A message to staff and students from the Vice-Chancellor reflecting on a year of lockdown. It also covers library and counselling services, and the online Cambridge Festival.

*This message was updated on 19 March to correct an inaccuracy about waiting times in the Student Counselling Service. Waiting times are currently 4-5 weeks (not two weeks, as reported in the 18 March message). Current waiting times are similar to what they were at this time last year. The University is making every effort to decrease waiting times, including additional recruitment to fill vacancies in the Student Counselling Service. There are currently two additional full-time counselling posts, and the Service is advertising for another additional full-time post. All counselling referrals are triaged, with the most urgent referrals prioritised.

Dear all, 

A year of lockdown 

Exactly a year ago today I wrote to let you know that the University was moving into its highest level of contingency planning in response to the pandemic. We asked students to return home if possible. We moved all teaching online. We announced that most of our buildings would close by the end of the week, and asked most of our staff to begin working from home. 

In earlier messages I had shared my concern that the spread of coronavirus was “likely to have serious consequences for the daily lives of our students and staff, and for our University’s current and future operations”. Few of us, however, could have imagined that twelve months later we might still be living in a world so comprehensively derailed by the disease. 

My thoughts today are with all those colleagues and students who have been personally afflicted by COVID-19, who have endured losses, or who have had to take on extra caring duties over the past year. 

As we look forward to hearing from the government, next month, about the possibility of additional loosening of restrictions, I would like to take a moment to reflect on our shared achievements over the past year. As an institution, our University has shown immense resolve and resilience. As a community, we have shown solidarity and kindness. Our teaching, learning and research have remained robust despite the very considerable disruptions. Some of our responses to the pandemic – our asymptomatic screening programme, for instance – are now the gold standard in best practice across the country. This would not have been possible without your patience and your determination. I could not be prouder of our collective efforts in the face of an unparalleled challenge. 

Counselling 

We must not underestimate the toll that the uncertainty and isolation of the past year have taken on staff and students. The University and the colleges’ counselling services have done a remarkable job, in very challenging circumstances, to support our community. 

As we move towards the vacation period, I wish to remind you all that – as with many of the student services, including the Disability Resource Centre – the University’s Counselling services (for students as well as for staff) remain open and available, as do the colleges’ welfare services.

Libraries 

One of the things I announced a year ago was the closure of all University libraries by the end of the day. Things have thankfully improved twelve months on.  

A programme of reopening University and departmental library spaces for study is now underway, and will continue to increase in scope leading up to the Easter term.  

Students should note that, in order to meet COVID-protocols, University study spaces are limited and will have to be booked (they should only be booked if they are essential, and certain to be used). Our goal is to expand library access to levels similar to Michaelmas Term – as long as it is safe to do so.   

University libraries where study space bookings are currently available include the UL, the Seeley Library, the English Faculty Library and the Moore Library. The Medical, Veterinary and Engineering Libraries are also available to students from those departments. Bookings are available to consult items in the UL’s Special Collections Reading Room. Many college libraries are already open. 

Plans to reopen study spaces at other departmental libraries are advancing. Detailed information is available here

Skills exchange 

The way many of us work has changed dramatically over the past twelve months. But the pandemic’s impact on staff workloads has been uneven across the University, with some colleagues contending with considerable increases while others have experienced reductions in their day-to-day activity. A Skills Exchange scheme has been created to make it easier for institutions in need of support to identify University colleagues with spare capacity (and vice-versa). It is another way to keep us connected, to promote new opportunities, and to make the most of our collective expertise and resources. You can read more about the programme here.  

Fresh start for the Festival 

The past year has offered an opportunity to rethink and reimagine the ways in which the University might bring its research activities to wide audiences in Cambridge and beyond. I am delighted to note that the new Cambridge Festival will take place from 26 March to 4 April 2021, with more than 350 free online events and activities open to all.  

The Cambridge Festival rolls our Science Festival and Festival of Ideas into a single showcase for the University’s extraordinary research in the Sciences and in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Focusing on themes such as the environment, health and society, the improved Festival will offer events ranging from lectures and panel discussions to film premieres, from self-guided walking tours to “try this at home” activities for the whole family. There could hardly be a better way to learn while in lockdown.  

A final word 

Like so many of you, I have been horrified by the news of the murder of Sarah Everard. It has been upsetting to hear and read countless testimonies of harassment and violence against women and girls as a daily reality.  

I expect the collegiate University to be a safe environment for all. I want the University to be a place where all students and staff can go about their activities with no fear of harassment or violence of any sort. That is the aim of the University’s Breaking the Silence campaign.  

This is not an issue concerning women and girls only. Eradicating such violence requires all of us – regardless of gender – to challenge perpetrators and to support and listen to victims. I am grateful to colleagues and students who, for years, have worked hard to instigate meaningful conversations on this issue. I hope the Cambridge community will continue to lead in this endeavour. 

With best wishes, 

Stephen 

Professor Stephen J Toope 
Vice-Chancellor