Interview: Graham Virgo on residency rules and going home for Christmas

Pro-Vice-Chancellor Graham Virgo on key issues surrounding this Michaelmas term in Cambridge

The Tab met with Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Graham Virgo this week to talk all things COVID Cambridge, including the residency rule, Lockdown 2, students with no in-person contact hours, student behaviour in Michaelmas and how the University plans to get students home for the Christmas break.

The Residency Rule, and grounds for returns home

When news of a second lockdown hit the headlines, students were immediately considering their options, with some wanting to return home. However, with the residency rule at place in Cambridge, it was made clear that all students were expected to stay at the University, which sparked outrage amongst some students, with many citing Easter term as proof that the residency rule could be lifted if needs be. On this, Graham Virgo said that the residency rule “was lifted for Easter term because of the nature of the lockdown then. The university remained open then but government had said students should not be in university and studying there.

“This time of course universities are explicitly open. My view about the second lockdown is, we’ve reviewed the government advice and the legislation and from an education perspective nothing has changed and teaching is ongoing, whether it’s online, whether it’s in person.”

College guidance on the issue often included the caveat that students could return on mental or physical health grounds, but Virgo clarified that obtaining GP evidence for this was not necessary: “We agreed that residence is the expectation but if one: a student couldn’t travel to Cambridge, clearly we would accommodate that, and if a student’s underlying health condition meant they shouldn’t be in Cambridge we would accommodate that.”

“That was interpreted to include underlying physical health conditions as well as mental health anxiety. If students have come to Cambridge and their underlying health changes, then permission can be given for them to study remotely.”

“Crucially, there has been some uncertainty about this, but a GP letter is not required. Each case will be looked on by the College on its merits.” Virgo continued that evidence from a College nurse or even a tutor was sufficient for a student to return home.

He also noted that there was “some concern that when lockdown two started last Tuesday, that meant the barriers were down and students whose mental health or physical condition changed are stuck in Cambridge and that is not the case.” Therefore, students can still make the decision to go home. “If it’s considered that, in fact, it is better for the student to go home or somewhere else, permission can still be given for that.”

When asked whether a hypothetical student, who feels threatened by the behaviour of fellow students and wants to return home for fear of catching the virus, would be granted permission on these grounds, Virgo said: “I would say first go and speak to somebody in her college: her tutor, her director of studies, to express immediately what her concerns are, and it might be appropriate for the college to determine that in those circumstances permission for remote study should be granted. That would be in the framework.”

“As a supervisor, I certainly prefer the in-person supervising, even though we are masked.”

Professor Virgo himself is a lecturer and supervisor in Law, and when asked his opinion on online versus in-person learning, he said: “I am lecturing this year and am also supervising this year, and am doing in-person supervisions where possible.”

“Clearly some supervisions are happening remotely, and also quite a lot is happening in-person. In the second week of term, many of my students were self-isolating from a college where there had been an outbreak, so all the supervisions were remote. Otherwise, I have been supervising in person. As a supervisor, I certainly prefer the in-person supervising, even though we are masked.

“I think it’s much easier to get the interaction. We can make it work on Zoom or Teams, but for myself it’s not as good, and I will say that some students have suffered from some connection problems, some bandwidth problems etc.

“It’s a mixed picture. I think the key message coming out of this is we in the colleges and the university are wanting to learn all the time from this to see, when we get back to a degree of normality, what we want to continue doing as we did before, and what we might want to change. I have no doubt that when we get over this period, things are not going to be exactly the same in terms of education provision: blended learning, using online and supplementing it with in-person, I think there are so many possibilities.”

The “in-person” experience for student with no in-person contact hours

When asked what he would say to those students who have not had a single in-person contact hour this term, Professor Virgo said: “Of course I’m concerned by that. We have said, the colleges have said and the university has said, that we are expecting there to be in-person education.

“But there is a big caveat to that, we have also said to academic staff that we are not requiring anybody to teach in person if they do not wish to do so. We have spent a lot of time explaining what measures can be put in place to ensure that the in-person teaching is as safe as it can be.

“There are certainly a large number of students who have, and obviously there are the scientists and engineers and medics and vets, who have laboratory work, some of that has been done remotely but an awful lot of that has been in person. And for other students as well as those there is a lot of in-person supervising, but there are certainly some subjects that I’m aware of where that hasn’t been provided.”

“I am aware that there are students that have not had in-person teaching, and I will emphasise as well that a Cambridge education is not simply defined by reference to the teaching. It is the wider experience of being in colleges, having access to resources – a lot of which is available in person, so libraries have been open; we have had to put restrictions in place, but there are those resources available.

“Colleges are able to do a lot to provide the social and the wider educational experience as well. So, it isn’t just Cambridge education defined by how many in-person contact hours a student has.”

“I know some students sometimes speculate as to why they aren’t getting in-person teaching, there may be a wide variety of reasons, and those reasons may be hidden as to why a particular member of academic staff feels unable to provide in-person teaching.”

Professor Virgo also told us about an upcoming university-wide survey that is to be released soon about students’ experience online teaching this term: “It’s really important to know what the student reaction is, if there’s any… tweaking isn’t the right word, but there’s some elements that we can say “Okay we can give guidance about this now to ensure that those who are recording lectures can make sure that they are as useful as they can possibly be.”

“But there’s also the longer-term piece as well, we are looking ahead to what might be happening next year and the year after and we want to learn about what is happening now.” Students are told to keep an eye out for this short survey, which is to be released shortly.

“In some institutions and in some parts of the country there is a blame approach… I can assure students that is absolutely not the message that’s here.”

When asked about his thoughts on how Cambridge students have handled returning to university for the term, Virgo said:“Very simply, I have been incredibly impressed with the way the students as a body have responded to the real uncertainty of Covid, the very difficult environment in which we are operating.

“I am aware that in some institutions and in some parts of the country there is a blame approach to students saying “You are irresponsible” etcetera. I can assure students that is absolutely not the message that’s here.

“We actually said before the start of term that we wanted to work with students. Everybody is in the same boat, we are all in this together, we all share responsibility, and I am really proud of the way that students have been supporting each other, students have been supporting themselves, engaging with all the different things we have introduced.”

However, in a scenario in which students are broaching social-distancing rules, Virgo again advised: “If there was particularly an incident that was happening involving a breach of regulations, for example there was an unauthorised party or something, the response would be go and speak to somebody at the college at once, go and speak to a porter at once.

I know sometimes that can be difficult to do, but one thing I have been emphasising throughout this, going back to what I said about everybody being in this together, that if a student for example sees a senior academic not complying with what is required, for example not wearing a face covering where they should be calling them out.”

For Virgo, the main thing going forward in regards to limiting the spread of coronavirus amongst students was, simply, “carrying on doing what students have been doing”.

“I know that there have been some students who have not complied with the rules and the guidance. But frankly I think it is a message of continue doing what you’re doing; the rates of infection in the collegiate university remain low, and we in Cambridge have not seen what has been seen in many other universities.”

He did, however, concede that this week the COVID-19 statistics were not as he’d hoped: “I am aware that infection rates have gone up a bit this week. Earlier I was being really optimistic and that is disappointing. But I am in touch with Public Health officials and they remain very confident about what students and colleges are doing.”

Driving home for Christmas?

Following the government announcement yesterday about universities managing students’ returns home for the holidays, Virgo elaborated on what this would mean for Cambridge: “The travel period is from 3rd December until the 9th. Our term finishes on the 4th December, so students would normally… be planning to leave that weekend. Unless they have a reason to stay in Cambridge and want to stay, the position is to leave during that window. I am already talking with colleges about what a staggered departure might look like.”

“We’re also encouraged to engage with local universities so we are talking to Anglia Ruskin University as well. So, there are no details on that part yet. There are still loads of questions unanswered, and we are still asking questions of the department for education. There are issues about testing, and we’ve got our own testing regime but there is this additional testing regime that the government is advocating, and we are just looking at that to see how that would fit in. But there are no plans to stop asymptomatic testing.”

When asked about how flexible given dates would be to students who, for example, may be relying on working parents to pick them up at the start of next month, he said: “We don’t know that yet. I will be arguing for flexibility absolutely for those reasons, and we actually don’t yet know whether the way we would stagger this would be by college, or whether we would just say the college would do it, which is actually what happened for the start of term.”

“We only started talking about this yesterday, but my initial discussions with colleges is to encourage flexibility.”

Hoping to stay after December 9th? Well this is where it gets complicated. As Professor Virgo explains: The intention behind what the government has announced is that they are using the lockdown period as a form of self-isolation, to say students… don’t need to self-isolate before going home, they then have got this travel window to then go home.

“The position for students who stay after the 9th December is rather more complicated because that idea about the self-isolation through the lockdown wouldn’t apply. So, we are seeking clarity about exactly what that means, but it suggests that students might need to stay for a longer period before they would be able to leave. But that’s an area where we are asking for greater clarity.” The Pro-Vice-Chancellor did, however, stress that this guidance did not apply to research students at the university.

This does all mean, though, that there will not be any significant celebrating (or football-playing) at the end of this term, even after lockdown is over. Those social and extra-curricular activities that stopped for lockdown will not be restarting this calendar year. Virgo says: “The guidance itself says that after the 2nd there should be no restart of social and extracurricular activities. Now I take that to mean everything that colleges in particular are doing now in terms of social activities, and some extra-curricular, would be able to continue. So I think it’s just a sense that ramping them up would not be appropriate during that period.”

The plus though? It seems that students this Christmas may be allowed to leave their belongings in college, because they will be not be in use for admissions or conferences this year. Virgo said on the issue: “I don’t know formally, my advice absolutely would be speak to your college or tutor about that. Frankly… I think there would be a good argument to be made that things can be left behind, I mean there are issues about responsibility for college etc. and insurance… but all that can be sorted out.”

What about next term?

“We are going to keep that under review” responds Virgo. “Our present approach to Lent term is that Lent term would operate in the same way as Michaelmas term has, in terms of online lectures and in-person teaching where appropriate.”

“Looking at the news about vaccines etc, [it’s] very positive but it’s going to take a long time for all of that to be delivered. So that is why, in terms of our planning, it is really important to be planning for restrictions being in place, and then if it is appropriate because of changing circumstances, to loosen the imposition of restrictions within the collegiate university, of course we could do that.”

 In fact, when it comes to exams, the new guidance may be the new normal for the foreseeable future. “It’s another good example where we’ve all been pushed to do something different. Some subjects will undoubtedly want to go back to what they’ve been doing before, some others will not, and they’ve told me that this is better, better for our students, better for the educational outcomes, and therefore putting in place open-book and online is something that, even if COVID disappeared and all the restrictions disappeared, they would want to carry on doing that. But as with all this, we’re keeping everything under review.”

Featured image credit: Kohlrabi Pickle, Wikimedia Commons