Cambridge UCU vice-president Sam James, CUSU education officer Martha Krish and vice-chancellor Stephen Toope Mathias Gjesdal Hammer

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  • Cambridge vice-chancellor Stephen Toope held an open meeting today for students and staff in Great St Mary's Church, attended by approximately 550 people.
  • The meeting began with a discussion on the ongoing pensions dispute, but then delved into a range of students' concerns such as University disciplinary procedures for sexual misconduct and the Prevent policy.
  • The discussion reached its most heated point over the issue of divestment from fossil fuels, as students called for greater transparency in the University's indirect investments – Toope noted that “it's very complicated to know” whether the University has indirect investments in fossil fuel corporations such as Shell. 
  • The meeting followed a five-day occupation of Old Schools by Cambridge Defend Education; the University administration agreed to the open meeting in negotiations with the occupiers.
  • CUSU education officer Martha Krish chaired the discussion, with Cambridge UCU branch vice-president Dr. Sam James.

What Toope said – and didn’t say – at yesterday’s talk

Noella Chye, Stephanie Stacey, and Rosie Bradbury write:

“You may have sensed a theme, which is that vice-chancellors don’t have control over the university,” vice-chancellor Stephen Toope said yesterday afternoon to over 500 students gathered in Great St Mary’s in an open meeting demanded by student occupiers at Old Schools.

Although the meeting was the culmination of mounting student pressure on the University to engage openly with staff and students, it saw little in the way of concrete solutions, with Toope remaining vague and evasive on several key concerns.

Read the full report here.

Hundreds of students gather to quiz Toope on pensions, divestment, and Prevent

Noella Chye and Jack Conway write:

An estimated 550 staff and students gathered in Great St Mary’s Church this afternoon for an open meeting with vice-chancellor Stephen Toope, where he engaged in an open discussions with staff and students about the ethical and political issues at the heart of Cambridge.

The discussion spanned the University’s investments in fossil fuels, during which tensions peaked in the chamber, alongside its disciplinary procedure for sexual misconduct and the University’s actions during the ongoing national pensions dispute.

Read the full report here.

3:36pm Krish ends the discussion, and presents Toope with a collection of ‘letters to the future University’ written by students and staff on picket lines, imploring him to reflects on what's been written, on “peoples' hopes and fears”. 

3:34pm CUSU disabilities officer-elect Emrys Travis argues that Toope has “a platform” nationally on divestment. Toope reiterates what he regards as his limited influence in the decision-making process, and that he wants to wait on the report by the Divestment Working Group. 

Toope asks: “How do we know that we're investing in Shell?”, adding that “it's very complicated to know" because we hold “funds of funds”. He states that he can't say unequivocally that the University holds no investment in Shell.

Architecture graduate student Ben Beach asks: “Do you not think the university has a direct ethical responsibility to understand where its money is?”, to which Toope responds: “To the best of its ability, yes”. 

One audience member shouts “invest only in transparent things!”, and others cheer.

3:25pm Martha Krish relays a question from CUSU women's officer Lola Olufemi on why the University requires proof “beyond reasonable doubt” in their sexual misconduct disciplinary procedure. 

Toope emphasises that he is “only a voice in the consultation process”, but that he supports the move toward a ”civil standard of proof”, as he believes that Universities are inadequately placed to reach criminal standards of proof. “This will be an active conversation” with groups across the University in the following weeks, he adds.

3:19pm On the construction of a housing development in West Cambridge, Toope describes a “fundamental problem for our employees” that “Cambridge is too expensive”.

He also says that he will enlist a study to be done on whether University developments are “inflating land values”. 

3:17pm Asked on how he might address rent and cost disparities across Cambridge colleges, Toope replies that “colleges make independent decisions” around student cost, but notes that the “real inequity across the University” would be alleviated with “a much more expansive student support scheme”. 

3:14pm One student asks Toope on the partnerships of the Department of Engineering with the UK arms trade, which she argues is providing arms to the Turkish government that are being used to ”commit war crimes”, Toope promises that he will “take a really close look at that”.

3:12pm Asked by Krish on decolonisation of Cambridge curriculums, Toope notes that it's “at the departmental level that this will begin to happen”, but adds: "That doesn't mean we can't try to promote" decolonized curriculums.

He emphasises, "it's not just in the humanities" that we should focus our efforts.

3:09pm Krish asks Toope: ”Do you believe the Prevent duty poses a threat to this and our civil liberties?”. Toope responds: “Yes”, emphasising the University's commitment to a “lightest possible touch”, and referencing their recent apology in barring an academic from chairing a PalSoc event last term. 

3:07pm An audience member asks about Cambridge's investment policy, and asks whether Toope thinks that students deserve to know where the University is investing. 

Toope begins by noting that "offshore funds have a bad reputation, as they should". Toope says he has seen a lot of "frustration" since he's arrived about "the way we report on the endowment", and says he has asked for "greater transparency" in this area.  

3:06pm Toope disagrees with one student who argues that the links of two members of the Divestment Working Group to the fossil fuel industry as a “conflict of interest”, arguing that the University must take into account “a range of views” across the University. 

He adds that some funds from fossil fuel companies go toward ”clean energy research”. 

3:02pm Student Simon Percelay asks divestment should be an ethical decision based on student demands, rather than decided by experts who might only recommend a certain measure of divestment.

Toope says that "the social context is absolutely crucial, the student context is absolutely at the centre", and there is "enormous work being done here at Cambridge", and says that he believes that climate change is the "biggest ethical issue of our generation". In his answer, he echoed a lot of what he told Varsity in an interview shortly after taking up the role of vice-chancellor. 

2:58pm Moving the conversation toward climate justice, Martha Krish asks Toope what he will do to ensure that the university divests” from fossil fuels, referencing a leaked report from the University Divestment Working Group. 

Toope says: “I can't ensure the University divests”, which one audience member boos. Toope refuses to give his personal stance on the issue, emphasising that the Governance Group's work should take precedence. 

2:56pm Varsity's Editor-at-Large, Louis Ashworth, asks whether Toope thinks that the Bursar's Committee should be more transparent. It is known that the Committee sent out a recommendation last year, encouraging colleges to rejected the higher-risk pension option: many colleges have distanced themselves from the decision in recent weeks. Toope responds by stressing that he does not sit on the Bursar's Committee, and that he has "no authority in relation to college governance". 

2:51pm Cambridge UCU secretary Waseem Yaqoob criticises the “casualisation and use of casual contracts” in the higher education sector, receiving loud applause. 

Toope addresses his question by emphasising the sway which individual colleges of Cambridge have on casual employment, though adding: “we have finally committed to signing on to the Living Wage employment”. 

2:48pm Toope outlines his position on the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework, calling the subject-specific move within TEF as ”extremely problematic”, saying he wants to “challenge the assumption” that the frameworks are “inevitable”. 

2:43pm Speaking about the University's budget, Toope emphasises that carefully balancing it and making investment choices is “crucial”, and advocates for an improvement of the budget system to address issues surrounding staff pay, noting the “base salary levels” and the gender pay gap.

He says he is working to “adjust the budget" so the University is “committing clearly to the staff as much as we can”. 

He denies the University having untapped financial resources, saying, “we've got to find new sources of revenue”.

2:39pm One student brings up her concern — to both the CUSU representative and to Stephen Toope — of lack of support for disabled students during the period of industrial action. 

Toope responds that students should bring their unaddressed concerns to pro-vice-chancellor for education Graham Virgo as well as to college officers, but references the Disability Access Centre and University Counselling Service as supporting student welfare. 

Krish adds: “We obviously care about students, and especially student welfare” but notes that this has ”been a politically very difficult situation.”

2:35pm Toope says: “We've gone a long long way down a route that says somehow we have to spend a long time justifying our economic value in order to convince governments to support Higher Education.” This is met by applause.

2:34pm A student in the audience asks how Toope will directly combat marketisation.

Toope cites the Office for Students “framing, which says that the office is there to protect weak students who are paying for something, and have to get ‘value for money’” , which he regards as a flawed approach – “we need to expand the discourse” to ”not just the economic values”, he adds. 

2:31pm Toope criticises the “role governments can play sometimes, if they overregulate,” but adds : “I am not advocating an unregulated market”.

2:31pm Toope says that his interactions with students have proven that most people “are here because they want to learn”.

We need to open up a discussion that “doesn't position universities as the problem that has to be regulated” but as a wonderful resource.

Dr Sam James raises concerns about whether Toope advocates simply for “removal of regulation, not removal of marketisation”, which receives wide applause.

2:28pm Referencing Toope's letter in The Times today on the marketisation of higher education, James asks Toope about what he will do to address the nature of the system. 

Toope criticises how “beholden we are to regulatory frameworks” in the Higher Education sector, arguing that they are ”quite intrusive in decision-making in the University.

Toope condemns the “drift into the sensibility that students are purely consumers, and that their only motivation is economic gain”, which students applaud.

2:25pm Asked about the prospect of industrial action during examinations, Toope says “I think the impact upon our students will be both terrible and really unacceptable.” 

He promises to “do everything possible” to move towards a settlement but notes that he “cannot guarantee it”.

2:24pm On Toope's recent announcement ensuring staff pay would not be docked for action short of a strike, James responds: ”Staff have been worrying about this for four weeks — it's later than it should have been”.

2:23pm Krish asks Toope how he will “show his commitment” to addressing problems such as the gender pay gap.

Dr Sam James emphasises that this dispute “is not just about academic staff” and says “this university is not only its staff, it's also its students”. He notes that he welcomes the withdrawal of the threat made to staff to dock 100% of pay for industrial action, but asks why this threat was ever made. 

In response, Toope says “I don't know.”

2:21pm ”Our salaries are too low – I know that”, Toope says; laughs from the audience ensue. He adds: ”Not mine!” while one member of the audience says, ”you should share yours!” 

2:20pm Martha Krish asks Toope to explain why staff have received a real terms pay cut in the last few years, while students' tuition fees have tripled.

Toope says: “I genuinely believe that staff are the heart of this university.” He too questions the lack of pay rises for academic staff in the UK, and says “we should be trying to address” the many issues around academic payments and benefits in the UK.

2:19pm Toope speaks of the statutory duty of the pensions regulator to “take a prudent approach” to the pensions scheme. He speaks of the 42% minority of institutions who voted for a ’more moderate’ approach to risk in the USS September valuation, arguing that the minority of institutions represented the ”vast majority of people” with a stake in the scheme. 

He adds: ”I never wanted to be a pensions scheme expert”.

2:15pm Dr Sam James, Cambridge UCU vice-president, asks Toope about why Cambridge's statement at the UUK meeting in September, in which it advocated lower risk pension plans “hasn't been publicly rescinded”, as Oxford's has.

Toope responds, saying that we need “greater imagination” in creating a suitable pensions scheme, and noting that the initial agreement was “done very very quickly” and there “probably wasn’t enough thought given moving off the either/or position.” 

2:12pm Toope describes the University's techniques of working directly with UUK by “positioning ideas” for pension scheme changes, as well as having conversations with “innumerable” vice-chancellors and other Russell Group institutions. 

2:09pm Toope expresses his confidence that the meeting will “open up a lot of areas of mutual interest”, and explains his position in the negotiating process: “Cambridge is one of many, many employers” in pre-1992 institutions, though it is an “important institution”. 

2:07pm The questions put to Toope have been provided partly by the occupiers and partly from a survey issued last week by CUSU. The topics discussed will include, climate justice, health, racist policies, disciplinary procedures and also open questions from attendees.

2:06pm In her opening statement, CUSU education officer Martha Krish praises “student determination for transparency and democracy”, and the “incredibly strong student voice” on the dispute, with more than 20 universities in occupation.

2:02pm Around 300 students and staff are in attendance in Great St. Mary's Church.

1:43pm Read the full report of today's mass rally, which marked the end of the occupation and the past four weeks of industrial strike action, here.

This is Varsity reporting live from the open meeting with Cambridge vice-chancellor Stephen Toope regarding changes to university staff pensions.

The meeting takes place on the final day of two weeks of escalating strike action at universities across the country, with more anticipated for next term. Cambridge Defend Education (CDE) listed the open meeting as one of its demands in ending their five-day occupation of Old Schools, the central University administrative building.

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