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Filtering Out the ‘Weak’: University of Edinburgh’s Mandatory Interruptions Policy is a slap in the face of student welfare

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“To feel intensely is not a symptom of weakness, it is the trademark of the truly alive and compassionate. It is not the empath who is broken, it is society that has become dysfunctional” - author and inspirational speaker Anthon St. Maarten.

The University of Edinburgh has infamously inadequate student satisfaction. The 2018 National Student Survey (NSS) ranked it as joint 136th out of 154 institutions, a jarring mismatch against its consistently standout results in university league tables. Many issues contribute to this pitiful ranking, including the unchecked growth of student numbers placing a strain on resources and the sizable financial strain placed on students when living in one of the UK’s most expensive cities. Another is the inadequacy of the university’s approach to supporting students disadvantaged by physical or mental disabilities, or with mental health problems.

While the university counsellors do a great job, there are simply not enough of them and appointment numbers are seriously limited. The Edinburgh University Students’ Association provides support in the ways that it can but simply do not have the funding or resources to meet the demand. The BBC reported that between 2012/2013 and 2016/2017, the number of students using the counselling service more than doubled from 1,493 to 3,002, the largest percentage increase of any Scottish university over the same period. University leadership has come under increasing pressure to do something about it - something that tells students that their welfare matters to the university, that they are prepared to work with them to overcome obstacles that stand in their way, and that this university is one of the most desirable places to spend some of the most definitive years of their lives.

Image Credit: aloneinthewild via Wikimedia Commons

The way that they have responded tells students none of these things.

The new Mandatory Interruptions Policy (MIP), which has passed enough bureaucratic hurdles that it only needs a thumbs-up from the Curriculum and Student Progression Committee (CSPC) to be approved in full, is far from a considerate approach. An addition to the pre-existing Support for Study Policy, it adopts a mentality of ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’ - and does not give students a choice in the matter.

The current Interruption of Studies Policy very much places control in the hands of the affected student. While their application requires approval, they make the decision on whether to take time out or not. The MIP removes that power from them. Instead, the university will have the power to force an interruption from university studies in situations where - as outlined in the agenda for the CSPC’s meeting back on 24 January - current measures are “not adequately addressing the university’s concerns regarding the student’s health and/or behaviour.”

Noted in the agenda and the minutes of that meeting is the Students’ Association’s adamant objection to the move. Their Vice-President for Student Welfare, Kai O’Doherty, told The Student that the university is not recognising the full implications of what it is trying to do, and that the Students’ Association’s research into similar policies at other UK and North American universities has found it to be a deeply stigmatising piece of legislation, and one that communicates a potentially damaging message about the way the university views mental health.

An open letter addressed to the CSPC has attracted 400 signatures at the time of writing. It raises concerns that “such a policy will discourage students from disclosing mental health difficulties for fear of being subjected to what could be understood as a disciplinary measure, will remove students from their support networks, and undermines the autonomy of students to make their own informed decisions.”

While the letter acknowledges how “this policy is intended to support students with mental health issues affecting their studies and behaviour,” they argue that “extending the policy’s powers to make interruptions mandatory transforms it into a punitive, rather than supportive, policy.” It goes on to suggest that students will be discouraged from coming forward with their problems for fear of the overly hostile trump card that the university would hold in its hand. The spectre of any such policy would hang like a shadow over any admittance of personal difficulties.

You cannot help but wonder; just how mentally or physically healthy do you have to be in order to come to the University of Edinburgh and not be a drain on it? Just how able-bodied, stable-minded and machine-like do you have to be in order to feel not at risk? Who gets to judge whether you can continue studying or not, and by what measurements? There is an elitist mindset behind such a move that views students not only as numbers, but as resources. At what point is their health unproductive? It is a heartless question that, unintentionally or not, implies that you need to be so healthy in body and mind to be worthwhile to those providing your education.

The Students’ Association has highlighted that the MIP has been in the works for the past two years, which to Edinburgh students will be sadly unsurprising. The past two years have illustrated how increasingly disillusioned the university’s leadership is with the needs of those who allow it to continue existing. The University and College Union strikes in 2018 and the occupation of the Gordon Aikman Lecture Theatre both indicate a detachment from the needs of students and university staff. It is little wonder then, in this context of disenchantment, that something as woefully misguided as the MIP has come to pass.

When the Vice-Chancellor of the university, Peter Mathieson, participated in a question time session back in November, he made clear that improving the student experience (and, it can be added, the experience of staff) is a worthwhile endeavour but should not come at the expense of the university’s reputation for research - as if the two are mutually exclusive. The University of Edinburgh is more concerned with turning itself into an efficient, research-led and pioneering university geared firmly towards the future. This could - and should - be something to be proud of, but in doing so it is steamrolling over those who are already here.

The time and concern piled into such an authoritarian policy could have gone into the further improvement of student welfare services, to compliment the ongoing construction of a new student wellbeing centre on central campus. Instead, the university is granting itself a cold, abstracted power to strike students from their ranks. It undermines their verbal commitment to the wellbeing of their student body, more interested in the successes of tomorrow that the difficulties of today. Student welfare is clearly not high enough on their agenda to warrant a more considerate and empathetic approach. Instead, the university comes across like an estranged relative whose awkward and misguided attempt at affection is unwelcome and unwarranted.

One of higher education’s greatest characteristics is getting the opportunity to diversify your network of friends and find out more about yourself. You meet some people who are thriving, and others who struggle and fight on an almost daily basis. Standing up for those who are struggling and speaking out when injustice rears its ugly head does not render you a ‘snowflake’ or emotionally feeble. It illustrates attempts at the very empathy and compassion that help us to prosper as people, and it is this which breathes life into higher education. Knowledge is not just facts. It is a shared understanding of the world, warts and all, and gets you thinking about how the world can be changed for the better. Those social institutions and networks around us that prohibit this kind of learning are what drain life out of a healthy existence. They are parasites feeding off our attempts to better ourselves.

Some people find university difficult, and it is likely that you know more than a few people in this position, but that does not mean they are not welcome. Imagine living with the fear of forced exile weighing you down. It is little wonder that critics argue that the MIP would exacerbate the very situation that it is trying to remedy. These are the people that need the solidarity and alliance of those around them, rather than being cast aside to grasp at thin air.

If the University of Edinburgh cannot see this, then maybe the students are not the problem.

Lead Image Credit: aloneinthewild via Wikimedia Commons




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