Outside a GP surgery on Trumpington Street, in central CambridgeRosie Bradbury

On Friday evening, a message from Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope hit students’ inboxes. It was the first time in over a week that all students had received any information from the central university on the coronavirus. A couple of hours earlier, Europe had been labelled the “centre of the pandemic” by the World Health Organisation.

Toope’s hollow appeals to solidarity in the university community, to be “flexible, pragmatic, generous of spirit and kind”, are a slap in the face to the thousands of students who don’t have a home in the UK aside from Cambridge, and for whom it would be unwise or impossible to return to their families. The email — sent on Friday afternoon, implying all students would likely not get any new information for at least another two days, while nations start to close their borders — was vacuous and irresponsible.

“For so many international, estranged, or low-income students, ‘getting home’ is not easy, and as hours pass with no new information, it’s getting harder.”

In private communication with confused and panicked students, tutors and accommodation managers are adding to, and deviating from, the template-style information that the Senior Tutor’s Committee approved to send to colleges on Friday. The official line — calling it ‘advice’ may be overly generous — is to “consider how and when you may wish to go home and what you can take home with you”. This statement is extraordinarily vague and emblematic of the approach taken by the University so far with students searching for morsels of useful information buried within emails giving away strikingly little. 

We realise that this a challenging and novel crisis, evolving at a rapid pace with no recent precedent, and government policy is leaving institutions in the dark. Some lapses are to be expected, and understandable. But the slowness of the university's response, as some colleges tell students to leave and others stay quiet, is not.

Above all, the University’s approach ignores the fact that for so many international, estranged, or low-income students, ‘getting home’ is not easy, and as hours pass with no new information, it’s getting harder.

Students have no idea to what extent a centralised approach is being taken, or whether measures are being left to colleges to determine and implement. Trinity is imposing its own policy of forcing students to leave college other than in ‘exceptional’ cases. Could other colleges increasingly follow? We don’t know. Will colleges pay for last-minute flights? We don’t know. What about accommodation over Easter for students who have to self-isolate? No idea. If Trinity has already said it won’t be able to support students who have to self-isolate in large numbers, does that mean other colleges also won’t be able to? With the University ostensibly having months to prepare for these eventualities, the lack of a singular, clear and coordinated response is astonishing.

Toope’s ‘generosity of spirit’ doesn’t pay for last-minute flights home or private accommodation. It doesn’t provide support for students who are themselves vulnerable to the virus, or who have loved ones who are vulnerable. These platitudes, when accompanied only with communication which is vague, insubstantial, and inconsistent, serve no end except to exacerbate anxiety. Students are left to bear the burden of this shambolic approach to a global pandemic. These delays leave little time, with next to no information, for students forced to make decisions about whether to leave.


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The university’s total abdication of its commitment to pastoral care during this pandemic is especially glaring. The university-wide email, and template response sent by colleges, provided no support or resources for students whose mental health has been affected. No information has been forthcoming on whether college counselling services will be available in the near future, and there have been no counselling measures announced to proactively provide for students and staff who have been affected.

Despite Toope’s claim that “a lot of effort has gone into contingency planning over the past few weeks,” the collegiate university seems to have been completely caught off guard. This is a major lapse in judgement that ignores the students who have underlying conditions which elevate their health risks, international students separated from their families, or for students with certain types of OCD, where a flu outbreak and media panic can contribute to obsessive behaviour.

The University has not banned events with more than 50 people, whilst experts and other European governments stress how crucial social distancing will be to ′flattening the curve’ of the virus. On Friday night, around 1,000 students in black tie attended Girton Spring Ball, an all-night soirée, despite some colleges having already placed a ban on events over 50 people. Queens’ and Magdalene have cancelled all formal halls, but in a city where students live in close quarters, the collegiate university must be coordinating more closely. Over a day after news broke that the UK will forbid large public gatherings, why hasn’t the University informed students that their policy has changed?

Tutors and directors of studies are working through the weekend, answering frantic queries from students. Student journalists have been covering this story non-stop, trying to ascertain what information is reliable and sending out essential updates. As much as we at Varsity are doing our best to keep the Cambridge community informed on what is happening, fundamentally, we should not be the only source of information for the majority of students and staff trying to understand coronavirus developments. The fact that we are illustrates not only a neglect of one of the University’s core duties, but shows the cavernous hole at the heart of its communications approach. We should not have to go to the lengths of sending Freedom of Information Requests to the University - as we have done - to understand the very basics of their contingency plans.

“While students across the country are receiving clear information, students at Cambridge have been left with non-specific explanations”

Across colleges, an unnerving range of information has been circulated, causing anxiety and confusion among students. At one college, students have received uncertain information across group chats, allegedly from a DOS, who has speculated that all teaching and final exams will be online, and that first and second years will either not take exams or will take home exams.

An increasing number of universities, including King’s College London, LSE, Nottingham, and Bristol, to name a few, have already committed to move all teaching online. Some have cancelled first and second-year exams.

While students across the country are receiving clear information, students at Cambridge have been left with non-specific explanations, that faculties will be working on the “detail” of contingency plans for examinations, which will be communicated some time before the 31st of March.

Amid universal uncertainty, group chats over Facebook and Whatsapp are trying to decipher the inconsistent, dispersed information from different colleges and subjects in order to make assumptions and predictions about their own position regarding Easter term. For finalists who have been working toward this point for nearly three years, this is overwhelming and nerve-wracking.

In these troubling times, the University should endeavour at least to clarify whether colleges have autonomy in making decisions or whether the University is directing all measures, share a timeline of when decisions expect to be made going forward - with worst and best case scenarios - and provide resources for students’ mental health. Above all, the University should be transparent, clear and consistent in its approach, something which, so far, has been critically absent.

Varsity contributors:

Amy Batley, Deputy News Editor, Investigations Editor
Chloe Bayliss, Associate Editor
Isobel Bickersteth, Associate Editor
Rosie Bradbury, Associate Editor
Howard Chae, Investigations Editor
Joe Cook, Associate Editor
Maia Wyn Davies, Associate Editor
Olivia Emily, Deputy Editor
Gabriel Humphreys, Vulture Editor
Sophie Huskisson, Senior News Editor
Victor Jack, Senior News Editor
Kiran Khanom, Associate Editor
Molly Killeen, Deputy Editor
Catherine Lally, Associate Editor
Charlotte Lillywhite, Associate Editor
Jess Ma, Co-Editor
Stephanie Stacey, Associate Editor