Spring flowers at Trinity College, Cambridge

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen J Toope, writes about the return of students and continued disruption to our teaching, learning and research.

Over a year since the United Kingdom went into its first lockdown, and even as some of the national restrictions are loosened, we continue to suffer from disruption to our core activities of teaching, learning and research.

The latest review of the government’s road map offered little detail – and scant hope – to many university students wondering when they may be able to return to in-person teaching. The frustration and the bewilderment among teachers, students and their families is palpable – and wholly understandable. It is not unreasonable to wonder why students are now able to get their hair cut at a salon, or go shopping, or drink in a pub garden, but are still told by government that they cannot take part in small-group teaching, even under COVID-safe conditions.

Like many other universities, Cambridge has at every opportunity been making a strong case to the government for why students should be allowed back for in-person teaching. Over the past few months we have repeatedly provided the government with compelling reasons to move towards the easing of restrictions.

One of those compelling reasons is the personal care and attention Colleges are able to provide to students who are already here – over half of our students, according to a recent survey, with many more still expected back because they will qualify under government exceptions. With support from the Colleges, and in line with the public health guidance, many students already in residence are currently able to enjoy some of the advantages of collegiate life, including pastoral care, outdoor sports, and carefully managed social activities.

Another compelling reason is the success of our asymptomatic screening programme, which for the sixth consecutive week has registered zero positive cases among the students already in residence. The latter is, to me, proof that our student community can be trusted to do the right thing and participate in a programme that has been conceived to keep our collegiate and city communities safe. It shows that, in considering future steps out of lockdown, our students should be neither scapegoated nor patronised. They have had a hard enough time already.

What we know at the moment is that, as regards in-person university teaching, nothing will change until at least 17 May, at which point the examination period will be about to start. Even then, it is not clear that the position will be different, as any new guidance will be entirely dependent on national levels of transmission. I encourage students who believe themselves to meet one of the government’s exceptions, and who wish to return to Cambridge to get in touch with their College to obtain permission to return.

The pandemic has not been easy for anyone. It feels to me, however, like this has been a particularly difficult time to be a university student. The University and the Colleges are making every effort to ensure that students continue to receive an exceptional education, and to provide students with the best possible student experience. We will continue to do so. I look forward to the time when all our students can return to Cambridge to enjoy the fullness of the collegiate university experience.