Interview: Graham Virgo on rent and residency requirements, exams, graduation and May Week

All I wanna know is if I’m going to be graduating in a gazebo

Following the university’s announcement on 26th February that students are expected to “remain where they are” and that “as many students as possible” could be returning for Easter term, we were able to ask Professor Graham Virgo for the exclusive scoop on what the rest of the academic year might look like.

With the help of your lovely questions, we were able to ask him about rent for students staying in Cambridge over the vacation, quarantine costs for overseas students, exam mitigations, and the all-important question about whether May Week could be postponed until after the 21st of June.

Here’s what Professor Virgo had to say:

Students in Cambridge will need to pay rent over the vacation, but there’s a chance this will only be until the end of March

Will the university be supporting students in Cambridge who are having to pay rent over the Easter vacation? 

Given that students in Cambridge are expected to remain in Cambridge over the holidays, some of you asked whether the university would be financially supporting students with these rent costs.

Virgo first clarified that: “The position about students who are in Cambridge needing to stay in Cambridge over the vacation is not something the university has created, it is the legal regulation that, as things stand, everybody needs to stay where they are.”

He points out that “there are a number of exceptions to that, particularly [to do with] physical health and mental health.”

He also notes that this situation “may change. There is some hope that maybe by or on the 29th of March more travel will be possible. If you remember at the end of Michaelmas term, the government created a travel window for students, and they may do the same [this term].” So, there is some hope that students can go home for the holidays. 

Regarding rent, Virgo says that it is “ultimately a matter for individual colleges. Obviously, for students in private accommodation, there are continuing obligations to pay rent. As regards college accommodation, different students have different rent contracts depending on the college.

“What I can say is if a student is concerned, they should contact their college. There are of course student hardship funds available.”

In terms of support from the university not relating to financial matters, Virgo added that the University Counselling Service, Disability Resource Centre and Careers Service would still be operating over the vacation.

Overseas students and students with underlying health conditions will be given permission to work from home in Easter

Are there plans to reinstate residency requirements next term or in future terms, given some students might want or need to study from home?

 In Michaelmas, residency requirements meant that students were expected to remain in Cambridge over lockdown. With the announcement that students will likely be returning to Cambridge for Easter term, many of you were wondering whether residency in Cambridge would be a requirement.

Virgo says that, despite uncertainties about when the government will allow students to return to university, “we want students to come back. There are a lot of students back in Cambridge already, I know there are a lot of students who want to come back.”

He acknowledges that “there are some students who can’t” return to Cambridge. He mentions students with underlying health conditions as one example, saying “there will be permission for remote study” for these individuals. 

He also mentions international students, saying:  “it might be very difficult [for them] to get to Cambridge, particularly because the government is only going to give a week’s notice, so making travel arrangements in advance is quite difficult. Also, there are self-isolation requirements for ten days, or quarantine, depending on where students are coming from.

“What we’ve said is that any student who is concerned should contact their college, and their college will speak to them about it. If needs be, remote study will be authorised.”  

Will the university financially support students who need to stay in quarantine hotels? 

If overseas students are able to get to Cambridge in time for Easter term, quarantine costs are expected to be as high as £1,750.

When asked if the university would cover this amount, or if quarantine comes at the student’s own cost, Virgo said: “It will be at their own cost, however, they should contact their college to see if any support is available, and again there are financial hardship funds.

He asks people to bear in mind that “We’ve put more money into [hardship funds] but they are limited. It’s certainly something to be discussed with your college because it is a lot of money, I know.”

The exam timetable is being restructured to accommodate longer exams and students in different time zones

How many students will be impacted by the extension of the exam timetable to 2nd July? 

When asked about how many students might have their exams moved to a later date, Virgo said: “We don’t know how many students it will affect. What we’ve said is that the normal timetable could be extended to the 2nd of July.

“Bear in mind, last year in Easter term, we extended the timetable even beyond that to enable us to get all the exams done, and then quite a few students didn’t have exams.

He explains that the reason for the extension of the timetable is that “we’ve got a number of exams that will now be 24 hours, and we’re anticipating there will be quite a few students abroad studying from different time zones. That means we’ve had to deconstruct the existing timetable, and we’re in the process of reconstructing it.”

Finalists will be prioritised, but that doesn’t mean exams will be earlier than usual: “We wanted students to be aware that there’s basically a backstop of the second of July. If we can avoid getting close to that we will do so, and we’re committed to finalists and PGCE exams not being earlier than normal, but being prioritised because they need to graduate. So, their timetable will be roughly what it normally would.”

He adds that he is aware some students might be annoyed about the prospect of sitting exams as late as July, but also that “we want to tell students as soon as we can what the timetable is […] and just to reassure everybody, we have been working really hard on it, but we’re not going to be revealing a timetable that is subject to change.” So it looks like we’re going to have to wait on more exact information for now. 

Will the uni reconsider a safety net if students don’t return for Easter term?

Alas, despite the Tab’s extremely comprehensive and persuasive justification for a safety net, this is one area where the university seems unlikely to budge. When questioned as to whether a no detriment policy could be re-considered should students be unable to return to Cambridge next term, Virgo said “we just can’t” because “of the nature of what no detriment was last year.”

He expanded that since exams are largely taking place online, they are “not dependent on students being back in Cambridge.” For subjects who are currently planning on having in-person exams, Virgo assures us they “have got contingency plans in place.”

Ah well, you can’t say we didn’t try.

Students will likely be graduating in absentia

What might graduations look like this year? 

The university announced it is looking into the possibility of in-person graduations, so we asked Professor Virgo what those might be expected to look like.

He tells us that: “We of course don’t know what the public house situation is going to be like in late June/early July. Even though 21st June is the magic date that maybe normality [will return]  we don’t know what social distancing is going to be like.”

The plan is likely going to be one of students graduating in absentia: “It will be possible to graduate in absence, and there will be a ceremony that will be put on on a future date which will be not exactly a degree ceremony. We will make sure through the university and the colleges that there is a proper ceremony of student achievement.

However, the university is also looking into the possibility of in-person ceremonies, “which would be in the Senate House, as that’s a really important part of graduation.” Looks like the marquees and gazebos won’t be returning for Easter term, then. 

Virgo says the university is working out what’s feasible because  “if we can have students graduating in person, albeit in a different form of ceremony to what they would normally have, we would like to be able to put that on, particularly because there are going to be some students in Cambridge [in] June/July, who may be from overseas, and maybe it’s just easier for them to participate in a graduation ceremony then,” rather than at a later date. 

May Week might happen later than usual

Will May Week go ahead, and is it possible it might be delayed until after 21st June? 

On the uncertainties surrounding May Week, Virgo says that it “really is a matter for colleges as to what May Week looks like.”

He points out that “May week does not have to be that particular week in June, even though we’ve had it then for many years.” Cambridge backing down on tradition? Who could possibly imagine?

Virgo asks us all to “bear in mind that there may be exams going on, and therefore we’re going to have to ensure that students can take exams in Cambridge (if they are in Cambridge) in an appropriate way.”

He personally acknowledges the significance of May Week for many students and expresses hope that the celebrations will go ahead: “We don’t know what the social distancing rules and public health environment is going to look like. I know there are discussions in colleges as to what sort of things might be possible,  but it’s going to be really important that students have that opportunity to celebrate the end of exams which may be later than normal, and for graduating students, the end of their time at Cambridge.

“It is a really important part of the Cambridge experience, but a good example of the uncertainty we’re facing.”

Mental health

How would you respond to claims that the University is not doing enough to support students’ mental health right now?

Mental health and student welfare have been central to many discussions of this academic year, and Virgo acknowledged the difficulties many students are currently facing. He told the Tab: “I talk to a lot of students, student representatives and other students and hear their experiences through faculties and departments.

“I have no doubt that the pandemic has had an impact on students’ mental health. He also acknowledged that “in the same way, I have no doubt that the pandemic has an impact on staff’s mental health and wellbeing” and this was something he says he is “very, very concerned about.”

On a personal level, he tells us that worries about workload have always been a key concern for him, acknowledging that workloads are “big issue generally, disregarding the pandemic.”

He told the Tab: “I’ve been in my role for 6 and a half years and one of the first things I did was conduct a review of student workload and started to engage with ways we can respond to that.” 

He also noted the ways in which these problems have been “exacerbated by the pandemic”, saying that he has “encouraged colleges and faculties and departments to be considerate in all their deadlines and expectations.

He added: “I am supervising myself and I tell my students that obviously there is work to be done and deadlines there but they are flexible and I quite understand if students are unable to meet the deadlines for whatever reasons. So I have asked for those considerations to be born in mind across the collegiate university.”

In terms of more general support available to students, he told the Tab that “there is a very big project underway at the moment, reviewing mental health and wellbeing provision, and so as part of that we are looking at everything that is going on.” He has been particularly focussing on the University Counselling Service, telling the Tab he received “regular reports” concerning waiting times” and has “put resources into expanding the numbers of counsellors there.”

So there you have it, the scoop on Easter term. Whilst the prospect of having to use the money we had saved for May Balls on rent over the Easter vacation doesn’t exactly fill us with joy, we hope this has helped answer some of your key concerns about next term!

Whether you’re currently in Cambridge, manifesting being able to return, or facing the prospect of another term at home we wish you the best of luck for the coming term!

Cover image credit: Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons Licence

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