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In this season’s second episode of Switchboard, Eliza and Amber interview Cambridge’s Vice Chancellor Stephen Toope to discuss his thoughts on his role in what can only be described as a tumultuous year. 

Switchboard S3, Ep.2Sam Benatar

Amber begins by asking directly what his role as Vice Chancellor entails and what made him want to take it on. He comments on his responsibility to advance Cambridge’s ‘academic mission’ and work with his team to make changes to be carried out on a university and college wide basis. Although this role had never been ‘on his radar’, he was excited about the remarkable opportunity to work with a university with such impressive global reach. When asked to focus more on the past year, he states that both dealing with dramatic uncertainty and the lack of travel has allowed him to engage more actively with the wider Cambridge community, something he has always tried to do. (1:26)

Eliza then moves on to ask whether he believes there is any loss to the quality of the teaching students have received over these online terms and mentions the lack of a safety net. Toope admits that he cannot claim there will be ‘absolute consistency across every subject’ but states that many people across the university are ‘working tirelessly’ to modify teaching methods accordingly and hopes that we will have learnt from the last lockdown’s mistakes. He then states the reason that all Russell Group universities have ruled out the possibility of a safety net was because unlike in the last lockdown, they cannot rely on the previous year’s summative assessments to inform their decisions. To try and implement the same policy would end up being more unfair as they would not have the same basis to make judgements as they did in Easter of 2020. Instead, they are trying to look ‘across the board’ to find a ‘package of mitigation measures’ (to be released later this term) to ensure academic performance is assessed fairly and promises that all Covid-19 disruptions will be taken into account. (4:07)

Amber then brings the conversation to the collegiate structure of the university and recent controversies surrounding it, asking what his role is at this level. Although these concerns have been brought to his attention by the student union and various individuals, he begins by stating the colleges are run as separate charities to the university and make their own policies. He highlights his efforts to share all the information he receives with the colleges to make sure the overall approach is clear. However, he ‘can’t force colleges to take decisions’ as a result of the way Cambridge is structured, something resembling a ‘federation of colleges’. He assures that every college is trying their very best to think through how to balance questions of wellbeing and mental health with physical health in relation to the highly transmissible new Covid variant. Their concerns lie in the potential for unmanageable outbreaks and danger to their own staff, but they are trying to balance these with student’s welfare interests. (6:51)

Eliza chimes in to ask whether academic decisions being made over the next term will be handled in this way (by DoS’ and Tutors) or through a more centralised network. Toope responds with the idea of ‘a balance’ between the reported performance in supervisions through colleges and the wider departmental structure. He assures once more that he knows there have been extraordinary pressures on students and the focus is on making sure these assessments are as fair as possible. (10:28)

Amber brings the conversation back to the amount of distress these college disparities have caused students and whether he sometimes wishes the collegiate system could allow for more centralised decisions. He admits he ‘wouldn’t be honest’ if he didn’t admit things would be easier with a centralised system, but praises the personal benefits of colleges for students in this time and says ‘he wouldn’t give it up for anything’. (12:38)

Eliza widens the conversation to the national questions in place regarding tuition fees and mass testing, asking where he believes students should be directing their frustrations about this. Through a sigh, Toope admits that although he would not want to be in government right now there has been ‘more uncertainty than necessary’ and claims to have been ‘struck by Johnson’s choice not to mention universities during his last nationwide address. He also comments on his frequent communications with the universities minister and his role on her established task force. He suggests that if students are frustrated by overall uncertainty, these should be directed more toward national policy. (14:20)

Amber comments on Cambridge’s unique position as a result of asymptomatic testing and asks where this places us in the future of this pandemic, to which he responds with great optimism and pride. After openly admitting to feeling frustrated about not being able to bring students back despite how well our situation was being handled, he is confident about how it will help the efficient running of the university when things reopen. (16:45)

Eliza then moves on to a slight tangent asking whether provisions have been made for the rising number of students considering continuing their studies beyond undergraduate level as a result of a lost year. Toope admits to being conscious of the sad case of students losing out on part of the Cambridge experience and states the university is currently working on creating ‘expanded opportunities for masters programmes’. Despite physical and time constraints, a program of investment has asked all the schools to designate new potential taught postgraduate programmes they would like to offer and expand those as quickly as they can. (18:56)

Moving further into access work, Amber proceeds to ask about Cambridge’s new Foundation Scheme, which he describes as his ‘personal mission’ to help students with ‘significant educational detriment’. He goes on to define this more clearly and describe the process of refining this scheme, which has been taken on board by 13 colleges and will be completely free. (21:19)

Amber concludes the discussion by asking what he has learnt over the last year and whether there is anything about his role or the university as a whole he would change as a result. He begins by mentioning ‘The Recovery Programme’ which has been built to identify everything they’ve learnt from the Covid experience and to ensure things are proactively taken into account as a result. He recognises how useful his increase in engagement with the wider community and states this is here to stay. On a personal level, he believes he will cut his carbon footprint considerably thanks to being made aware of the possibilities to hold international meetings on online platforms and will only travel when absolutely necessary. More generally, he notes that the institution has learnt to make decisions more nimbly than usual and is hoping to continue this while still maintaining college governance. He states a lot has been learnt and wants to make sure none of it is forgotten at the end of this crisis. (24:17)

Switchboard is Varsity’s flagship podcast. Episodes are broadcasted every Friday at 8:30pm on Cam FM, and are available on all major podcasting apps via Anchor.