Being ill is an unpleasant experience for anyone, but at university there are additional complications. The difficulties faced in recovering are compounded by the need to catch up on any work that is being missed during the recovery period, which may have to be spent in another city. I aim to discuss the difficulties of absence at British universities in addition to some of the help that is offered to students unfortunate enough to become seriously ill.

What do you do when you’re sick at university?

By 2011, the number of undergraduates staying at home during university had risen to 19% (article links below).  The UNITE long report on student experience from 2014 suggests that 73% of first years live in halls and 10% in private accommodation away from home. For students who need to take a leave of absence to recover from serious illness, this can be difficult as they may need to recover at home in another city. In these instances, it is impossible to collect work or even think about going in for an afternoon lecture, therefore, a sense of separation can develop. However, if they stay at university, depending on their illness, they may struggle to look after themselves. Ultimately, students who need to leave university for the duration of their illness can begin to feel isolated from the university experience in addition to the accumulation of missed work.

How much time with teaching staff will students miss?

First, I will define ‘sick leave’ as being declared “not fit for work”  by a doctor for any period of 14 working days or more during a single university term/semester. Many universities in Britain have a 10 week teaching term but it can be anywhere between 8 and 12 weeks.

Institutions with an 8 week term have 40 teaching days (if we assume there are no bank holidays). Therefore, 14 days of absence means missing 35% of their teaching time that term.

For a 10 week term with 50 days teaching time, this shrinks to 28%

A 12 week term with 60 days teaching days means that the student has only missed 23%

This can be very significant, as Russel Group universities often use the 10 week model and Oxbridge use the 8 week model. These universities can be considered to be among the most prestigious in Britain and with this reputation comes a higher pressure to perform. Arguably, this discrepancy is very serious for those who experience a shorter term as they are expected to be able to catch up quickly and complete work while they away, but this is not always the possible. Therefore, students who are already under great pressure at prestigious universities will be stressed further by missing such significant proportions of their already limited teaching time. In such instances, the student’s mental health can be seriously affected and it is essential that they seek the available help from their institution or risk damaging their health further and making their work suffer.

The problems of catching up

For this section we will be working with the assumption that for those 14 working days the student is entirely unable to work from home but is able to return to their studies in full health at the end of their illness. In this scenario, students will need to begin dedicating time to catching up immediately upon their return. In a university which records lectures, this can be quite simple, if time consuming, but private reading can take considerable time to catch up on, especially if the student is also trying to keep up with the reading being set for the current week. If the student can work at full capacity and late in the evening then they may catch up within the first two weeks of their return and their mental health may not suffer too greatly.

However, this is not feasible for many students returning from sick leave as many return as soon as they are able to do any work but before they are fully recovered. The pressure not to miss any more lectures or lab work (which often counts towards their degree classification) prompts the swift return but these students often face limited periods in which they are capable of work and so the speed of their catch up is restricted. They may have to face additional work, and therefore additional stress, for several weeks and may also struggle with the current work because they do not yet have the groundwork set in the lectures which they missed. This can lead to a sense of hopelessness or lack of direction as the work builds and no end seems in sight.

So how do you get help?

For many struggling students, help is at hand in the form of the university welfare department. A dedicated team help students to talk about their problems and to improve their situation. For students with extenuating circumstances which may affect their exam results (such as missing those important labs and workshops) alternative assessments can sometimes be arranged. For those who have only missed regular teaching, they are often offered meetings with the tutors for the modules in order to discuss the work and, if possible, extend deadlines. However, it is ultimately the student’s responsibility to catch up on the work they have missed. This can cause elevated stress which again, necessitates a visit to welfare.

And you call this a real world problem?

Students are often the source of ridicule and jokes about laziness. We are accused of not living in the “real world” and much of the working population will argue that the struggles of university students do not match those who do. I would beg to differ. Lots of students work to support their education, food, bills and rent. Most student jobs are shift work and if they are unable to work, their income ceases (just as if they were working “in the real world” outside of university). Therefore, they face both lack of income and the pressure of extra work. I would also note that work is vital for foreign students paying for their education because if they can’t pay, they can’t stay in the country and their education may be ruined. For students who do not have to work, life is that little bit easier. They do not face such economic insecurity but for now, university is one of the most pressing commitments of their lives. If their absence removes them from enough classes their grades will suffer and they may be denied the graduate job they are working towards.


There are times when missing one lecture can feel like the end of the world but there is a variety of help available to students. It is not easy to catch up, but it is not impossible. Just remember that for students this is their world and they need their degree to enter the “real world” so have sympathy when their health threatens their well being.


Links/ how to find articles cited

Guardian article:

The UNITE STUDENTS Student Experience Survey 2014 Full Report and NUS student experience report for 2008 are pdf files, readily available via search engine





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