The vice-chancellor engaged openly with staff and students in a packed church yesterday afternoonComposite: Louis Ashworth

“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.

No clear stance on divestment from fossil fuels

“I can’t ensure that the University will divest,” said the vice-chancellor regarding indirect investments of Cambridge’s endowment by third-party fund managers.

The discussion reached its most heated point over the issue of divestment from fossil fuels, as the vice-chancellor was reluctant to detail a stance or strategy on the University’s investments in fossil fuels and how to divest from them, despite a clear desire from the audience to do so.

“I think it’s really inappropriate to pre-judge what the governance will actually come up with.”

He emphasised that the decision to divest lies ultimately in the University governing body’s hands. Even when pushed to voice a personal stance, Toope stood firm in his reluctance to vocalise his stance before the working group produced its final report. He said: “I think it’s really inappropriate to pre-judge what the governance will actually come up with.”

Toope also clashed with students over the perceived conflicts of interest in members of the University Working Group having ties to fossil fuel companies. He stressed that these members’ experiences in the industry would influence them, but so would ethical considerations and student opinion. He said: “The point of constructing the working group is to ensure that there is a range of views.”

While he regards climate change to be “the fundamental, crucial claim of our generation”, Toope did not detail any clear policies regarding improvements to transparency of the University’s indirect investments, only noting: “We are absolutely committed to greater transparency, and that’s going to happen soon.”

He stressed the difficulties of transparency in the University’s investments. In posing a rhetorical question to the audience: “how do we know that we’re investing in Shell?”, Toope then outlined complications of bundled investments in which “some very successful investment managers [...] simply will not provide full transparency on every bundle”.

Consensus on pensions

The past four weeks of industrial action have seen the issue of pension reform at the forefront of activist efforts, though it is largely seen as just one symptom of a broader issue: the marketisation of higher education.

Toope agreed largely with audience members on issues raised regarding pensions, and was met with the greatest applause during this portion of the discussion. He referenced his letter to The Times yesterday in which he attacked the “fundamental error” of university marketisation, as well as his recent concessions to demands made by occupiers – such as his pledge to make no pay deductions for those who refuse to reschedule teaching time.

He was, however, reluctant to make promises about future action. When asked by Cambridge UCU’s vice-president, Dr Sam James, why Cambridge’s response to the UUK consultation, in which it advocated lower risk pension plans, hasn’t been publicly rescinded as Oxford’s has, Toope stressed that it is “actually very difficult to change the acceptance of risk that has already been authorised by an employer group within a pension scheme.”

He added, however, that in his opinion, the consultation “was done far too quickly” and there “probably wasn’t enough thought” given to the various factors at play.

Asked about the possibility of strike action extending into the examinations period, he said: “I cannot guarantee it because it doesn’t rest in my control”, though he noted that the consequences of this on students would be “terrible and unacceptable” and pledged to do everything in his power to find a resolution before this point.

Notably, at one point, Toope described the precarious situation faced by many UK academics, and said: “Our salaries are too low.” The crowd erupted into laughter following this comment, and Toope, whose large salary has been widely criticised, added “not mine”.

Toope ‘personally’ supports reforms of disciplinary procedure

When questioned about why the University still requires proof beyond at the legal standard of reasonable doubt in its sexual misconduct disciplinary procedure, Toope emphasised that he is “only a voice in the consultation process”, though stated that he personally supports the use of a “civil standard of proof” – the balance of probability – as opposed to a “criminal standard”.

“[I am] only a voice in the consultation process.”

Again, he stressed his incapacity to change the situation alone, though he promised that the topic “will be an active conversation” with groups across the University in the following weeks.

Toope blames colleges, not university leadership, for rent disparities

Toope acknowledged the issue of staggering rent inequalities between colleges which has been widely discussed in recent weeks, particularly in light of mounting Cut the Rent campaigns and a Varsity investigation earlier this term which revealed a 67% disparity between college rents.

Yet he denied personal responsibility, emphasising that the decision-making power regarding rent charges lies in individual colleges’ hands. The conversation veered to graduate student housing developments branded as affordable, which are, in reality, unaffordable for low-income residents – in response, Toope pointed to a broader problem: “Cambridge is too expensive.”

Prevent duty ‘fundamentally misconceived’

Toope’s stance on the Prevent duty may have come as a relief to some: he agreed that it “poses a threat” to freedom of thought and expression and civil liberties, and called the legislation “fundamentally misconceived”.

“We’re really committed to take the lightest possible touch around Prevent.”

His comments on the University’s implementation on the policy, however, were found wanting. He said: “We’re really committed to take the lightest possible touch around Prevent”, and referenced the fact that the University’s Prevent Referral Group has only met twice since 2015, though neglected to acknowledge that the group is only one of many bodies within the University which may enforce Prevent legislation – Cambridge colleges have their own Prevent committees and count as individual institutions.

He did, however, admit that in an incident last November which saw an academic barred from chairing an event hosted by the Cambridge University Palestine Society and the Cambridge University Middle East Society, the University handled the situation wrongly, and referenced its apology.

Decolonisation provides “new optics on inherited traditions”

On the topic of decolonisation, Toope agreed that it holds “a lot of value” and advocated the alternative views which provide “new optics on inherited traditions”, though he cautioned, once again, that the decision-making power regarding curriculum content does not lie in his hands.

He did concede, however, that university leadership can, and should, “try to encourage” the introduction of more inclusive curriculums, emphasising that this is important in all subjects, “not just in the humanities”. Toope spoke of pro-vice chancellor Graham Virgo’s recent discussions with faculties promoting “thoughtful consideration”.