The UAE deal is "all on hold for now”Louis Ashworth/VARSITY

A few weeks after announcing that he will step down from the role of Vice-Chancellor in September 2022, Professor Stephen Toope sat down for an interview with Varsity about his time in the role so far.

During his tenure, Vice-Chancellor Toope faced the challenge of leading the University through a global pandemic, which presented difficulties both in his personal life and in his role at the helm of one of the world’s most prestigious universities. In March 2020, Vice-Chancellor Toope made the decision to shift the University entirely to online learning and integrated online exams, many of which were carried out with mitigation measures to reflect the range of factors that had affected students’ learning across the year. Reflecting on the way that the pandemic will change the University going forward, Toope commented that it “has definitely heightened this sense that there are enormous pressures on students all the time.”

The Vice-Chancellor noted that even before the pandemic there had been a “real recognition” that “focusing on student mental health and wellbeing was something that the university had to do even more assiduously than it had.” However, the pandemic has brought these issues to the forefront of decision-making, he says.

“We’ve just approved a new student mental health and wellbeing framework which I really hope will link together the efforts of the Colleges and for more serious cases connect us better with the NHS. This is the first time we’ve had a framework that will let us think holistically about student mental health and wellbeing and allows us to think about it at an earlier stage, not just when things get to a crisis. Will that have an impact on how we continue to do assessment and how we think about our teaching provision? I think it will.

To find that we can use other mechanisms [to examine students] has opened up ways of thinking. When I talk to colleagues across the university I’m now hearing people who are excited about the idea of looking for alternative methods of assessment.”

This is a journey we’re on. But there are a lot of people across the University fundamentally committed to keeping student health and wellbeing at the forefront of our consideration.”

Though the pandemic has put vast barriers on international travel over the last two years, it has not prevented Toope from considering deals between the University of Cambridge and foreign states.

Earlier this year, Varsity revealed that a controversial £400m deal had been proposed between the University of Cambridge and the United Arab Emirates. After some consideration however, Toope revealed to Varsity that these plans have been halted, and that no meetings are taking place: “It’s all on hold for now, there are no conversations taking place about those plans.”

“I have never met with the Crown Prince and in fact I’m not meeting with anyone from the UAE at this point.”

The proposal was opposed by many who had ethical concerns surrounding the UAE’s conduct regarding human rights abuses, the lack of rights for women and the LGBTQ+ community, lack of freedom of expression, and the arbitrary confinement and torture of academics including Matthew Hedges. They also referenced the imprisonment of Princess Latifa, the daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Dubai’s ruler, and her sister Princess Shamsa’s abduction from the streets of Cambridge in 2000.

However, it was not these concerns that led the Vice-Chancellor to reconsider the deal.

“We took this whole set of issues to a panel in the University, as well as the General Board”, the Vice-Chancellor explained, “to make sure that they were supportive of launching the conversation.”

It’s always a question of fine balance: of course you have to assess the opportunity that’s being presented to make a difference in the world and the risks to reputation of a whole series of important values for the University. The group looked at it step by step. We’re aware of the risks in dealing with many states around the world but we think it’s worth having the conversation.”

Eventually, revelations about the UAE’s use of Pegasus spyware led to the decision that the deal would not be pursued.

“The revelations caused us to decide that it’s not the right time to be pursuing these kinds of really ambitious plans with the UAE. There are existing relationships across the University on a departmental and individual academic level but there are no conversations about a big project.”

When asked if he would consider pursuing the deal at some point in the future, Toope said: “We’re going to have to bring this back to collective thinking. No one’s going to be rushing into this. There will be no secret arrangements being made. I think we’re going to have to have a robust discussion at some point in the future. Or, we may determine that it’s not worth raising again. I honestly don’t know.”

The research we were trying to focus on was to try to upgrade the education system in the UAE which is really under performing, to work on questions of climate and the energy transition and to work on a sharing of cultures — Islamic cultures and Western cultures, to try and find ways of connecting across cultures. Are those important enough things to think that we might be able to mitigate the risks? The answer is: I don’t know quite frankly.”

With a year still remaining in his tenure, the Vice-Chancellor is confident that he has undertaken everything he set out to do: “I’m feeling that most of the things that I’m interested in are well launched.” In particular, the Vice-Chancellor applauded the progress made towards the funding target of the Student Support Initiative. “We’re already over half way to meeting our £500 million target. We’ve moved ahead to launch the foundation year and we’ll be welcoming the new cohort next year to the University.” The initiative, which was announced in October, 2018, includes three core principles: financial support for undergraduates, new postgraduate scholarships and student life and wellbeing.

The University has long withstood criticism concerning access and participation, an area which the Vice-Chancellor has sought to address throughout his tenure. In 2018, the Financial Times revealed that one in five Cambridge’s colleges had admitted less than 10 students of mixed race over a five-year period. At the time, the University called for greater support, claiming that no more could be done without involvement from parents and schools. Professor Toope applauded the efforts made to correct this injustice, acknowledging that this year the University would be “welcoming a record number of Black undergraduates.”


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“We’ve tripled the number in just over three years and that’s a testament to these great students, but it’s also a testament to the University intentionally reaching out and saying there is a place for you at Cambridge.”

Beyond opening the University to talent from more diverse areas, Vice-Chancellor Toope affirmed the success of the Cambridge Zero Carbon Campaign. In October last year, Varsity reported the announcement that the University would remove all direct and indirect investments in the fossil fuel industry from its £3.5 billion endowment fund by 2030. Whilst some applauded the move, others, including representatives from Extinction Rebellion (XR) Cambridge, contested the delayed deadline.

As the Vice-Chancellor prepares for his final year, he acknowledged the “tremendous support” from his colleagues. At times, Professor Toope was subjected to pointed criticisms by current colleagues and academics, accusing him of failing to protect the freedom of academics as well as denouncing what they claim to be unnecessary political correctness, such as the short-lived ‘Report+Support System,’ which was removed one week after its initial implementation in May this year. In response, Professor Toope claims his “views on free speech have been completely mischaracterized, certainly in the press, or parts of the press.”

Professor Toope denies the ostensible divide between progressive and conservative members of his team: “I think setting this up as ‘a woke vs. the so-called defenders of tradition’ is a false dichotomy that I don’t see honestly as the University of Cambridge. I feel that the vast majority of colleagues want both — for it to be an institution that fundamentally supports free speech and one that wants to support healthy relationships amongst staff students and good work practices and tolerant behaviours.”

“I can’t pretend that some of the things that have been said in the press are not hurtful but it does make it easier to bear when you know there are a lot of people who are very strongly supportive as well.”

In wake of the criticisms, the Vice-Chancellor has received over 300 messages of support since announcing his departure from the role next year. Here, he pauses: “it’s a privilege to be at the helm of an institution that is so important to the United Kingdom but also to the world.” The Vice-Chancellor welcomes the opportunity to spend more time with his family and his friends after the conclusion of his tenure.