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University of Cambridge considers four Covid-19 scenarios - including ‘global gloom’ with no students in city for a year

The University of Cambridge is exploring how it would switch for a longer period to online teaching under a ‘global gloom’ scenario in which students are unable to return to the city this academic year due to Covid-19.

It is one of four scenarios that its Crimson Recovery Taskforce is contemplating as the university plans for the coming year.

Professor Stephen J Toope, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Professor Stephen J Toope, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

Others explore how it would operate under a ‘rapid recovery’, an ‘extended lockdown’ or ‘repeated waves’ of the coronavirus.

Vice Chancellor Prof Stephen J Toope said that the university will be “grappling with a series of difficult decisions” over the coming weeks and months.

While the university and its colleges will offer teaching in Michaelmas term, starting in October, it is not yet clear what form it will take.

Prof Toope said: “Our collective aspiration is to provide as many students as possible with education in Cambridge, but our ability to deliver that education in Cambridge, and its contours, will depend upon government rules, our responsibility to apply them locally to ensure our safety, and the trajectory of novel coronavirus infections.”

The university told its students to leave Cambridge on March 18, closing its buildings two days later. Staff were told to work remotely, and teaching has moved online for the rest of the term. Remote assessments are replacing exams.

“I appreciate that many research students will have been affected by the lack of access to labs, libraries or other facilities here at Cambridge, and are understandably eager to return,” said Prof Toope.

“How this happens, however, requires careful consideration to ensure the wellbeing of everyone within the collegiate university. I ask for patience whilst we plan students’ safe return to Cambridge.

Professor Andy Neely is chairing the taskforce. Picture: Keith Heppell
Professor Andy Neely is chairing the taskforce. Picture: Keith Heppell

The Crimson Recovery Taskforce, chaired by Prof Andy Neely, the pro vice chancellor for enterprise and business, is drawing up plans under the four scenarios:

Rapid recovery

This best-case scenario anticipates progress in managing the public health crisis, including the development of anti-viral treatments by autumn and a vaccine in 18-24 months, with universities encouraged to open their labs in June, and students able to return to Cambridge for Michaelmas term 2020 under stringent social distancing rules;

Extended lock-down

Anticipating increased government efforts to halt the pandemic, this scenario envisages no students in Cambridge for the academic year 2020-21 and a move to online education, although there would be opportunities for research and development;

Repeated waves

If Covid-19 proves persistent and lockdown is eased and then reintroduced, students could be able to return to Cambridge in Michaelmas 2020 under stringent social distancing rules, with research activity continuing in a limited capacity.

Global gloom

The worst-case scenario anticipates a drawn-out health and economic crisis, with ongoing lockdowns, meaning there would be no students in Cambridge for the academic year 2020-21, meaning education would move online and research would be focused on short-term problem solving.

Detailed descriptions of these scenarios have been shared with colleges and heads of institutions, Prof Toope said, stressing that they were not forecasts, but tools to aid planning and preparation.

He added: “In reality, we will probably experience a mix of the circumstances envisaged in the different scenarios. It is clear, however, that even in the best imaginable circumstances, as set out in the ‘rapid recovery’ scenario, the financial impact for the University will be decidedly negative.

“The manner in which we move towards resuming our on-site operations will largely depend on governmental policies and restrictions.”

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