Artwork by Emily Perkins
For most of Michaelmas 2019 the first thing I would think about when I woke up was whether to drop out of Oxford.
From the very start of my degree, my time at Oxford has been far from plain-sailing. I developed M.E. in my first term of university and decided to suspend my studies during the more acute stage of my illness. When I returned I was determined that my experience of Oxford would still be as exciting and rewarding as I imagined it being before my illness. After passing first year Law Moderations I was elated: it was confirmation that I was capable of studying at Oxford with a disability. Nonetheless, as the Michaelmas term of second year rolled round, it became increasingly evident that my current lifestyle was unsustainable.
“I’m really sorry but could I have another essay extension?” quickly became the most common email I would send (so much so that it is still remembered by predictive text on my phone). My term followed a cyclical pattern of frantically writing an essay, spending the next three days recovering, and then having to make up for the lost time spent sleeping with another chaotic essay writing session. I had also lost any semblance of a social life, as I was often too exhausted when I had finished an essay to do anything but sleep.
Perhaps worse than losing my social life was the reality that I was losing my health again. M.E causes me to experience extreme fatigue, particularly after any form of exertion. In particular, exerting yourself above your limits (whether physically or cognitively) often results in a ‘flare up’ or ‘M.E crash’ – which can sometimes last for long periods of time or even be permanent. I was beginning to find it difficult just to do basic tasks like my laundry, as became evident from the growing pile of clothes which lined my floor. I started making bizarre decisions about what I could achieve each day based on the energy I had. Would I wash my clothes or write an essay? Would I take a shower or read the tort law cases? I simply didn’t have the energy to do all the tasks I needed to keep myself well. The quick pace of an Oxford term was slowly breaking me.
The breaking point came when none of the other adjustments in place for me were working. The issue with essay extensions is that it provides temporary relief, but gives you twice as much work to do the next week (which would then often put me into another flare up). For those with chronic illnesses, an essay extension is often a band-aid solution, which will soon create its own problems as the essays begin to pile up on top of one another.
As the stopgap measures began to fail, I racked my brains for a solution. I vaguely remembered hearing about a student studying part-time in an online forum for disabled students at Oxford. If I hadn’t known part-time was a possibility, I probably would have dropped out. However, when I researched online there was virtually no information about whether part-time study was possible for undergraduate students.
I met with a member of staff at my college, who put forward the idea of suspending again as something to consider. I however, didn’t see the point of suspension; it was unlikely I would further recover if I took another year out. Thus, I would be in exactly the same position when I returned – just a year older. Instead, I highlighted how if I reduced my workload so I studied eight tutorials a term (instead of twelve) this would be a more manageable pace for me. It would mean that if I had a week where I spent three or four days in bed, I wouldn’t have to work ridiculous hours the rest of the week to make up for it.
With the support of the Law Department, who confirmed it would be possible from a faculty perspective for me to study the course at a slower pace, I extended my degree by a year and started studying part-time. The decision to study part-time has been the best thing I have chosen to do whilst at Oxford, and I doubt I would still be at the University without it.
I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that part-time saved both my degree, and my mental and physical health. Nonetheless, I am aware that I am incredibly lucky to have the opportunity for flexible learning which so many other students don’t have access to. In fact, most students I meet are surprised to hear I study part-time as they didn’t even realise it was possible. There is no widely advertised information on options for part-time study at undergraduate level on the Oxford University website. In comparison, at Cambridge University, the Disabled Students Campaign have created a guide about applying for ‘double time’ and extending your studies. I also discovered that the Oxford Brookes website outlines how most of their courses can be studied on a part-time basis and explains that ‘Part time study offers you the flexibility to adapt your pace of study to your personal circumstances’. In contrast, if you were trying to find out if part-time was possible at Oxford University, it wouldn’t be surprising if you came to the conclusion that part-time study was simply impossible for undergraduate students.
The issue around part-time study is not an exclusively Oxford problem. As the Higher Education Policy Institute has highlighted, part-time learning across England has plummeted and there are also financial barriers which prevent people from studying part time. Nonetheless, the rigid eight week term structure at Oxford means that the option for part-time study is a particularly pressing issue, given the intensity of most undergraduate degrees here. In an article for The Cherwell, Lottie Sellers argued that “eight week terms are unnecessary” and contribute to the student mental health crisis. I agree that the whole Oxford term structure is in need of radical overhaul, and it is crucial that expanding the options for part-time and flexible study is part of this.
Enabling more flexible options for study would most obviously benefit disabled students. Tiri Hughes, the Chair of Oxford SU Disabilities Campaign told me “from my experience as chair of the Oxford SU Disabilities Campaign, I strongly feel that the single biggest change that would positively benefit disabled students at Oxford would be increased access to and information about part-time study and short term suspension.” But disabled students are not the only group which would benefit. It is virtually unheard of to do an undergraduate degree at Oxford whilst having childcare responsibilities, but part-time study options could create more opportunities at Oxford for parents.
I have previously argued that what Oxford needs to focus more on is ‘access beyond admissions’. Increasing the diversity of the students accepted into the University is a vital part of the university’s access work, but is in itself not sufficient. The barriers disabled students face do not end once they receive an offer from the University. The rigid and intense workload at Oxford is only one issue encountered by disabled students: lack of physical access to key buildings and inaccessible online material are also problems which disabled students are expected to cope with.
The issues disabled students face is reflected in results; the Oxford Equality Report 2019-20 highlights that despite the benefits to some disabled students of online assessments, there continues to be an attainment gap between disabled and non-disabled students. The University says it aims to eliminate this gap by 2025. If Oxford is truly committed to this objective, then it must stop expecting disabled students to conform to a rigid timetable that was not designed with disabled students in mind. Instead, Oxford needs to expand options for part-time study. In particular, more transparency is needed around in what circumstances a student might be permitted to transfer to part-time study, and more readily accessible information is needed for students considering whether part-time might be a solution for them.
These decisions around reform need to be made at a university-wide level, so that your access to equitable education as a disabled student does not depend on which college you attend. The Oxford Student reported significant disparities between how different colleges handle suspension and noted how this system is ‘grossly unfair’. The procedure and conditions on which a student can study part-time should be standardised across the university to avoid the same disparities occurring with regards to part-time study.
Moving forward, Oxford must stop conflating academic rigour with exclusionary term structures. Disabled students deserve to be at Oxford, and should be judged on their intellect rather than their productive output over an eight week term. Because of the flexibility of my degree structure, I now feel supported at Oxford and able to enjoy both the academic and social experience of University. Part-time study has given me the space to enjoy my degree without jeopardizing my health. Other students might not get the same opportunities as me. Once again, Oxford needs to be reminded that your rights and the support you receive as a disabled student should not depend on your department, college, tutors, or your ability to advocate and fight for yourself. We need institutional change, and expanding the options for part-time and flexible study must be a key part of any agenda for reform.