The virus, the variants, the vaccines: Covid continued to shape our lives in 2021Lucas Maddalena

From the University’s plans for a £400m deal with the UAE, to a free speech crisis at the Union: News editors past and present look back on the stories that made a mark this year.

January - Returns to Cambridge restricted

The latest national lockdown marked the second time in as many years that the University was forced to adapt to remote learning Lucas Maddalena

The year began with a national lockdown. Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope announced that while the University and colleges would remain open throughout Lent, teaching would move online, and students would only be allowed to return in exceptional circumstances. Varsity reported on student discontent at disparities between different colleges’ return policies, with the SU and many students calling for a University-wide approach. One spoke of the “uncomfortable experience” of having to “share very personal issues and medical history in order to be taken seriously enough to be granted permission to return.”

Elsewhere, the University announced its Foundation Year scheme for educationally and socially disadvantaged students. The free scholarship will accept students who achieve at least BBB grades at A-level and whose education has been disrupted, with those completing the programme offered a place on an undergraduate course.

February - Divestment at Pembroke, Trinity, and Selwyn

XR activists dug up the Trinity front lawn in August 2020 to pressure the College into divesting from fossil fuelsExtinction Rebellion

February saw Pembroke, Trinity, and Selwyn all act to curtail their investments in fossil fuels. First, Pembroke promised full divestment by 2023. Four days later, Trinity pledged to do so by 2031, including full divestment from fossil fuels in public equities by the end of this year. Later that month, Selywn, which had sold all its direct holdings in fossil fuels in 2019, introduced stricter constraints on investing into funds which invest in fossil fuels. The College announced in November that it would remove all “meaningful” indirect investments by the end of 2021.

Meanwhile, the University U-turned on its controversial rejection of a ‘no detriment’ policy to assess students’ work. The package of eight mitigation measures it created included excluding a student’s lowest mark when calculating their overall class and modified exam durations.

March - Cambridge reacts to the murder of Sarah Everard

One of the messages written on King’s Parade in March 2021Amy Howell

The horrific rape and murder of Sarah Everard on 3 March shocked the nation. Despite the High Court ruling that in-person vigils would break Covid rules, over 100 people assembled on King’s Parade on 13 March, leaving signs and flowers in memory of Everard along the street. The SU’s Women’s Campaign and FLY also held a virtual version of Reclaim the Night, an annual march held in Cambridge, to create a safe space for discussion of sexual harassment and abuse, as well as expressions of grief for Everard.

Later in the month, Lord Simon Woolley became the first Black man to lead an Oxbridge college when he was named Homerton Principal on 31 March.

April - Prince Philip dies aged 99

Prince Philip served as Chancellor of the University for 35 years, between 1976 and 2011JAMIE MCCAFFREY/FLICKR

In April, Cambridge mourned Prince Philip, Chancellor of the University between 1976 and 2011. Dame Alison Richard, who served as Vice-Chancellor from 2003 to 2010, remembered the former Duke of Edinburgh as “a Chancellor of vision and perspicacity”, who had an “insatiable, passionate interest in the work of the university.”

Prince Philip’s main job as Chancellor - awarding honorary degrees in an annual ceremony - was “was only a small part of the Duke’s engagement” with Cambridge, according to a University statement. In his 35-year tenure, he created professorships in Ecology and Engineering, as well as inaugurating many university and college buildings. The Duke was also an honorary fellow of Trinity College since 1977. A week after his death on 9 April, a memorial service was held at Great St Mary’s, the University Church.

May - Students return for Easter

Toope slammed the 2021 Caesarian Sunday celebrations as a “slap in the face” to those “who continue to abide by Covid-related restrictions.”Varsity

Six months after leaving in December, most students were back in Cambridge for Easter term. After Lent in lockdown, we could once again get together with our friends. However, when some gathered on Jesus Green for the controversial “Caesarian Sunday” festivities, University authorities and local residents were infuriated, with Toope slamming the event as a “slap in the face” to those “who continue to abide by Covid-related restrictions.”

For some students, returning to Cambridge was the chance to launch rent strikes calling for lower rents and job security for college staff. Strikes had been planned for January, but with lockdown these were deferred until Easter, when campaigns got going at eleven colleges. Strikers were threatened with harsh sanctions, and one by one the strikes were called off. Those at Clare held out longest, until 18 June, despite being told by their bursar that they would be barred from college rooms in the 2021/22 academic year if they did not pay.

June - SU’s reading week breakthrough

As Cambridge SU President, Ben Margolis campaigned for a reading week and a full freshers’ weekRosie Bradbury

Months of lobbying by Cambridge SU came to fruition in June, when the University announced that it would set up a working group to “investigate the practicalities” of a reading week in the middle of term. Ben Margolis, the SU President at the time, said that the breakthrough was a “testament to the power of students.” Pro-Vice-Chancellor Graham Virgo recently told Varsity that he “hoped” the proposal for a reading week would appear before the University Council in 2022.

June also saw Jesus and King’s colleges commit to full divestment from fossil fuels - Jesus by 2022 and King’s by 2030. This came after years of student campaigning at both colleges.

July - £400 million UAE deal sparks fury

The collaboration, since put on hold, had a proposed budget of £400 million over 10 yearsDAVID RODRIGO

July saw the University make national news when Varsity exclusively revealed that Cambridge was negotiating a £400m deal with the UAE. The revelations sparked outrage over the UAE’s poor human rights record. Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope told Varsity in October that the deal has since been put on pause.

As the weather got hotter, swimming at Grantchester Meadows became a favourite pastime for many students. Concerned by habitat degradation and anti-social behaviour, King’s College, who owns the land, banned the tradition. After an outcry from local residents and students alike, the ban was overturned.

August - Trinity Hall Master resigns

Jeremy Morris served as Master of Trinity Hall from 2014 to 2021University of Cambridge

On 31 August, Revd. Canon Dr Jeremy Morris resigned as Master of Trinity Hall. This came 18 months after he stepped back from the job while allegations that he had mishandled sexual misconduct claims were investigated: in February 2020, an investigation by Tortoise Media found that Morris did not properly investigate a sexual assualt complaint made against Dr Mark O’Reilly, acting senior tutor at the time. According to a college statement, Morris considered that it was “in the best interests of the College for him to offer his resignation, given the difficulties of the last 18 months, to enable the search for a new Master to begin”.

Meanwhile, students learnt that small-group teaching, such as supervisions, seminars, and practicals, would be offered as “normal” in Michaelmas, while “as many lectures as possible” would be in-person.

September - Toope announces plans to step down

Stephen Toope delivering his final annual address at Senate House University of Cambridge

Stephen Toope announced that he would step down as Vice-Chancellor in September 2022, after 5 years in the role. Toope, who is Canadian, cited the impact of the pandemic on his personal life as the main reason for his decision, saying that “being separated from [his] children and grandchildren by closed borders has been hard.” In a statement, he said that he was “proud” of how Cambridge has responded to the Covid crisis, “its hardest years since World War II.”

Toope’s tenure has been marked by controversy over free speech and Cambridge’s international partnerships, with some speculating that press criticism may have led Toope to stand down two years before the end of his term.

October - Fertility controversy at Murray Edwards

Murray Edwards alumna Zoah Hedges-Stocks (left), and President Dorothy Byrne (right)MICHAEL DERRINGER, MURRAY EDWARDS, KIM FYSON

In October, Murray Edwards found itself at the centre of a controversy on female fertility. Dorothy Byrne, the College’s new president, sparked fury by saying that women should have more open conversations about fertility, and that this would “empower” young women, with the Sunday Times reporting that the College would hold fertility seminars.

Prominent alumna Zoah Hedges-Stocks, who was the first travelling showman to graduate from Cambridge, tweeted that she was “ashamed” of her college. Although Byrne said that the college was not planning on holding formal seminars, some students said that her remarks on female fertility would alienate male and non-binary students at Medwards and that it placed “an unhelpful ‘reproductive focus’” on other students. Despite this, some have spoken out in support of Byrne’s comments, with journalist and broadcaster Elizabeth Day writing that she would have made “more informed choices” if she had known the “limits of [her] fertility”.

November - Free speech row rocks the Cambridge Union

Andrew Graham-Dixon speaking at the debate on "good taste" Varsity from an anonymous source

Before Guy Fawkes night had even started, explosions were already going off in Cambridge. At a joke debate on good taste at the Cambridge Union, art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon did a two-minute Hitler impression in which he used a racial slur and voiced - albeit jokingly - antisemitic views. Union President Keir Bradwell publicly apologised for failing to intervene, putting it down to a “lack of courage to stop someone in a room of 400 people.”

When Bradwell announced a “blacklist” of banned speakers to prevent anything like it ever happening again, the Union was catapulted into a raging culture war. One past president called the move “stalinist”, and when John Cleese caught wind of the crisis, he cancelled his planned visit later in the week, tweeting that he would only speak where “woke rules don’t apply.” The backlash led the Union to U-turn, with Bradwell telling The Telegraph that it had “no policy to ban anyone for what they are going to say – it’s a free speech institution.”

December - Three days of strikes round off Michaelmas

Students at the Old Schools picket line on King’s ParadeVarsity

For the fourth time since 2018, Cambridge was hit by strikes organised by the University and College Union (UCU). They stemmed from discontent over pensions, workloads, inequalities, and casualisation, and were supported by the SU. Some took issue with this. In an opinion piece for Varsity, two undergraduates wrote that “the students’ union must look out for students, not faculty or abstract notions of solidarity.”

Two weeks later, Varsity reported on Divinity dons calling for the University to investigate a clique of rightwing academics reportedly funded by Peter Thiel, a billionaire Trump donor. The self-styled “Divine dissenters″ accuse the “Thiel network” of campaigning to oust the University leadership, “grooming” students for internships at Thiel’s companies, and lobbying for Jordan Peterson and Charles Murray to visit Cambridge.