Updates on continuing education, postgraduate research students, postgraduate examinations, a letter to international students and further information on how the University is tackling COVID-19.

Dear all,

With the British government likely to announce later today the extension of the nation-wide lockdown measures, our thoughts have been turning to how to make this period sustainable and endurable. Whatever shape it takes, the process of getting back to more normal ways of work will be lengthy.

There are constant reminders that our core work continues. Only yesterday the latest cohort of Gates Cambridge scholars was announced. Earlier this month we received news that four Cambridge researchers had won Advanced ERC Grants, which support excellent research in all fields.

Although the University’s research output in fields relevant to COVID-19-has been a focus of attention, our researchers have continued to publish the results of important work in subjects ranging from the treatment of heart disease, to the creation of artificial reefs, to the use of machine learning in improving battery health.

Continuing Education

Meanwhile, individual University departments continue to adapt and adjust to the current circumstances. Our Institute of Continuing Education (ICE) is reconceiving its International Summer Programme to deliver a remote summer festival of learning, engaging with adult and pre-university students around the world. ICE is already ahead of last year in terms of online enrolment for fully online courses, and will soon open more e-learning offers in a range of topics. Alongside this, a group of volunteers from the Operations team has worked tirelessly to keep Madingley Hall open in order to accommodate and look after NHS key workers who are unable to return to their homes after completing shifts. I am hugely grateful to all our ICE colleagues.

Postgraduate research students

I said in my previous update that we are engaged in ongoing discussions with various funding bodies to develop a coordinated approach for the funding of our doctoral students – particularly those in their final year whose research has suffered severe disruption due to the Coronavirus crisis.

Many of our doctoral students are currently funded by the Cambridge Trust, which each year supports over 1,000 students from more than 80 countries. In the current situation, the Trust will endeavour to provide any necessary additional support to Cambridge Trust Scholars so that they are able to complete their research. In assessing applications for extension of funding, the Trust will take into consideration any disruption due to the pandemic, and it will seek to re-distribute budgets and work with partners, across the collegiate University and beyond, to provide adequate support.

Likewise, the Gates Cambridge Trust has confirmed it will consider sympathetically all requests from Cambridge Gates scholars for exceptional financial support beyond that which is already available for the first four years to enable scholars to complete their doctorates.

Postgraduate examinations

We acknowledge the hugely disruptive effect that the Coronavirus crisis might have on final year doctoral research students’ ability to complete their research, write their theses and prepare for their vivas. Guidance is currently being prepared, and will soon be issued to supervisors, examiners and Degree Committees, to ensure that the impact of the crisis is taken into consideration when examining theses. The guidance will also address the need to manage the expectations of research students and supervisors as to what can be achieved during this time, and how supervisors can continue to offer academic support. The guidance will make specific reference to requirements of first year assessments and of final thesis submissions.

I wish to emphasise that this is not an exercise in lowering academic standards, but in modifying expectations in light of extraordinary circumstances.

A letter for International Students

The Minister of State for Universities, Michelle Donelan MP, recently wrote a letter to all international students enrolled in British universities. I am pleased to circulate this now to our own international students, whether you are still resident in Cambridge or back in your home countries. As well as offering practical guidance on topics such as visas and welfare, the Minister recognises the positive contribution that all international students make to social, cultural and economic life of the United Kingdom. It is a sentiment I fully share.

Tackling COVID-19

Work continues apace to set up the large-scale testing facility at the Anne McLaren Building, on our Biomedical Campus. Colleagues have been extremely busy recruiting the staff and collecting the equipment needed for the facility to work. We are all infinitely grateful to the people who have donated scientific equipment, and to the people who have volunteered to work in the testing centre – including senior academics, post-doctoral researchers, research assistants, lab managers and technicians. Volunteers who have already been vetted and cleared to work on the testing site will soon be sent their induction packs. In this, as in so much else, the Cambridge community has stepped up remarkably to the challenge we all face together. I thank everyone involved.

Elsewhere, in an effort to provide evidence-based analyses of COVID-19’s social impacts, reflections on governmental responses, and possible approaches to the post-crisis economic and social settlement, the Bennett Institute for Public Policy has launched a new series of short papers written by experts in the public policy community. The papers, available here, will be written by academic experts from across the University and will, we hope, make a real contribution to policy thinking and the public discourse on the crisis and its aftermath.

And finally…

If there have been any silver linings to this unsettling state of affairs, one might be that it has allowed our community to value the collections and resources that were always at our doorstep, and which can now only be accessed "virtually". I have enjoyed a series of short films made by our Faculty of Classics, telling us all a little bit about iconic works of art in the Museum of Classical Archaeology.

We have all taken some inspiration, comfort and joy from the short films of colleagues adapting to new ways of working. This latest one may be the best yet. I hope you enjoy it too.

With best wishes,


Professor Stephen J Toope