Students are concerned that the University’s systems for handling interruptions of study may cause applicants anxiety and hardship.
A PhD candidate, who chose to interrupt due to poor mental health, said “Individual members of staff have been very supportive and understanding, especially my supervisors.
“But the administrative systems are broken and make everything much more stressful at an already difficult time.”
At the University of Exeter, an interruption of studies is defined as a pause of academic study for specific period. During an interruption, a student does not need to submit any work and is not asked to pay tuition fees. Choosing to interrupt, however, can have serious financial implications.
Freedom of Information requests sent by Exeposé found that 817 Exeter students chose to interrupt their studies during the 2016 to 2017 academic year.
The total number of students interrupting their studies rose from 817 in 2016 to 885 in 2019
However, the amount of interruptions rose to 876 from 2017 to 2018, and between 2018 and 2019, 885 students interrupted their studies.
Undergraduate interruptions decreased from 53 per cent of all interruptions to 50 per cent over three years. One undergraduate student told Exeposé “I interrupted my year officially last year because I ended up not doing any of my exams due to mental health reasons.”
This uni is really messed up
“At first, when I was applying for my interruption, I felt very supported, and the person who helped with my interruption application was excellent.
“I was supposed to be having check up meetings every few weeks this year, but after the first month, I missed one and it wasn’t chased up so those stopped happening.”
The undergraduate did not receive any follow up emails.
“The principle of people being abandoned ultimately isn’t ideal’’, they added.
Postgraduate Researcher (PGR) interruptions remained at 2 per cent over the three year period. Postgraduate Taught (PGT) interruptions, meanwhile, rose considerably over the three years; from 2016 to 2017, PGTs made up 20 per cent of all interruptions. By 2019, PGTs accounted for 26 per cent.
However, PhD interruptions dropped, from 26 per cent in 2016 to 22 per cent in 2019. Nevertheless, a PhD candidate reported that their interruption was marred by “pointless” administrative systems.
The PhD student continued “There were huge delays in getting the interruption approved – I originally applied for eight weeks and then extended to a full 12 weeks but the extension wasn’t “officially” approved until a month after I was back.
“My PhD is also funded by an external research council and we continue to receive funding when on medical interruption for a maximum of 12 weeks a year.
“The reasons for my interruption were recorded incorrectly and I didn’t get paid on time which meant I was late paying bills, and the communication I received from the uni about it was really poor, which as you can imagine didn’t help my mental health.
“Because of the delay in approving my interruption in the first place, as well as getting paid, I literally couldn’t afford to pay for the letter and the uni wouldn’t recognise me as back even though I’d been back having supervisions for a month.
“I appreciate that the uni probably does it to cover their backs but the financial burden is a lot, plus they’re not really necessary. My GP didn’t want to write one and charge me for it because it was pointless admin burden for him and me.”
However, the student experience of the University’s interruption system was not universally negative.
Sóley, a former Physics Third Year undergraduate, decided to interrupt in October 2019.
She said “I interrupted my studies because of my mental health issues, I was no longer managing to make it to lectures and was hospitalised for a panic attack, so doing my course just felt impossible.
“It was a fairly simple process which meant it didn’t take a huge amount of effort on my part, which is great when I have very low energy with my mental illnesses.”
A University spokesperson said: “Students can interrupt their study for a range of reasons including health, family or financial and the University will offer support so that wherever possible they can return at a later date.
We are sorry to hear about these individual cases and will always listen to student views so that we can improve our administrative systemsUniversity spokesperson
“This is different to granting deferrals or coursework and examination extensions where the university may require additional evidence but each case is different and our aim is to make the process as simple as possible.
“We are sorry to hear about these individual cases and will always listen to student views so that we can improve our administrative systems and look to identify trends such as the increase in postgraduate interruptions to tailor our support accordingly.”
Katie Heard, VP Welfare & Diversity, outlined the Students’ Guild’s provision for members who are considering an interruption.
Heard said: “Whilst the number of students who are considering or have chosen to interrupt their studies that have accessed the Students’ Guild Advice Service is confidential, I can confirm that there has been significant support provided for these students.
“In terms of the support and advice that has, and is, offered to these students, there is support around assessing available options, understanding financial implications, accommodation related issues and academic related issues.
“The Advice Service makes referrals to the University’s Wellbeing services, or if a student can no longer access the service, then students are signposted to services in the community. Additionally, if a student believes their best option is to attend a different university, impartial guidance can be offered as well.”
Editor: Aaron Loose & Harry Caton