Graham Virgo at this evening's education open meetingDevarshi Lodhia

In an open meeting held this evening, Graham Virgo, the Senior Pro Vice Chancellor for Education, emphasised his desire for an “interdisciplinary” overhaul of the Cambridge Tripos, arguing that “we shouldn’t have to live with the traditional Tripos structure”.

He said that he was “concerned about our very siloed Tripos subjects”, asking “why can’t you experiment with other papers?”.

Virgo spoke on the need for Tripos reform in the context of decolonisation, arguing that reform of the Tripos needs to go beyond decolonisation of the curriculum. When accused of deflecting on the question of decolonisation, Virgo said that he agreed that it was important to make Tripos “more global”, but added that “that might not be enough”, adding that making triposes more interdisciplinary “may give you the opportunity to engage with other voices.”

However, Virgo did not elaborate on whether he had any concrete plans to initiate such a reform of Tripos.

Virgo also spoke on revelations published by Varsity last month of the University’s bid to compete for a Ministry of Defence psychological research programme. Virgo was unable to provide extra detail, but argued that “it is entirely appropriate for researchers to decide that’s the research they want to do”, stating that “autonomy” for research “as long as it’s legal, is something I’ll always argue for.”

The open meeting was largely attended by candidates running in the CUSU and GU elections, with convenor Matt Kite, current CUSU Education Officer, reminding candidates at the beginning of the meeting to “refrain from active campaigning during the forum”.

CUSU presidential candidates Shadab Ahmed and Edward Parker Humphreys both took the opportunity to ask questions to Virgo: Ahmed asked about why the University does not fund liberation campaigns, whilst Parker Humphreys asked what preventative measures the University’s Student Mental Health and Wellbeing strategies would take.

In response to Parker Humphreys’ question, Virgo discussed a review of student workload he undertook in his first year as Vice Chancellor for Education, a position which he assumed in 2014, stating that reforms such as freeing Wednesday afternoons of contact hours – one of Parker Humphrey’s policies – were rejected in student consultations. He added that “the time has come for another review”.

To Ahmed, Virgo said that the University did not fund liberation campaigns due to “limited resources”, although he acknowledged their importance. Liberation campaigns such as Cambridge BME Campaign and Cambridge Class Act are currently supported and funded by CUSU.

This triggered a debate on whether the University could afford to fund liberation campaigns, with Ethical Affairs Officer Jake Simms pointing to Vice Chancellor Stephen Toope’s salary, which is the second highest in the UK. Virgo argued that CUSU, which funds liberation campaigns, is “given its budget and makes its decision about how that is allocated” and that “there is a process for CUSU to apply in the normal way for new money”.

In May 2018, CUSU announced that they had received a significant funding boost from Cambridge, of £80,000 annually, signalling an end to a series of financial losses which have plagued the student union in recent years.

Poppy Cockburn, a candidate for University Councillor who is running on a pro-divestment platform, used this as an opportunity to ask whether the University’s finances would “continue to be used as a justification for unethical investments”.

Her rival in the race for University Councillor, Tamzin Byrne, focused on questioning Virgo on the Student Support Initiative (SSI), a proposed £500m plan to expand postgraduate studentships and enhance financial support for undergraduate students.

She criticised Virgo’s remarks that the plan would not focus only on those in dire financial need, but that funds from the SSI and the recent Harding donation may also be used to attract postgraduate students to Cambridge who might otherwise choose to go to institutions with better postgraduate funding, so that “Cambridge becomes an attractive place for the very best postgraduate students.”

In a later Facebook post, Byrne said: “This is totally contrary to what the Vice Chancellor has been saying in public and totally against the states commitment to supporting students who can’t afford a Cambridge education.”


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Virgo was also asked on the foundation programme, a transitional period for students who “have ability and potential but who have experienced educational disadvantage”. Virgo emphasised that the transition programme would only be implemented if funding was raised to ensure that “no additional expenses” such as tuition fees and maintenance costs would burden students who took the foundational year.

Virgo was also questioned on a report released by the Disabled Students’ Campaign, which criticised the University’s failure to fulfil its legal duty to provide academic adjustments to disabled students. Virgo said that although he had not finished reading the report, which was released on the morning of the open meeting, he was “very grateful” for the work put into the report and that “absolutely, where there are legal and moral failings the University and colleges must respond.”

Jess O’Brien, candidate for Disabled Students’ Officer, asked about the failings in long term counselling support in Cambridge, to which Virgo said that the University is “engaging with the government and the local NHS to ensure that [those suffering from severe mental health conditions] can get the proper support.” He also agreed that the Disability Resource Centre is underfunded.

Other topics brought up were Brexit, by CUSU Education Officer candidate Ali Hyde, and Prevent, raised by his rival Howard Chae, as well as Cici Carey-Stuart, candidate for CUSU and GU Welfare & Rights Officer.

On Prevent, Virgo said that he hoped to “explore presenting a joint response with CUSU and the GU” to the current review of the programme, whilst on Brexit he emphasised uncertainties surrounding its future but added that assurances on travel and funding for current students being unaffected had been given by the UK government.

This article was updated on Wednesday 6th March to include information on questions asked about a report released by the DSC and about counselling support in Cambridge.

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