Students rallied on Senate House lawn on Thursday afternoonLouis Ashworth

The pressure on vice-chancellor Stephen Toope has built up as staff and students mobilise with plans to escalate strike action, despite some growing concessions on his part.

The contrast between students throwing colour-bombs against the historic backdrop of Senate House lawn was striking, as students gathered yesterday afternoon and demanded Stephen Toope make an appearance and hear their grievances. Amid a pink and purple mist of drizzle and coloured flares, staff and students stepped forward to the centre of the gathering and shouted their questions to Toope. Their questions ranged from “When will men and women receive equal pay at Cambridge?” to “Why are staff at Cambridge on zero hours contracts?”

After Toope failed to make an appearance, a group of both students and staff briefly attempted to enter the Old Schools building, before realising all entrances had been barricaded and the building mostly vacated.

With live saxophone music playing, students then pounded on the Old Schools’ doors, crowding around the entrance and chanting: “Whose university? Our university.”

Cambridge’s student activists came out in full force. CUSU sabbatical officers and president Daisy Eyre led the rally, although they hung back when students attempted to enter the building.

Pink colour bombs filled the air as students surged towards the Old Schools entranceLouis Ashworth

The charged atmosphere is set to intensify following the central UCU’s announcement yesterday afternoon that strike action will continue for a further 14 days around exam time if the pension dispute is not resolved.

This came alongside a declaration on Senate House lawn from a member of the Cambridge UCU’s industrial action committee, Anne Alexander, who announced the escalation of strike action by the Cambridge UCU branch in the coming days. This will consist of them “calling out to the people we’ve been working with already […] to build a campaign that takes our democratic and just demands to the thousands of people in this university we know stand with us.” She promised the Cambridge UCU would be “expanding” its pickets, moving down to the Clinical School, and mobilising next week without waiting until Regent House convenes.

Stephen Toope released a statement on Wednesday, saying: “I will be asking the Council to accept greater risk and cost in the short-term as a bridge to a sustainable long-term solution in the interests of the sector, the University and individual members of USS”.

The announcement came after mounting pressure from academics and alumni. Earlier in the day, over 800 alumni of the University signed an open letter to the Vice-Chancellor expressing their disappointment with its handling of the pensions dispute. They said: “As alumni of the University of Cambridge, we are usually proud to tell people where we studied”, and added, “Recently, however, we have been less proud of the role Cambridge has been playing nationally – and its treatment of staff.”

Later in the day, 100 senior academics gathered outside Senate House calling on the Vice-Chancellor to follow the lead of Oxford’s vice-chancellor Louise Richardson, who announced a reversal of the University’s position on USS risk to employers on Wednesday morning.

To the community of Cambridge student activists and union members at yesterday’s rally, Toope’s responses have not been enough. Claims of the inadequacy of his response appear to have escalated since the announcement. Speaking to the rally, Waseem Yaqoob, UCU Branch Secretary, compared Toope’s response to that of Sally Maidstone at St. Andrew’s, who wrote to UUK to call for an assessment of the pensions valuation.

He asked: “Where’s the leadership of our vice-chancellor?” He acknowledged that Toope’s statement last night was a “major victory that could not have come about without staff and students standing together on the picket lines,” but added that it is “very clear that many members of University Council wanted a much stronger statement,” and Toope is “not a CEO” and should not be able to override the internal democratic governing structures of the University. He also noted “no evidence” of Toope offering “the 6% increased distributions [...] needed” to end the disputed, which the UCU was supposedly made aware of last week.

Going forward, pressure on Toope is unlikely to diminish, as the UUK have warned of further strikes. It is yet to be seen how the position of Cambridge students, many of whom have continued to attend lectures while others have stood in solidarity with their striking lecturers, might change if strikes continue into exam term.

Varsity has contacted the University for comment.

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