Cambridge University is being formally lobbied by its students to consider the first major shake-up to term time in more than a century by adding ‘reading weeks’.
A new university working group is drawing up plans for a half-term break in the middle of the Michaelmas and Lent terms to allow undergraduates to catch up on their assignments.
Students say the break is urgently needed because they are “burnt out halfway through term time” while battling a “culture of relentless intensity”.
If the proposal is accepted by university managers, it would be the biggest overhaul of the traditional eight-week Cambridge terms for more than a century, with the current structure extending far back into its 800-year history and based around Christian festivals.
The new working group is consulting colleges and stakeholders on an option to extend the notoriously intense two-month terms to nine weeks including the reading week, plus an official Freshers’ Week added in October.
Some 83 per cent of students backed the move in a recent students’ union motion, citing a spike in mental health problems with online teaching in the pandemic.
Ben Margolis, the president of Cambridge students’ union, said: “The Cambridge undergraduate education doesn’t work for everyone. Students have long known this, and senior figures in the University have admitted this at various points over the last decade.”
He said that the evidence for this ranges from “the exacerbation of students’ loneliness” to “students not being able to engage with extracurricular activities due to worries about academic work”.
“Our data on why students tend to intermit include frequent mentions of academic work – this is not because of the rigour of the academic syllabus, but because the structure of the term leaves little room for those without capacity to work at the rate demanded by our short terms,” he added.
“‘Look after yourselves and your wellbeing’, the university often says, followed by that now notorious phrase ‘academic rigour’, indicating to students that they should in fact do nothing of the sort.”
Several Russell Group universities already have reading weeks built into their longer terms, during which campus often empties as students head home, but Oxford and Cambridge have stuck firm to three short terms, with the final term often packed with exams.
Cambridge students want campus weeks to be changed from the current Thursday through Wednesday, to Monday-Friday to “give students an actual weekend”, and say this would free up a ninth week to tackle a “‘work ‘til you drop’ culture in some subjects”.
A recent report found 75 per cent of Cambridge students surveyed feel lonely on a daily or weekly basis, above average for the sector as a whole, while 62 per cent feel that the academic burden is a barrier to forging friendships and a healthy social life.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, told The Telegraph: “It’s unhealthy, I think a full-time course should be like a full-time job – it’s reasonable to expect students should be working maybe 40 hours a week on academic work but many students at Oxbridge are working significantly more than that.”
Reading weeks “make a lot of sense” but should be used to “further academic interests” rather than “just an excuse for a jolly”, he cautioned, and extending term time could mean poorer students lose out on opportunities to find work in the holidays.
Cambridge students’ union said: “Members of the working group will consult with different stakeholders in the university to understand the practical impacts of introducing a reading week and generate a proposed plan for implementation.
“This plan would then be brought to university committees for approval sometime in the next academic year.”