Stephen Toope answered questions on Prevent, divestment and other University investmentsDevarshi Lodhia

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  • Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope held a second open meeting for staff and students today at Mill Lane Lecture Theatres, alongside Graham Virgo, University of Cambridge pro-vice-chancellor for education, and Martha Krish, CUSU education officer
  • Around 80 staff and students attended the meeting
  • The discussion touched on divestment, investment transparency and drinking society culture


Analysis: Toope’s talk revealed the University’s true priorities

Noella Chye and Rosie Bradbury write:

“Is the world changing? Yes. Is it changing fast enough? No”, the vice-chancellor told the group of 80 gathered in Mill Lane lecture theatres yesterday evening.

Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope, alongside Pro-vice-chancellor for Education Graham Virgo, were questioned on the University’s approach to divestment, drinking societies, and racial justice. A pattern emerged in Toope’s responses: consistently answering questions about what needs to be done with citing work that the University has already done.

Read the full report here

Toope calls for University action against ‘unacceptable’ drinking society culture

Noella Chye and Caitlin Smith write:

Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope and Pro-vice-chancellor Graham Virgo today denounced Cambridge’s drinking societies, and indicated initial plans for University action amid mounting accusations of drinking society misdemeanour.

“I am not very sympathetic of any organisation where the primary purpose is to drink,” the vice-chancellor told the crowd of 80 gathered in the Mill Lane Lecture Theatre this evening in an open meeting previously agreed upon in response to student occupiers last term.

Read the full report here

Students confront Toope on divestment and democracy

Isobel Griffiths and Anna Mochar write:

"The meeting at Mill Lane Lecture Theatres, chaired by CUSU Education Officer Martha Krish, focused on the University’s investment strategy and its internal democratic structures, as well as specific measures that it might take regarding racial justice and drinking societies."

Read the full report here.

6:38pm Martha Krish concludes the open meeting, repeating her hopes that it would not be the last of such events. 

This is the Varsity live open meeting coverage, signing off. 

6:36pm Toope commits to hearing a "variety of student voices".

Specifically, he adds, he wants to implement processes that allow him to hear from a range of voices, which he has been doing through consultation exercises and meetings with various student groups.

He adds: "I'm not sure yet what the right balance is going forward.", yet, "to answer the question, yes I commit to that, but i'm not sure what the right framework will be."

6:31pm One student asks how the University is planning to address college drinking societies, characterising them as “inherently problematic structures" that "promote an environment of racism, sexism, as well as bad practice to the welfare of students".

Toope notes that the question of how to address drinking societies has been “just canvassed very forcefully at the last Senior Tutor's meeting”, and that he views drinking societies as producing “unacceptable behaviour”. He adds that the difficulty is "figuring out how best to address” the problem, adding that “some colleges” have banned drinking societies. 

Virgo warns against treating societies as “a college problem”, saying that "we need to think constructively about what needs to be done to change the culture."

He adds that "sometimes I think banning is appropriate", and that drinking societies can be brought back "with a different purpose", where they are open to all, and not gendered. He also points to the Good Lad initiative, which engages with sports and drinking societies themselves to curtail bad behaviour.

6:21pm Martha Krish asks the vice-chancellor whether he believes that students have enough input in the decision-making processes of the University, especially given the decentralisation of the college system.

Toope replies, “students are relatively well-represented” in the University's formal structures. He adds, however, that he believes that there needs to be a “wider diversity of voices around key issues” in informal structures, in order “get all the ideas on the table” and “to drive change”.

6:19pm CUSU access & funding officer Olivia Hylton-Pennant asks: "How do we keep BME issues on the agenda?"

She adds that she would personally hope to see regular forums. Specifically, disparities between colleges have been a problem, despite the ongoing work by the CUSU BME campaign. 

Toope commented: "I completely agree that this cannot be dependent on specific places." He said he would talk to the race equality champions.

Toope and Hylton-Pennant agree for her to send him a paper she has been working on, researching measures implemented in American universities.

6:16pm CUSU Welfare and Rights Officer Micha Frazer-Carroll asks the panel how the University will ensure that there are "allies placed" within University structures in order to improve services for BME students.

Virgo says that he has "been talking" with the University Counselling Service (UCS) in order to "maintain what has already been achieved", including the ability of BME students to now request a BME counsellor.

He adds that the University will be hiring "three more counsellors" to "really ensure that UCS and responses to mental health are appropriate". 

6:15pm Toope was asked about the repeated condemnation of BME Cambridge academics in the press, referencing, particularly, the recent attack on Churchill Fellow in English, Priyamvada Gopal, amid claims that the University's responses have been slow. 

Toope adds that he does not agree with the premise that the University is too slow to respond. He comments: "I think it is our responsibility to say that this isn’t acceptable, and I’ve seen us doing that on a number of occasions." He adds, however, that the University must see if it can be more robust in doing so. 

He references measures behind the scenes, such as media training and counselling, to assist those targeted. He hopes "that we will take a robust stance on this."

6:13pm Another audience member describes the Prevent duty as a fundamental attack on civil liberties, and says: "a light touch approach isn't sufficient", adding that the University needs to actively prioritise freedom of speech.

Toope acknowledges that we must challenge the government on the Prevent duty, asking for it to be evaluated independently.

He added: "I think the best we can do is to say we know we have to abide by legislation, it's a duty we all have, but we are going to do our very best to interpret that legislation in as light touch a way as possible.

"But I completely accept that there could be chilling effects.

When an audience member points out the difference between having a light touch and an active approach to prioritising human rights, Toope added: "I interpret light touch to mean prioriitising human rights concerns in the balance, so we wouldn't – unless we had a pretty solid knowledge base – we wouldn't refer someone to the security services.

"So far, we haven't. And in that sense, there has been in Cambridge, a light touch."

6:10pm One student asks why the University continues to take a "light touch" with Prevent when it "is a fundamental attack on civil liberties and is fundamentally racist," and does not challenge the legislation. Toope says that as a public institution it is bound by the legislation, and not in a position to get rid of it.

Virgo urges that the University must argue "vociferously" with the Prevent duty, particularly considering the minister for higher education has come out, "quite rightly", in support of freedom of speech.

6:06pm Virgo adds that he also shares concerns that there are "far too BME academics who are engaged in teaching and research".

He mentions that he has concerns that the decolonisation movement may assume that this only applies to certain parts of the University. He called it "rubbish" for there to be any assumption that only BME lecturers should engage with decolonisation, and that it should be a task for everyone.

6:05pm Krish reads a question submitted about what procedures the University will implement to ensure there are posts specialising in, for example, decolonisation. 

Toope says: "One of the great challenges here is the diffuse nature of the decision-making procedure.

"The reality is, one of the things we have to change is our budget model so we know that when we have concrete problems that need to be addressed, we have some capacity to resolve them, because right now it seems to be the other way around."

He describes the current situation: "I talk to heads of department, express concerns about these issues, but ultimately it all happens from the bottom up."

Krish added that heads of department have similarly voiced concerns about the lack of control of hiring people they feel they want to hire.

Toope responds, that is at the level of the school and department.

He notes, however, that one thing we can do right now is "ask harder and harder questions about applicant pools and membership on hiring committees. He added: "That's something where I can have a role to play and I do." 

5:59pm Toope took over to mention that the University has two "race champions". He says that he has worked with them to identify a "whole series of potential actions", and that he "wants to actively pursue a whole range of opportunities" on racial issues.

5:58pm The discussion has moved to the topic of racial justice, an issue Krish remarks has consistently been raised.

Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education Graham Virgo responds, commenting on the ongoing Breaking the Silence campaign. He says that there are connections to be drawn with the issue of racial justice and the University.

Virgo adds: "We really need to move forward on that and to do that in a really constructive way.

"We need to deliver on the ground, and I am well aware that there are some very significant concerns faced by students every day that we need to address."

5:56pm Responding to a question highlighting the fact that Cambridge has been deemed the "most unequal city in the UK" and asking whether the University should hold any responsibility for this, Toope enthusiastically states that the University should hold social responsibility.

He mentions that he meets regularly with the leader of Cambridge City Council to discuss issues like social inequality, and that the University is part of an initiative called 'Accelerate East', which aims to assist young people in the East of England participate in employment and educational opportunities.

5:53pm One audience member questions Toope's claim that the University endowment is a small one, pointing out that the London Pensions Scheme, Church of Ireland, with relatively larger endowments, have committed to divest.

Toope asks those present, however, to look at "all of the large universities around the world", and ask "how many of them have divested." 

The questioner points out, however, that the wish is not for the University to divest immediately, but  for a commitment to do so sometime in the future.

Toope responds: "Is the world changing? Yes," which is met with hushed laughter from the audience. 

He continues, asserting he was being "serious", that "I think there's a question of what's the right pace", and what decisions the University must make now in light of that. 

5:53pm A speaker based at the Department of Geography asks the vice-chancellor whether he accepts that the University's involvement in research can be treated as separate from the issue of divestment, and if research partnerships – sometimes with corporate organisations – should preclude the University from taking the decision to divest financially.

Toope refuses to answer, as he says this would reveal details from the divestment working group

5:48pm Toope responds to a question on whether the University is obliged to take reponsibility for historic wrongdoing, by raising the question of "what it means to move forward" and how we can do "good things now to get us to a better place"

He adds that he thinks it is "appropriate for all institutions of society to accept and admit that historically they were complicit" in wrongdoings.

He also highlights that the consequences of changing the investments of the University's endowment even slightly would have large effects in the future, which may not be able to be predicted.

5:43pm When probed again for a personal stance on divestment, Toope responds, as in the first open meeting, that he cannot voice one. 

He says: "I have an obligation because I am a member of and I chair the [University] Council. I am under the obligation of confidentiality."

He adds that he will not be able to voice a personal stance until the Council's decision on divestment is announced on Monday 21st May.

5:43pm CUCA member Henry Mitson asks whether the university intends to take disciplinary action against Cambridge Zero Carbon Society following their action yesterday, which saw them using chalk spray to paint slogans on the walls of Senate House.

Toope responds that this could be a possibility, as the University has a strict code for those who deface property.

5:40pm When talking about the University's investments, Toope says that the University is in fact a "small investment fund". He says the University therefore invests in "smaller, boutique operations" which often see "directly positive results" for the University. 

He says "the University has done way better than most investors with endowment funds which produces directly positive results for the University," improving the state of the University in terms of its ability to offer scholarships, among other things.

He says it is a case of the University trying to determine how "mature" the market of boutique ethical investments is, and whether it will be able to "achieve successful results moving in that particular direction."

5:38pm Toope said, commenting on the Council decision on divestment to come on Monday: "I can't promise that everyone will be satisfied by all of the recommendations."

He added, however, that, "I have rarely seen a group of people working harder to come forward with credible recommendations."

5:36pm Toope has responded saying the Council needs to think about "balances" when making the decision on the University's investments. He adds that the University of Cambridge is not alone in "struggling" with the question of how their endowments can be used appropriately to move towards a carbon-neutral future.

5:35pm Speaking about the University's investment responsibility, he stresses that one of the overarching roles of the University is to forward scientific knowledge.

He raises examples of students in the Judge Business School and Clinical School of Medicine where students are working on social innovations. "They want to make sure they're making a positive contribution to society. 

"I've always argued that universities themselves should be living laboratories where we're using the best knowledge we have to improve operations, to improve social interactions, to improve our environmental performance."

5:34pm Martha Krish reads aloud a question from a student group which asks whether Toope recognises the evidence of the effectiveness of divestment, and whether the University recognises the the duty of the University Council is not just to maximise the financial resources of the University

5:29pm Toope says he is having a meeting tomorrow with Universities Minister Sam Gyimah 

5:29pm Krish moves on to a question on Prevent, asking what the vice-chancellor is doing to ensure a "light touch" in its implementation, as he has previously committed to. 

Toope again cited the University's apology regarding a previous PalSoc event. He added: "Everyone that I have talked to is committed to what I have described as a light touch. 

"There is not a single person who has been reported or referred out of the Prevent committee into security services concerns, and I'm delighted about that."

He acknowledged, however, that that the University is obliged to report students if necessary as part of the duty's implications, and added: "We just have to keep making sure that that process is perceived as fair and reasonable, because it is."

5:28pm Krish is now asking about the marketisation of education, highlighting that vice-chancellor has previously said he has committed to working with students on the issue

5:23pm Krish has asked the vice-chancellor to follow up on his commitment to look into the University's involvement in BAE's business in terms of arms manufacture. Toope denies that the University is supporting BAE.

5:22pm Martha Krish has asked the vice-chancellor about his previous commitments to greater transparency, as well as any progress he has made in obtaining information about the University's investments – knowledge he has previously denied having.

Toope responds that Council adopted a set of principles at its last meeting regarding greater transparency, including better reporting of discussions, and training for council members to ensure a better understanding of current investments. He also commented that the working group report includes recommendations about transparency. 

5:19pm Toope is addressing issues of employment at the University, mentioning a desire to solve the University's "underlying pay problem" 

5:17pm Krish has asked the vice-chancellor about the issue of gender pay gaps at the University. Toope states that the issue is complex, and will require "a lot of analysis" to solve.

5:15pm He remarks, their comments were helpful, but not surprising.

5:15pm The vice-chancellor has confirmed he has read a set of letters from staff and students about their image of the future of the university. He comments that divestment and the issue of climate justice was a prominent one, alongside the ongoing Breaking the Silence campaign.

5:15pm Toope reflects on the issues of last term, saying he appreciates that "even when people have had divisive opinions on subjects, we’ve been able to have that conversation”

5:10pm The meeting has opened with a short speech from Toope— he says that he recognises that there are "legitimate, serious concerns about the evolution of higher education in the United Kingdom”

5:08pm Questions in the meeting will focus on three issues: the economic and environmental responsibilities of the University, racial justice, and the University's internal democracy. There will be time for open questions at the end.

4:12pm Varsity is reporting live from the second open meeting with Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope, who is expected to address student and staff questions on divestment, racial justice, and the University's internal democracy.