Reflections on Oxford’s Suspension Policy

A photograph of one of the bridges in University Parks in Oxford, with its reflection visible in the water.

This year had many changes, but perhaps the most pervasive was the way that so many people were locked-down and left with a limited social life and opportunities to act. Alongside this was the so-called “Second Epidemic” of mental health issues. Whilst the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic was a central issue often linked to the dangers was a sense of isolation, entrapment and boredom that came from being locked-down, or the worse dangers that being locked-down in an unhealthy or abusive situation could bring. This isn’t a condemnation of lock-down or an argument against Covid precautions (and it’s shameful I have to make that clear). It is just an observation that many people discovered that being trapped at home with nowhere to go was not just boring, but deeply toxic to mental health.

This, of course, is not a new phenomenon. In my first term of my first year studying English at Oxford University, one short story was constantly brought up in lectures even though the rest of the author’s work, a great amount extremely racist, was politely ignored: ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. First published in 1892 in The New England Magazine, the story tells of an unnamed woman prescribed by her doctor husband a long period of ‘rest’, where she is kept in an upstairs room and forbidden to do any work, including writing. Gilman drew upon her own experience of being prescribed this treatment to deal with “Female Hysteria” after she gave birth to her first child. Gilman felt her health worsen as she was trapped in the room and whilst she was able to convince her husband to let her stop, her character is given a different fate. Seeing the room and its ugly wallpaper as increasingly repulsive, and hiding a woman trapped in the walls, the narrator loses touch with reality, and in the disturbing but slyly empowering final scene tears the wallpaper off the walls and ignores her husband who faints upon seeing her.

Gilman’s story was a challenge against the idea that the cure for mental illness was isolation and ‘rest’, showing how these actions allowed authorities to ignore the real issues connected to the mental illness and instead blame it on the person’s constitution. In 2020, a great many people learnt that even when there is an extremely good reason why you should isolate, isolation is still a mentally taxing activity which can worsen mental health.

So why is ‘Suspension’, the supposedly ‘voluntary’ absence of leave from studies to return home away from everyone, still Oxford University’s go to suggested cure for all mental health issues?

When I suspended, I was told to “Go on holiday with your friends”. Amazingly, as a person in somewhere between their second and fifth year of Depression, I didn’t have many friends to call upon. Most of them were at university anyway, and had different priorities. The letter officially suspending me and giving a paltry well-wish also formally barred me from stepping foot in my college. That is, to my understanding, a common clause. I was told to seek support, counselling and health, whilst moving from a university with a dedicated mental health team to a rural doctors’ practice that had waiting lists of over six months for telephone CBT appointments. This was only expedited by long arguing from my supportive mother and a suicide attempt. 

Suspension was, in short, a period of isolation. A period of isolation that the colleges and the university must understand as such considering it is essentially merely a modified form of the punishment of Rustication. You might be told “You have suspended” and not “You have been rusticated”, and be told off every time you call it a Rustication, but functionally that is pretty much the only difference.

Is it any wonder then that my mental health worsened at home, and that what was a one-year suspension became a two-year? Is it any wonder that no-one I have spoken to who either was suspended or rusticated had positive things to say about the experience. A great many English professors that praise the depiction of the ways mental health was a tool used unwittingly to silence women in Gilman’s century-and-a-third-old tory seem to wilfully ignore that the same attitude is taken at their place of work. 

I don’t have a major solution, but I do have suggestions. Even if someone is not well enough to complete their degree, a system which places the responsibility for both recovery and action entirely on the ill person is wrong. The university should look at creating a dedicated Suspension Support Unit, so that the best advice given is “Go on holiday”. The fact that was said by one of the only two members of staff who provided any support before and during my suspension (for which I am grateful) shows how little there is for people to offer at the moment. The person who said this was trying her hardest, but ultimately she had no concrete support she could offer. Ill students should not be expected to seek help entirely by themselves, nor should they be treated interchangeably with punished students (which I say without condoning Rustication policy itself). 

Suspension comes from a 19th Century understanding of mental health, and it is ridiculous that a university which prides itself on its up-to-date and cutting-edge research into all parts of the humanities and sciences has not moved past it.

By Cameron Marnoch