Update from the Vice-Chancellor about opening buildings, degree ceremonies and home working.

Dear all,

Thoughts about the academic year 2020/21

For some weeks the University and the Colleges have been preparing for the next academic year. Colleagues across the collegiate University have been developing plans for teaching, learning, assessment and research in a context that was unimaginable a short time ago.

I want to assure students that Cambridge will be open for education and research for the start of the next academic year. We must all be realistic, however, about the world-wide challenges posed by the pandemic. We are committed to doing all we can to protect your health and safety. University life here, as everywhere, will need to adapt.

The impact of social distancing is likely to mean that we will not be able to deliver all our teaching and learning as we usually do. Although we will work hard to ensure that students can benefit from the in-person experiences that enrich student life at Cambridge, some teaching may need to be delivered online. You will hear more about our plans in the coming months. However teaching is delivered, we will do all we can to ensure that the University continues to provide students with the highest quality education and offers the best possible experience during their time in Cambridge.

Returning to the workplace or working from home?

Recent government announcements have raised questions about whether, when and how our staff should be returning to their normal places of work.

For the avoidance of doubt, working from home remains the default position for those who can do so. Unless colleagues have been working onsite already, they should continue to work remotely.

The Buildings Task Force has been looking carefully at re-opening buildings primarily for research purposes. It has prepared and circulated guidance documents to begin piloting the re-opening. Individual Heads of Institution will be responsible for the safe operation of designated areas within buildings as part of this programme, which will be driven primarily by health and safety considerations. An accompanying staff protocol has been prepared and will be circulated shortly

A successful re-opening programme must be underpinned by the careful observation of social distancing measures. This has to be based on detailed, building-by-building, operational plans and risk analyses, and the provision of approved PPE in the exceptional circumstances where that is needed. We anticipate that (with some variations) re-opened buildings will have a typical occupancy of around 25% of normal operation. All buildings or activities that are re-opened as part of this process will be subject to re-closure based on government direction, for example, in the case of a second wave of COVID-19 infection.

In addition to researchers, the presence of a limited number of non-research staff will be essential to the safe operation of buildings. The number of non-research staff will be minimised, however, to meet health and safety requirements.

Staff in at-risk groups, those with family members in at-risk groups and those with caring responsibilities, should continue to follow current government guidelines around shielding and should not come into work. Staff in re-opened buildings should only come into work when they are advised specifically to do so by their Head of Institution, and where they are able to travel to work safely.

Degree ceremonies

Ceremonies for the award of degrees are a central part of the Cambridge life. I deeply regret that, as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, Congregations to confer degrees in person will not take place until further notice, affecting the rest of this academic year and potentially well beyond. We have put in place exceptional measures, so that students who successfully meet the requirements of their course may continue to graduate in absence.

It is not possible for those who have graduated in absence to graduate again in person to that degree. However, given the extraordinary circumstances, we would like to assure you that when it is practical and safe to do so, all undergraduate and postgraduate students who graduate in absence during this crisis will be offered the opportunity to come back to celebrate their degree in their Colleges and with a ceremony at the Senate House. A working group, including student representation, has already started considering how this might happen.

Students who do not wish to graduate in absence, but would rather defer graduation until in-person Degree Congregations can resume as usual, should contact their College Praelector. Please be aware, though, that the Congregations may not resume for some time and possibly not for more than a year.

Candidates cannot obtain a degree certificate without graduating (in absence or in person), but those who have fulfilled the requirements of their course can still claim to have completed their degree and can obtain a transcript to confirm this.

Staff: lessons learned from new ways of working

We have all had to adapt very quickly to different ways of working. We now have an opportunity to learn from this experience to improve our working practices in the future. Colleagues in the ourcambridge team are gathering feedback from staff, beginning with a simple survey to capture four positive things about working under lockdown, and four less positive ones.

To offer my own initial thoughts: I have been encouraged by the nimbleness shown by the collegiate University in making key decisions on some big issues at a time of crisis, and by the closer-than-ever collaboration with partners such as the local hospitals. The crisis has, on the other hand, emphasised stress points in our processes.

I hope that there will be examples of good practice to share, to learn from and to carry forward. If you would like to share your views then please do complete the survey here. This particular survey is aimed at staff, but a process to gather feedback from students is also being developed.

Wellbeing and mental health

Taking care of our health and wellbeing is more important than ever in the current circumstances. Next week (18-22 May), as part of our Mental Health Awareness Week, there will be a full programme of talks, virtual challenges and mindfulness sessions. These activities will complement the wellbeing support and resources already available for staff and students. The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is "kindness", so please be kind to yourselves, and encourage colleagues to do the same, by taking some time to benefit from what’s on offer. 

The Easter term timetable for mindfulness sessions for staff and students are now available here (Raven password protected).

News from Continuing Education

Our Institute of Continuing Education (ICE) is launching a University of Cambridge Virtual Summer Festival of Learning, and is asking Cambridge academics to contribute to the programme by pre-recording short talks on their areas of expertise for a non-specialist audience. Please contact intacad@ice.cam.ac.uk for further information, including advice on the type of content required.

The ICE has been at the forefront of provision of online education from Cambridge. One of its aims is to provide accessible higher education to motivated adult students, and over the past few weeks it has strived to ensure that that anyone affected by the pandemic (adults who are shielding, adults who are living with others who are vulnerable, those aged over 70, busy key workers, international students who may face travel restrictions) can still access continuing education.

I can now share the news that all ICE undergraduate award-bearing courses will be delivered by fully remote means for the entire 2020-21 academic year – crucially, with no residency requirement. These will be the first Cambridge awards ever conferred without the requirement for a period of residency. We hope this will address concerns around travel and social distancing measures. ICE will also be providing up to 1,000 COVID-19 tuition fee bursaries specifically targeted at individuals who have been made redundant or furloughed, key workers and adults aged 70 and over who due to the extended lockdown may be socially isolated.

Some of you may know that the ICE is located on the astonishing grounds of Madingley Hall, where, since the beginning of last week, catering staff have been offering a selection of food and drink hampers and takeaway meals. The food hampers and prepared meals are available for local delivery in the Cambridge area or for collection. Further information about this wonderful new service, including the full menus, is available here.

Reaching out to alumni

Our alumni are an essential part of our collegiate University community. I recently made a video for our alumni network, noting the launch of a new book club to keep alumni connected to the University. The message offers information about the latest in the series of Cambridge Conversations webinars on COVID-19, taking place today, and focusing on the data driving the decision-making. It also offers details of the first online 'Global Cambridge' event for alumni, on the subject of 'Artificial Intelligence and Power', taking place on 21 May. You can find the video, and information about the online events, here.

Tackling COVID-19

I am delighted to announce that, following approval from NHS England, the Cambridge Testing Centre started testing patient samples for COVID-19 this past Monday. Our partnership with AstraZeneca (AZ) and GSK led to the creation, in only five weeks, of a state-of-the-art facility using new technology to deliver a rapid, high-quality assay.

Nearly one hundred University colleagues have volunteered to help run the centre. All volunteers have now been fully trained, and are working in shifts alongside others from AZ and GSK. I would like to offer my congratulations and most sincere thanks to all those who have contributed to the success in launching this facility, which will play a critical role in the national effort to combat COVID-19.

It is always heartening to read about colleagues involved in tackling the pandemic, as in this profile of Dr Sander van der Linden, from our Department of Psychology, or this feature on the Cambridge scientists involved in the collaborative project to determine the genetic sequence of the Coronavirus.

Our Faculties and Departments continue to rise to the challenge of helping us understand not only the biomedical background to the pandemic, but also its economic, cultural and political effects. The Centre for Geopolitics, in our department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), has been running on-line conversations that gather leading academics and policymakers to explore the geopolitical impact of the crisis.

Tackling COVID-19 – how to help

Those of us who are not on the frontline of tackling Coronavirus will have occasionally felt frustrated in the face of the pandemic. Many of you have asked how you can help. Three funds have been created to ensure that the full strength of the University’s research powers and resources are used in the global fight against COVID-19: the research fund, the student hardship fund and the PPE appeal fund.

The COVID-19 research fund allows donations to be directed to where they are most needed and accelerate crucial research.

The COVID-19 student hardship fund is designed to help students facing hardship both immediately and in the months and years ahead. It supplements hardship funds administered by Colleges, which remain the first port of call for students in need. Colleges too, need your support at this time for students, staff and other priorities. If you have a College affiliation or wish to find out more, please contact Colleges directly.

The PPE appeal supports the purchase of equipment needed for frontline NHS staff. Through this appeal and the many donations in kind of PPE, coordinated by our Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Relations, Professor Andy Neely, and by the Strategic Partnerships Office, dozens of supporters have stepped forward to help keep our health and social care workers safer.

Hundreds of people have given generously to these areas and I am incredibly grateful for their support.

And finally…

In my previous message, I offered an outline of the scenarios being considered as we plan for the post-pandemic recovery phase. I warned that all scenarios – even the best possible case – will have a significant financial impact on our University. Early next week, the University Council will be considering some of these financial implications. Soon after, I will be sharing further information about the effect that the COVID-19 crisis is having, and will continue to have, for Cambridge’s finances and operations.

I sign off today with the excellent news that one of our esteemed colleagues, Professor Ottoline Leyser, Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory, has been appointed as the new Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the organisation that gathers the UK’s Research Councils and directs research and innovation funding. With her passion for research, her understanding of the research sector and her ability to engage with government, Ottoline is in a unique position to steer UKRI at this critical time. I congratulate her warmly.

Best wishes,


Prof Stephen J Toope