Introduction: A Problem With The Rustication System?
Oxford and Cambridge boast of the lowest university dropout rates in the UK: 1.2% and the 1% respectively. This might seem surprising, particularly given the academic pressures of these venerable institutions. But the story is rather more complex, because 69% more undergraduates and postgraduates are rusticating — either self or imposed — since 2011. Now the latter statistic (on rustication) does not necessarily directly detract from the importance of the low dropout rates: it is, ultimately, surely a good thing that we have a system whereby students do not fail their degrees? Nevertheless, what we must avoid is assuming that the low dropout rates mean that there is nothing wrong, and rising rustication rates are certainly worthy of our attention.
The three of us thereby wanted to take a look at the potential reasons why this is the case, and speculate on the impact such a trend might have. It is worth mentioning early on that, although in we do at points criticise some aspects of the rustication system, the aim of this piece is a positive one: to self-reflect on a bespoke mechanism which Oxford offers (and Cambridge too, although their term is ‘intermission’), a mechanism which we believe is often a good one and for which many students are thankful. This piece may only appear to be critical simply because the very nature of introspection involves more concentration on what might be improved rather than lauding that which we have. We also must point out that many of our points — whether derived from data or interviews — often only amount to speculation. This is, therefore, by no means a definitive account of the pros and cons of rustication. Rather we hope that questions are posed that readers can make their own conclusions about.
As will be explored, we must consider that in some (though by no means all) cases rustication does not act as a long-term cure for students struggling academically or with mental health but rather as a temporary bandage which covers up more fundamental and systemic issues. If a significant number of students are rusticating per year for either mental health and academic reasons, this might point to a fundamental structural failure of the academic and welfare systems. In our view, rustication should act as a safety net — a last resort — and not a substitute for more intrinsic support systems.
Officially, there is a distinction between ‘rustication’ — which involves a degree of coercion — and ‘suspension’, which translates colloquially into what people usually call ‘self-rustication’. Throughout this piece, we will use the terms ‘rustication’ and ‘self rustication’, since the latter is more self-explanatory than ‘suspension’. Rustication, whether self-proposed or forced, results in a student taking a whole year out from study, often unable to physically visit campus for that year. Rustication occurs for a plethora of reasons (as we shall see) including academic, mental health, physical health, punitive, financial and personal reasons.
It is worth briefly positing a few thoughts which will be explored:
- Welfare: The first is that, in some instances, colleges may be failing to provide sufficient welfare support, and thereby too often rely on rustication as a quick-fix solution for students struggling academically. It is extremely difficult to measure welfare support systems empirically, but we nevertheless must consider this as one of the possible reasons for the rise in rustication numbers in the last decade.
- Normalisation & Grade Inflation: there is the academic question of whether rustication has become a means of making up for suboptimal academic performance. With increasing numbers of lectures becoming permanently online, and at times what feels like the university’s proclivity to online tutorials, such academic structures might be lapsing rather than improving — though of course for a large part this is the consequence of COVID-19. If colleges and students depend on a significant number of their intake to rusticate every year in order to achieve a 2.1 or higher, then the end result is ultimately an artificial one, which is not reflective of either the university’s — or in some cases the student’s — success.
- Inflexibility: another issue is that, due to the highly bureaucratised rustication system, there is little flexibility with rustication when dealing with individual, bespoke cases which might require a nuanced responses.
- College Variation: finally, due to the collegiate structure of Oxford university, there is a huge spectrum of policies on rustication across different colleges which means that some individuals’ experiences of rustication is vastly different from others.
Again, it is important to note that whilst there are certainly flaws, the rustication system does undoubtably have great benefits to those who need it. However, in order to realise these benefits, it is imperative that we are self-reflective about the issues which have emerged.
Rising Rustication Rates
Before taking a look at what structural problems the rustication system might have, it is important to first highlight why this is an increasingly noteworthy issue.
It is quite clear that since 2008, rustication rates at Oxford have been increasing amongst undergraduates, and it appears that the majority of this increase manifests in self-rustication rather than forced rustication. From the statistics we have obtained, it is impossible to offer empirical and definitive answers to why this is the case. However, the data does allow us to speculate as to the trends, the possible reasons for them, and their potential impact.
An Increase in Rustication & Self-Rustication
In 2008/9, the total rustication rate — both voluntary, imposed and ‘unspecified’ — amounted to 298. This figure has increased almost consistently each year, with the 2020/21 number reaching 575. Seemingly, the number of self-proclaimed ‘imposed’ rustications has dropped significantly, from 49 in 2008 to 10 in 2020/21. However, in 2020/21 the vast majority of rustications come under the label of ‘unspecified’, and of the total recorded rustications since 2008 nearly 80% have fitted this category. In reality, therefore, what is more likely is that the nature of rustications has become more ambiguous: with a combination of both individual students wishing to take leave, but also being advised to do so either by college or faculty; although this is, of course, only speculation.
What is more blatant, though, is that the number of voluntary rustications has soared — from 9 in the 2008/9 year to 111 int he 2020/21 year, with a spike up to 130 in 2019 (perhaps due to Covid’s strain on mental health and academic support).
Rustications Based on Year-group
Particularly revealing is the spread of undergraduate students rusticating based on the year of study which they are in (see graph to the left). Tellingly, the undergraduate years 3 and 4 constitute by far the largest number of rustications, presumably a consequence of the pressures of finals causing both academic and mental health-based rustications.
Reasons For Rustication
We discovered that rustications occur predominantly for medical reasons, which includes both mental and physical health (see graphs). This, therefore, implies that there is a rise in mental health as a core cause of rustication. The reasons for this, unfortunately, we can only take rational guesses. But presumably a combination of failure of welfare support in some instances, the COVID-19 pandemic , and potentially not enough academic infrastructure — the latter being significant because mental health issues are often inextricably connected to academic stress.
Due to various redactions in the data which we received via Freedom of Information Request (FOI), it is impossible to offer a comprehensive and singular graph showing the reasons for rustication since 2008. However, with some colleges redacting less information than others, it is possible to offer a general sense using a handful of colleges’ individual data.
As we can see, medical and personal reasons constitute by far the largest causes of rustication. And as mentioned earlier, ‘medical’ includes data on mental as well as physical health. Unfortunately, the FOI which we received did not explicitly state ‘academic’ as a cause for rustication despite our request. We can, therefore, only speculate as to whether academic falls into the ‘personal’ category.
A Holistic Look At The Rustication System: What Might Be Wrong With It?
The rustication system constitutes one of the more tenebrous aspects of the institution, lurking behind the innocuous quaintness of the Radcliffe Camera. The system at times seems both highly opaque and college-dependent: too centralised and bureaucratised so as to make it inflexible, whilst simultaneously being too college-dependent to have any chance of being a fair, uniform system.
The One-Year Policy
One of the distinguishable aspects of the rustication process — whether self ‘suspension’ or forced rustication — is that it demands students to take a full year out of studying. This means that any given student will essentially return to their academic studies precisely a year later to when they originally rusticated — even if that is a rather aleatory moment during term time. Such a system raises rudimentary vexations concerning the social and academic reintegration of rusticated students.
Of the students who we interviewed, one is a second year undergraduate who rusticated for serious medical reasons in Trinity term 2020. Having overcome her condition, though, they asked to return for the beginning of Michaelmas 2020. The (anonymous) student explained their reasoning, pointing out that they had felt that returning to college at the beginning of the academic year would allow them to integrate within the new cohort, as well as re-establish themselves within the academic environment in which they could prepare effectively to resume her course. However, their college refused to comply, adhering strictly to the one-year rule, meaning that they were unable to return until the beginning of Trinity term 2021. This resulted in the student being out of sync not only with their original year-group but also with the new cohort of freshers. What seems particularly frustrating in this instance is that the student had not rusticated for academic reasons at all, but rather medical ones. Compounding this, the college failed to include them in fresher’s events and did not make any attempt to reintegrate them in Trinity term. Especially for students who have been compelled to rusticate for medical reasons, an inability to try to socially re-establish them into college seems feckless.
One of the other students we interviewed, who rusticated for personal reasons in 2020/21 Hilary term, also highlights the issues stemming from the one-year policy, commenting that, “I think having to take the full year out is off-putting because it increases the fear that your cohort is leaving you behind”. This echoes the fact that colleges often have no mechanisms for reintegrating those who return. They remark further that “returning at a different time to the year your rejoining definitely ‘others’ you…so for an individual who is in any way socially anxious this could be a real concern”. However, the student caveats this critique, later adding: ‘I think the timeframe of a year is probably helpful in the long run. It gives you enough time to work on whatever you need without intense time pressure, and if you are dropping out a place like Oxford the ability to work on yourself without deadlines is a real privilege’.
It seems, therefore, that no objective conclusion about the pros and cons of the one-year rustication system can be reached. Whether it falls into the former or latter category is entirely subjective. What we might conclude though, is that the rustication system should be inherently more flexible: a system which does not allow a student to return to campus who has recovered from an illness until a full 12 month cycle is complete might be in need of review.
Inflexibility: Examinations and Visiting Campuses
This inflexibility goes further, however. Students who have rusticated often have scarce access to facilities. Rusticated students from Worcester, Wolfson, St. Anne’s and St. Edmund Hall are some of the few whose colleges offer access to the college library and welfare facilities, thought they are certainly in the minority. In 2012, Magdalen college was criticised for forbidding students who had rusticated from attending their college ball. Similarly at Trinity, a student who has been suspended from studies and who wishes to visit the residence must seek permission from the Senior Tutor “at least a week in advance”.
Furthermore, exams are often mandatory before rusticated students return, in order to assess whether they are fit to restart their studies.
However, such a policy does not always seem well thought through. One Trinity student, for example, who had rusticated for medical reasons was compelled to do an exam before returning, which seems particularly questionable since the person did not rusticate for academic reasons.
Part of the problem is that so much of a rusticated student’s experience depends on luck-of-the-draw with their college, and even their faculty department. One college’s suspension conditions state that “some departments may permit electronic access to lecture notes and WebLearn space” but that “this is at the discretion of the Department”.
Another aspect of rustication which is invariable and highly college-dependent is the extent to which — during the rustication year — students are able to stay in contact with their academic faculty members of the college. The problem is not that there is no contact at all, but rather that any given student’s experience of such contact will entirely depend on their specific college’s faculty members. One student, for example, actually remarked that her faculty we very helpful; allowing her to submit essays and even turn up for some tutorials whilst rusticated.
However, such an experience might be entirely different for a student studying a separate subject or who attends a different college. This points to the fact that, a possible problem with Oxford’s rustication system is that it is in some cases far too centralised — not allowing it the flexibility of dealing with individual cases — but simultaneously in other ways not uniform enough: meaning that a given student’s experience of rustication depends on contingent factors out of their control (i.e. their subject and college).
Given that mental health is an increasing cause of self-rustication, we must reflect on whether we think the welfare support systems at Oxford offer enough — especially given the considerable extra pressure that COVID-19 has already put on those support structures.
Again, as with previous issues we have seen, students are very much at the whims of their individual college’s welfare support systems.
In some cases, undoubtably, such systems are highly effective. A spokesman for Trinity College stated the following in relation to welfare support at the college: Student wellbeing is a priority for the college – from crisis intervention to creating an environment in college that makes students feel safe, welcomed and supported. We have a team of professionals in place who work closely with our student welfare reps and individual students to address the many different stresses and difficulties that Oxford students often face, and work closely with other organisations like the University’s Counselling Service to bring in extra or targeted resources where needed.
However, it is not necessarily the case that such systems are in place within all Oxford colleges. In fact, Trinity appears to come towards the lower end of rustication numbers since 2008 — potentially a symptom of its efficient and effective welfare structures.
The picture that appears is therefore one of rigidity and perhaps even a level of indifference in some cases for those who feel obliged to rusticate. This is most likely not the case when it comes to the individual faculty members who are involved in rustication on a college level, who are highly sympathetic. However, any degree of human sympathy on a micro-level appears often to be drowned out by what is a highly bureaucratised system. Of course, bureaucracy is needed for such systems. But we must consider whether it brings with it some pitfalls: a level of inflexibility as well as a depersonalisation of what are often highly specific and sometimes emotional cases of rustication.
Grade Inflation: Are We Normalising Rustication?
On a separate note, there is possibly a more general problem at the heart of the very nature of Oxford’s rustication system. And that is, in some cases (though certainly not in all), its normalisation — both from the perspective of students and colleges as well as academic faculty. What this could mean it that rustication has in some instances become a short-term panacea for suboptimal academic performance.
With fewer and fewer students receiving 2.2s (both in Oxford and nationally), and with top graduate jobs almost unanimously demanding at least a 2.1, the pressure to obtain this has undoubtably spiked in the last decade or so. For students, there is therefore a widespread feeling that to obtain a 2.2 is essentially to ‘fail’ one’s degree, and perhaps even a sense that to do so would mean losing any advantage that attending such a prestigious institution as Oxford might entail. Thus taking a year out stands to the vast majority as the more appealing and rational option.
From colleges’ point of view, who each year find themselves competing with each other in the rankings, there is an equal incentive to advise those students stranded in the 2.2 zone to rusticate.
A Toxic Cycle?
What may have emerged, therefore, is a toxic cycle, or positive feedback loop if you like. The decreasing number of people getting 2.2s has created enough stigma so that obtaining this degree is outweighed by the consequences of rusticating for a year. In turn, an ‘artificial’ 2.1 is obtained — in the sense that it has taken more than the time supposedly necessary to complete the degree in order to obtain this result — which in turn inflates grades. And so the cycle continues.
There is, therefore, another side of rustication and its possible flaws which is not merely the problems about how it works, but rather how it has become perceived by a certain proportion of the institution’s members: students, colleges and faculty alike.
Despite various criticisms which have been either expressed or alluded to, it is crucial to recognise that Oxford’s rustication system is, on the whole, a force for good: allowing those suffering from mental or physical health to recuperate without having severe repercussions for their degree.
Having said this, there are undoubtably aspects of the system which might be in need of review. Holistically, the system seems far too opaque. It is both too inflexible and rigid some cases (the one-year policy returning date, examinations in order to return, restrictions from returning to campus, and limited attempts at reintegration). On the other hand, the system is also too fragmented in other respects, and highly college-dependent: help from faculty is variable, the strictness of examinations and returning are entirely college-based decisions, and the extent of welfare support is — of course — reliant on one’s college. What this means is that any given individual’s experience of rustication is different from another’s.
The latter point, on welfare, is another difficult problem — one which has certainly been exacerbated in recent years by the pandemic. It seems that mental health constitutes an increasing cause of rustications. Hence we must avoid viewing rustication as a quick-fix solution which merely disguises a lack of underlying structural welfare systems, or at least welfare systems which are currently under too much strain.
Finally, there is perhaps the more fundamental question of whether rustication has become too normalised by colleges, faculty and students in order to maintain grade standards. This might be one of the factors contributing to grade inflation, which in turn places more accumulative pressure on gaining a very good degree, which in turn motivates more people to rusticate.
As a community, it is important that Oxford University does not see rustication as a backstop, quick-fix solution for problems that really should be dealt with structurally. Rustication is a unique system within UK universities, and one which many are grateful for, but it also comes with it unique challenges.