The Open Meeting is taking place at Mill Lane Lecture Rooms this afternoon from 4-5pmJoe Cooke

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Join Varsity in following Vice Chancellor Stephen Toope, who is answering students' questions on Thursday, 27th February, as staff industrial action reaches its second of four weeks. 

  • Representatives from multiple student activist groups are present, including Zero Carbon, Cambridge Defend Education, Demilitarise Cambridge, Gays Against Rees-Mogg, and Cambridge UCU.
  • Follow the live-stream on Facebook here


That concludes Varsity's live blog coverage.

Thank you to everyone for tuning in with us throughout the meeting.


The last question, after which Toope and Virgo get up and start leaving the lecture rooms.

"Would Toope commit to having another open meeting with staff and students invited to that meeting?"

The question is met with applause, and Toope responds that he will think about it, which is received with laughter.


Toope says the University is investigating the links between the institution and all companies which produce fossil fuels.

A report on the pros and cons of divestment is currently ongoing, with the complete report expected to be brought to University Council in July 2020.


The last question from the audience asks about how university can justify links to fossil fuel industry given climate crisis? Shouldn't Cambridge cut all links with fossil fuel industry?


Follow-up from Edward Parker Humphreys as to whether university should close gap between highest and lowest paid employees?

Toope says that this is an extremely complicated process, but the University should question whether it is a good idea. He continues to explain that one of the problems is that women are less likely to put themselves forward for promotions and they are working to resolve this. 


Toope says that last week a hiring committee to choose a chair sent back a selection of candidates because it was only men.


A member of the audience asks how the University plans to resolve Cambridge's pay gap, which is one of the issues over which university staff are striking. 

Toope says that the Gender Pay Report is not encouraging. However, progress is still being made. The main reason for the pay gap is hierarchy - not enough women are in senior roles and there are a disproportionate number in junior roles.

He further argues there are initiatives to encourage promotion of women. Compulsory unconscious bias training for hiring committees are an important part of this.

He stresses they are working to ensure hiring pools are diverse.


Toope and Virgo are asked about whether the University will suspend attendance records during strikes so students on Tier Four visas are not forced to cross picket lines. 

Virgo says there isn't attendance monitoring for lectures. Colleges have particular monitoring regimes, but that's done at start and end of term. That includes graduate students.


A student asks a question about international fees:

"Why does the University choose to charge students from the Channel Islands international fees, when Oxford does not charge international fees for these students?"

Virgo says "that is the legal position" on how islands should be treated. They are overseas jurisdictions for the purposes of fees.

He adds the University is unable to discriminate in favor of a territory.


Toope responds that the Cambridge Zero Initiative is serious and is gaining scale.

The University Council has asked a committee tasked with evaluating all donations and research contracts from the University to a create code of conduct with regard to the University's engagement with corporate sector, which he said that he hopes will come out soon.


The next question is about whether the University's Cambridge Zero initiative is undermined by the fact Cambridge's research work has ties with fossil fuel companies.


Toope responds with, "Obviously, no" on the second question about note regarding intermitting students.

Regarding the Disabilities Resources Centre (DRC), Virgo says that the report on the crisis is "very impressive" and "identifying a really significant problem."

He acknowledges that wait-lists are extensive, and he is working with DRC to improve things.

They identified money last year for more posts, but they haven't been filled yet, and that's frustrating, he says. He further adds that there's work ongoing to ease the bureaucratic complexities of the DRC.

"Your report should be seen by everybody," he says.


CUSU Disabled Students Officer Jess O'Brien asks about the crisis of long waiting times at the Disabilities Resources Centre in the Student Services Centre.

She adds a question about intermitting students falling through the cracks of government financial support, when students often intermit because of their inability to work.


Parker Humphreys follows this up, asking for an estimated date for the University to receive living wage accreditation.

Toope argues he doesn't know and needs to check where university is in process, but stresses at the college level responds seeking accreditation is the logical thing to do.


Toope says that the University has had the Cambridge living wage since August last year. They are working with colleges on the issue of the living wage.


A student asks a question about living wage accreditation.

"The University committed to looking into this issue earlier in academic year, but when will it follow up?"


Virgo is asked then if he will apologise.

He says: "I will be making a statement about that once the students who made the complaints have been informed, and that will be soon."


Varsity’s Joe Cook references the University’s change in the standard of proof in disciplinary cases, and asks if Toope is avoiding scrutiny regarding the handling of other disciplinary cases (particularly this summer, where at least three cases were dismissed without full investigation.) Cook asks if Toope will apologise to the women involved in these complaints regarding their treatment by the University, in light of Professor Virgo appearing on Channel 4 News to say he had confidence in University processes,

He is also asked if he will apologise for sending an email to all students at the University informing them of the decision without first informing the women involved that their cases were to be shared with the entire student body. Cook also cites one complaint that has been processed for 205 days rather than the 45 days they are meant to take. 

Regarding the latter point, Virgo says he “cannot say too much for reasons of confidentiality.” He says “they are taking a long time because of complexity but they will be resolved very soon”, and that he will not comment until students are informed of the outcomes of complaints.

With regard to the “general picture”, he says “there had been a lot of publicity about that case already, and a great deal of concern” directed towards him, and so the “intention” behind the email was “to provide some explanation as to what had been going on”.

He said he was “very concerned about the decision that was made in June” and how it would affect students who had made complaints in particular. He cites the 1st October’s new standard of proof as a “very significant step,” however.


Toope states he thinks it would be inappropriate to express the view of the University here.

But he says he is feeling "optimistic" about an agreement being reached, though he does not want to get ahead of the negotiations.


Two questions follow about pensions.

"How did the University respond to a consultation that was run by UUK on the eve of the strikes?"

"Did the University make an enhanced offer that could have prevented strikes, and would it cover the costs?"


Toope emphasises he wants to talk to the colleges before he makes a firm commitment about centralising the reporting procedure.


CUSU President Edward Parker Humphreys asks whether every college should automatically direct students to the University for making complaints concerning sexual harassment.


Virgo stresses that any student who wants to make a complaint about behaviour in colleges can also take it up with the University.


Toope responds that he thinks sexual harassment is unacceptable in any form, and the University is trying to improve how it handles harassment.

He further acknowledges that colleges are self-governing, and so the University can't impose on charity trustees a specific approach to the issue.

However, he says he will formally raise the issue with the colleges committee and presses that he understands it is the duty of the University to take a stand on this too.


The next question comes from the CUSU Women's Campaign:

"Given recent reporting [surrounding senior staff members at Trinity Hall], does the University have faith in the ability of colleges to handle allegations of misconduct?"


Another student asks: "why hasn't UCU recognition been put on the table?"

Toope responds that it has been.


Toope denies previous comments that conversations with UCU are "empty words".

He points out that staff are represented on the University Council, and says he thinks that recognition of UCU should be on the table.

Toope promises to raise the issue again.


Further questions are raised about Cambridge's lack of recognition for UCU, and asks Toope to commit to recognizing UCU publicly and on university council.


The Vice-Chancellor continues that he may be able to commit to holding open meetings, but cannot guarantee two a term. 


Toope responds "no" to both questions.


The panel is asked about whether there will be another open meeting before end of term, and whether it would be open to students and workers.

It is further asked for a commitment to hold two open meetings per term going forward, which would be easily accessible.


Toope further points out that UK pensions are valued highly compares to others internationally, but that pension regulation needs to be changed.

The Vice-Chancellor says he hopes to convince the pension regulator that the University's reforms are safe and sustainable.


Toope argues he does not want to further alienate and frustrate staff.

He says the Joint Expert Panel - the group first set up to review the disputed 2017 valuation of USS - has issued two reports which facilitated progress between universities and UCU to work together on how pensions are valued.

He further states he thinks UCU and the University have a shared interest in changing this. He believes if that change were made, those possible frustrations and feelings of alienation would be mitigated.


A student asks how Toope can guarantee that pension reforms are not a gateway to potentially lowering working standards for staff further down the line.


The Vice-Chancellor responds by saying  negotiations are constantly ongoing on pension and pay issues. He claims he is speaking with interested parties every day.

He says he agrees the way of evaluating risk within pension scheme should be changed, but that more can be done surrounding UCU demands quietly than by going public, so a statement would not be a good move.


Sidney Sussex's JCR Vice-President asks Toope whether he will make a public statement about the strikes while they are still ongoing.


Toope further adds that he has met with BME and Muslim students, and has listened to their concerns.


Virgo also expresses his concerns over Prevent, and extends his sympathy to students who feel worried about its effects.

He wants to hear any student complaints about Prevent.


Toope responds that both he and the Pro-Vice-Chancellor have publicly raised concerns about the legislation.

However, he alleges the University is under obligation to follow the law, though both have supported students regarding problems relating Prevent.

Virgo also adds that he worked with student unions to produce joint response to Prevent.


Jesus's Mental Health and Disabilities Officer JCR officer asks about Prevent, the government scheme and body to which the UK public are encouraged to report to if they suspect someone is being radicalised towards extremism. Prevent has been criticised for being discriminatory to BME and Muslim students.

The JCR Officer asks what the University plans to do about this.


There is a follow-up question, asking for a commitment by Toope that the future contract won't discriminate against these colleges.

Virgo says he agrees that the timetable should be more fair, but can't make the commitment.


Virgo responds by saying that the University may not be able to change the timetable at the moment for Homerton and Gerton students, but that it may be able to next year, when the contract for bus service is up for renewal.


The Vice President of Homerton Union of Students - Homerton's JCR equivalent - asks the panel what the University plans to do about the U-Bus timetable not serving Homerton and Girton students.


Parker Humphreys asks whether funding for PhD students is too concentrated, focusing on a small number of students instead of providing wide ranging support.

Toope responds that the University prefers completely funded support packages, though he acknowledges this limits the ability for funding to be spread out.


Virgo adds that while the University wants to ensure that graduate students are allocated equally between colleges, some colleges have expressed concern about having too many MPhil students and not enough doctoral students.

He alleges the issue is one of funding for doctoral students.


Toope responds he wants there to be an increase in numbers of PhD students across the University.

He claims the University wants to re-balance these students equally among colleges, but that that it is difficult to set a rule about equal numbers of MPhil and PhD students.

He says colleges have discretion as to who to accept, and students have particular interests which fit to individual colleges. He hopes that increasing support for PhD students and their numbers overall will make some difference in addressing this issue.


The panel is asked about what can be done about colleges who can only accept a few PhD students at any one time, which for some colleges means there is not much of a graduate community.


Another student asks a question about whether pay deducted from staff who are striking is being earmarked for student hardship funds.

Virgo responds that in part this money does go towards hardship funds, as well as other funds which have contributed to it as well. He urges resolving strikes will not diminish the fund.


Virgo emphasises he is very concerned about students pursuing sex work to make up for gaps in funding.

Colleges, he says, should be able to handle the issues with their resources, but says he can only speak about the university. He argues it established funding last year to deal with student hardship, of up to £3500.


Another student asks about student intermissions, and the fact some students are turning to sex work to pay their debts.


Virgo responds by saying some training is already in place, such as safeguarding, which is  responding to how students deal with mental distress.

He further argues other discussions with colleges are ongoing about expanding this training.


The first question comes from a student who asks the panel about the lack of training given by faculties and colleges for graduates who supervise students.


Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope and Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor Graham Virgo have just arrived at the Open Meeting. 

CUSU President Edward Parker Humphries is also present.