Vice-Chancellor Question Time

JOE WHITWELL reports on the The Vice-Chancellor’s Q and A on issues that matter in Cambridge today.

He may not be a sporting blue, a Tab columnist or a high flying member of the footlights, but around Cambridge, Leszek Borysiewicz is kind of a big deal.

Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz MA PhD FRS FRCP FMedSci – AKA the “Vice-Chancellor” – is the official face of the university to the world. He is the academic and administrative leader of the University and is ultimately in charge of the University’s fundraising endeavours and where it spends that money. 

Yesterday, Professor Sir Borysiewicz spent time answering questions from the student body on issues including access, the ethics of funding, gender equality, and welfare.

Vice Chancellor - Leszek Borysiewicz

Vice-Chancellor – Leszek Borysiewicz. We can’t pronounce it either.

Talking about Access, Borysiewicz stressed that there could be “no compromise” on the quality of students admitted, and that ultimately what would improve the situation the most would be the improvement of state secondary education.

The Vice-Chancellor admitted to having an “aversion to quotas”, particularly those imposed from outside. He pointed out that Cambridge uses more data than “probably any other university” when making admissions decisions and that all colleges are involved in widening access.

When asked about the £1.7billion of University money currently tied up in secret investments, the VC was open in his answer. He explained that the University makes up the gap between tuition fees and the cost of the collegiate system and defended the secrecy surrounding where money was invested. The competitive edge, he said, that fund managers currently have would be lost if that information was put into the public domain. He did clarify, however, that the University declines certain investment opportunities, such as those in tobacco, on the grounds that they are unethical.

The Vice-Chancellor declared his strong support for the existence of female only colleges, pointing out their appeal to international students who may come from more rigidly gender divided societies. As a father with “two daughters in academia” he recognised that there were still ways to go yet before the gender gap was closed.


Insert funny but not sexist caption here.

When asked about whether or not the university was doing enough for disabled students, Borysiewicz took a lengthy pause before answering that he was very proud of the level of provision from the University. He still acknowledged, however, that there was still room for improvement. He told the audience that he was glad that now, more than ever, students felt comfortable declaring their disabilities, without fearing that it may impede their academic advancement.

The VC stated that mental welfare was of great importance to the University and highlighted the great number of resources on offer, such as the University Counselling Service and the tutor support system. Some at the meeting questioned the level of mental health provision in colleges, particularly highlighting the lack of training undergone by most tutors. This was the only time during the Q&A that there was any serious contention between Vice-Chancellor and those present; this is indicative of the high profile that mental health issues in Cambridge have. There are still a few more days to take The Tab‘s Mental Health Survey here.

On the issue of obligating tutors to take the disabilities and mental health training on offer, the VC made a clear distinction between the roles of the University and the colleges. He believes that the question of whether tutors should be obligated to such training is a college affair, drawing a distinct line between the University and the Colleges.

On the whole, the Vice-Chancellor answered questions with nuance and clarity. Lacking any of the evasiveness of select committees or politicians on Newsnight, questions were answered directly and honestly. The impression I got was of a level-headed academic professional, who was working for what was best for Cambridge and its students. Don’t judge a book by its pin-striped cover.