Update for staff and students on the financial implications of the pandemic, online lectures, and returning research students.

Dear all,

From lockdown to looking ahead

Our collegiate University community responded admirably to the emergency phase of the Coronavirus pandemic, adapting swiftly to new ways of working and to alternative teaching and assessment methods.

Like all communities around the world, we are now contemplating what our own post-lockdown world will look like. Whether it is a phased and careful return to on-site work, or indeed continuing to work from home, we are all faced with new uncertainties. On top of balancing work with caring duties, or perhaps coping with the stresses of home-schooling, many of you will currently be worrying about your children’s possible return to school.

Resuming our University’s on-site operations will be much more challenging than shutting them down. I wish to acknowledge and thank the countless colleagues who are at this moment carrying the exceptional burden of organising a phased and orderly return to the workplace.

Departmental Administrators have been busy coordinating the delivery of education and, in many cases, the re-opening of Department buildings. Staff in our Estates Division have been laying the groundwork for the reactivation of some University facilities. Our Human Resources Division has been producing a protocol for our staff’s safe return to on-site work. Colleagues in the Academic Division have been working tirelessly to ensure that we can deliver our education offering – particularly this term’s assessments. Meanwhile, our lecturers and researchers have been designing and delivering courses while finding creative ways to continue their research. I am hugely grateful for everyone’s efforts at this critical moment.

Focusing on finance 

I have previously offered an outline of the scenarios being considered to help our planning for the months ahead. I remarked that in all scenarios – even the best possible one – we can expect a significant financial detriment for our University.

On Monday, the University Council discussed the financial implications of the scenarios under consideration. The estimations considered by Council assumed, in all cases, a drop in the expected number of international students; physical restrictions to our research capacity, and a loss of research funding; a drop in the value of the University endowment (and the associated income); the likely need for additional pension contributions as a result of the decrease in the market value of our pension fund; a drop in the normal cash-flow to the University from Cambridge University Press and from Cambridge Assessment; and additional costs on current capital projects as a result of the disruption.

Even a downturn that resolves itself swiftly, with a relatively quick return to business as usual, would cause the Collegiate University a reduction in cash-flow of several hundreds of millions of pounds. An extended downturn, with long-lasting economic effects, would require significant changes within the academic University.

This comes on the back of a considerable operating budget deficit, about which I wrote to our community last year. Our University’s liquidity position is such that it does not require us to take desperate measures or make precipitous decisions. The outlook, however, will inevitably require that we make some hard decisions in the months and years ahead.

In doing so, we will be guided by some important principles:

  • We will at all times uphold the University’s mission – to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international standards of excellence. In practice, this means celebrating, nurturing and building upon our unique intellectual resources to produce the new thinking and the discoveries that will enable change on a global scale.
  • We will focus on protecting our staff, ensuring that we maintain the capacity that allows us to rebound – and to thrive – once the immediate crisis is over.
  • We will endeavour to maintain and strengthen our widening participation agenda – working in partnership with external organisations, working with the Colleges to evaluate and ensure the effectiveness of our outreach schemes, and redoubling our work to set up a transition year in an attempt to ensure that the current crisis does not accentuate inequality of educational opportunity.
  • We will seek the opportunities to improve our administrative processes, making them more efficient and making jobs more rewarding, and identifying savings wherever possible. In doing so, we will build on the excellent work already carried out through the ourcambridge initiative.

In thinking about the University’s financial sustainability, and guided by the principles above, we must be prepared to contemplate some unpalatable options that would have seemed unthinkable only months ago. We may need to extend the hiring pause. We may have to continue the freeze on capital expenditures on new building projects. We may have to consider creating a voluntary part-time working scheme. We may have to explore more efficient use of our estate, potentially reducing occupancy to allow for the external leasing of unused space. We may have to suggest delaying any sabbatical leave, or the suspension of promotion and pay progression schemes. If the reduction of income continues and no government support is forthcoming, we may need to undertake a review of staff pay that might include temporary pay freezes and voluntary pay reductions. The very last resort in a worst-case scenario is to contemplate potential generalised redundancies.

These are all options that we wish to avoid. So we are actively seeking government support, while at the same time identifying potential, and significant, operating cost savings.  Some of them will require a fundamental shift to the ways in which we currently work in order to ensure that we do things as efficiently and effectively as possible. We are also exploring all opportunities to develop new income streams. Cambridge University Press and Cambridge Assessment, which were already leading the University in the provision of digital resources, have accelerated their online growth.

Face-to-face lectures for the academic year 2020/21

I said in my previous update that 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. Many of you will have seen coverage of the University’s plans to replace large group face-to-face lectures with on-line lectures for the 2020/21 academic year.

It has been widely acknowledged that, under the social distancing measures that are likely to be in place for the foreseeable future, the provision of large group face-to-face lectures would not be possible. It is also widely acknowledged that large group lectures, while a valuable component of Cambridge’s educational offering, constitute only one part of a wider provision that includes other elements such as small-group teaching, supervisions and practicals, all of which we expect to continue in person but taking into account social distancing requirements.

The University and the Colleges are committed to working closely together to provide opportunities for a rich student experience. Always mindful of the safety of students and staff, we will continue to respond creatively to the challenges posed by the current crisis to deliver a high quality education for all students. The collegiate University is making the most of the available technology to develop a blended approach to teaching and learning, and to enhance our traditional teaching methods. The supervision system at the heart of our educational provision for undergraduates will continue, and we anticipate that regular College activities such as sport and music will also resume, with the necessary adjustments.

Let me reiterate: 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 to offer the richest possible experience during their time in Cambridge.

Returning research students

Members of my team and I have been asked whether postgraduate research students might be able return to buildings that have remained open or may be reopening soon for research purposes. I must reiterate that working remotely remains the default position for those who can do so – including postgraduate research students.

Our Buildings Taskforce is identifying and prioritising University facilities that need to re-open for research purposes. It is essential that we make sure our buildings are safe before they open, and that robust protocols based on relevant Government guidance are in place. I ask that all staff and students wait for an explicit indication from their Head of Institution or Head of Group that it is now safe for them to return to their usual (or alternative assigned) work place. A protocol for the return of research students will be ready soon.

Tackling COVID-19

Our University continues to play an essential role in the national effort to fight COVID-19. News was published yesterday of a new trial, led by clinicians and scientists in Cambridge and London, to prevent organ failure and death in COVID-19 patients. The trial will test whether re-purposing existing drugs that target the body’s own immune response can prevent severe organ failure or death. It is part of the UK Government’s approach to supporting the development of potential new treatments for COVID-19. I am immensely proud of our colleagues’ contribution.

The Cambridge Testing Centre, set up in partnership with AstraZeneca and GSK, is now fully operational. I am very pleased to share this profile of the Centre’s Operations Director, Karl Wilson.

I’m sure we can all think of individuals who, like Karl, have made an extraordinary contribution to our community over the past few weeks. The organisers of the May Week Mega Event are asking our community to nominate their "Heroes of Cambridge" – those people who have "gone above and beyond for others during this pandemic". The deadline for nominations is tomorrow evening.

Mental health and wellbeing

This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week across the University, and I hope many of you will have had the opportunity to join some of the online events. The programme runs until tomorrow. From Monday, University staff and students have been able to access Big White Wall, which offers free online mental health support including a peer-to-peer community, self-guided courses, and creative tools to help members express how they are feeling. The service is anonymous, and is monitored by trained professionals. University staff and students can sign up using their University (@cam.ac.uk) email address. Other sources of support can be found on the University’s Wellbeing pages – including this video compilation of Student Counselling staff giving advice on how to manage mental health during the current times.

And finally…

Colleagues in our Admissions Office have been building a Virtual Tour of Cambridge to allow prospective students to catch a glimpse of the Cambridge experience. Under lockdown, they have not been able to get out and about to take photos. As an alternative, they are asking students to share their photographs of Cambridge life through this Photo Appeal page. The deadline is 3 June.

This weekend families across the world will be finding ways of being together even when physically distant as they celebrate the breaking the month-long fast. To all those who observe it – Eid Mubarak.

I will be in touch again next week. In the meantime, I wish you all a restful Bank Holiday weekend.

Best wishes,


Professor Stephen J Toope