending students.
What I wanted, when entering office, was to start something like this for Cambridge students. I was very aware when talking about this is the reality that I myself don’t have experience of intermitting, so everything we have done has tried to bear that in mind. This has been a collaborative project in CUSU between myself, Micha (CUSU-GU Welfare and Rights Officer), and Florence (CUSU Disabled Students’ Officer).
We have focussed on intermission as it seems like an area where we had a chance to make a difference to students who are going through a process that can be really difficult. Intermission is often a very sensitive time, impacting students at their most vulnerable. This does not mean that it’s necessarily “a bad thing” – in our survey (which I’ll get on to), 73% of students reported that their time away from Cambridge was “helpful,” with 15% elaborating that it gave them time and space to recover and care for themselves. Furthermore, what is already a tricky topic is also not always handled as best as it could be in Cambridge – this was the element of intermission where we really wanted to make a difference.
The first thing we did was set up “Intermitting Students’ Socials” – aimed as being supportive groups where people who had intermitted could come together and talk about their experiences, or just have a nice cuppa and some biscuits. We held two each term throughout the year, and they have honestly been one of the best parts of the year.
There were a few key issues students had spoken to us about concerning intermission that we wanted to make a change on, and we aimed to open a dialogue with Senior Tutors. Broadly speaking, we were particularly interested in attitudes to intermission and the support students get while intermitting or returning to college. As part of this, we needed to collect as many experiences of intermitting students as possible, so in Lent Term we launched a survey aimed at students who had intermitted or thought about intermitting. With 112 responses, it contained a wealth of data, especially as most of it was in the form of open answer responses (I *potentially* overused open-answer responses, I even used open-answer for colleges which meant I had to categorise each one individually).
We used these answers to create a report – available here – that we discussed with Senior Tutors at the first ever Intermission Forum. We wanted to hold a forum because, as I have previously said, the format of committees can sometimes limit discussion. In a forum, we could have an open discussion and dialogue, spread best practice, and dig into the difficult issues at play. I was delighted with how the forum went, around 20-30 Senior Tutors attended, and all of them really engaged and expressed that they found the meeting helpful.
(With Senior Tutors at Intermission Forum)
One thing we discussed is the fact that some students (15% of our respondants) feel isolated and cut-off from Cambridge during their time away. The feedback that we had received was that it is incredibly important to discuss the level of contact students involved want (not everyone is the same), and that contact from college can be incredibly meaningful for students and help them to know that they still belong. It is also crucial that colleges follow the new guidance that confirms that intermitting students are able to come into Cambridge. In CUSU, we also think that students should be allowed to come back into their colleges (which you are in many but not all cases). We also talked about the fact that students returning from intermission should by default have a package of support (both academic and welfare related) in place; they may not need it, but if its the default, students who do need support will definitely get it. Intermission can be very beneficial, but can’t be expected to “cure” students.
Our survey showed that experiences of intermission are often varied – different staff members can handle topics such as mental health difficulties very differently, and this can be distressing for students. We discussed the fact that Senior Tutors need to play an active leadership role in ensuring their staff understand intermission and are well trained in mental health awareness. Students in our survey expressed that staff being supportive and open was important to them. Students were also clear that reliability and being able to provide information is key; at present, the intermission process can be complicated, and it’s important that staff can guide students through it. Some staff members seem to be amazing at this and deserve recognition, but hopefully the forum will go some way towartds spreading this across the board.
We will be presenting a final report with recommendations to the Senior Tutors’ Committee, so hopefully, that will be part of continuing the discussion around intermission and how it can be handled.
One final issue with intermission that we are trying to make a change on is the question of finances. As Varsity wrote about so powerfully, intermitting students can currently be in a worrying financial position – falling through the cracks of government financial support. We’ve started a gov.uk petition calling on the Government to address this, so please sign sign sign!
One brilliant thing is that Cambridge now has a fund for intermitting students – the new extraordinary hardship fund (created from the docked wages of workers who striked last term), which is administered through colleges. Please raise awareness about this to friends of yours who might be intermitting as it really could be a lifeline!
++ Update as of 11.30am, we have one more intermission social coming up! This Friday from 3.30 to 4.30 – excited to see you!!! Here is the facebook event.
Next week will be my last blog before I hand over to Evie!