Update for staff and students on scenario planning, the next academic year and University resources.

Dear all,

As we approach this bank holiday weekend, I begin by once again thanking you all for your patience and perseverance in adjusting to extremely challenging circumstances. Though the actions we took in the early weeks of the crisis were by no means simple or easy to execute, they were urgent and, in a sense, inevitable. In the weeks – and indeed months – ahead we will be grappling with a series of difficult decisions that will determine how we all begin to resume many of our on-site activities as is feasible, even though adjusted to fit a new working and social environment.

Education in the next academic year

The collegiate University will offer teaching and will support learning in Michaelmas term. A lot of work is going on to determine what the next academic year will look like. Our collective aspiration is to provide as many students as possible with education in Cambridge, but our ability to deliver that education in Cambridge, and its contours, will depend upon government rules, our responsibility to apply them locally to ensure our safety, and the trajectory of novel coronavirus infections.

Meanwhile, I appreciate that many research students will have been affected by the lack of access to labs, libraries or other facilities here at Cambridge, and are understandably eager to return. How this happens, however, requires careful consideration to ensure the wellbeing of everyone within the Collegiate University. I ask for patience whilst we plan students’ safe return to Cambridge.

Scenario planning

I have written previously about the scenario planning work being undertaken by the Crimson Recovery Taskforce, chaired by our Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Relations, Professor Andy Neely.

The Recovery Taskforce has identified four scenarios we may be faced with, based on the impact of the pandemic and on the government response. In outline, these scenarios are:

  • A "rapid recovery" scenario anticipating progress in managing the public health crisis (including the development of anti-viral treatments by Autumn and a vaccine in 18-24 months), with universities encouraged to open labs in June, and students allowed to return to Cambridge in Michaelmas 2020 under stringent social distancing rules.
  • An "extended lock-down", with increased government efforts to halt the pandemic, with no students in Cambridge for 2020/21 and requiring a move to online education, but offering opportunities for research and development in universities.
  • "Repeated waves" of COVID-19, with lockdown eased and then re-introduced, with students able to return to Cambridge in Michaelmas 2020 under stringent social distancing rules, and research activity continuing in a limited capacity.
  • A "global gloom" scenario anticipating a drawn-out health and economic crisis, with ongoing lockdowns, no students in Cambridge in 2020/21 requiring a move to online education, and research focused on short-term problem solving.

Over the past few days, the Recovery Taskforce has shared and discussed detailed descriptions of each scenario with colleagues across the collegiate University including Heads of House, College Bursars, Senior Tutors and Heads of Institution.

I must reiterate that these scenarios are not forecasts. They are tools to help us think about the many ways in which the COVID-19 crisis may play out over the weeks and months ahead, and how best to prepare for any eventuality. Rather than predictions, the scenarios offer a framework for our planning and decision-making.

In reality, we will probably experience a mix of the circumstances envisaged in the different scenarios. It is clear, however, that even in the best imaginable circumstances, as set out in the "Rapid Recovery" scenario, the financial impact for the University will be decidedly negative. I will update you on the University’s financial position soon.

The manner in which we move towards resuming our on-site operations will largely depend on governmental policies and restrictions. The COVID Gold Team and the Recovery Taskforce will be considering very carefully the Prime Minister’s announcement expected this Sunday.

Social impact

Even in the current challenging conditions, there are highlights that make the role of Vice-Chancellor worth doing. One of the most recent has been attending yesterday’s online ceremony for the Vice-Chancellor’s Social Impact Awards, and "meeting" the nine winners. This is the second year that the event, organised by the Cambridge Hub, has been held. From students campaigning for the living wage, or volunteering to assist refugees, to tackling global health issues, I was hugely impressed by the winners’ talent, excited by their creativity, and profoundly moved by the commitment to improving their communities.

Further University resources

I continue to be heartened by the creative solutions our community has found to stay together despite being dispersed. College life is one of the central aspects of the Cambridge experience. Those of us missing it may find some solace in browsing the Colleges’ online resources, helpfully gathered here.

From a profile of Professor Ian Goodfellow, one of the University’s leading epidemiologists, to handy advice on home-schooling from our own Faculty of Education, I am comforted by the breadth and depth of expertise available in Cambridge.

Students and staff at the Faculty of Education have been discussing the future of higher education in a post-lockdown world on the podcast series Cambridge Quaranchats. In another podcast series worth listening to, BlueSci, the University’s student-run science magazine, is focusing on the work being done in Cambridge in response to the pandemic.

Our Faculties, Departments and Centres are also showcasing their output online. I was recently made aware of the Violence Research Centre’s growing body of work specifically focused on the impact of COVID-19. Elsewhere, the Faculty of Divinity has been producing its own Divinity Dispatches to keep its scholarly community together during this period of confinement.

Before signing off, here is a final instalment in our series of short videos about staff and students adapting to new (and sometimes surprising) ways of working. If you missed any of the earlier ones, they are now collected on our staff pages, and will not fail to cheer you up.

I wish you a restful bank holiday weekend.

Best wishes,


Prof Stephen J Toope