Interview: Cambridge University Vice Chancellor – Leszek Borysiewicz

23 January 2011

Cambridge’s most senior figure is “very concerned” that the University might not be able to find money to offset the “financial disincentive” of a rise in tuition fees, he admitted yesterday.

In his first interview with a student newspaper since being appointed Vice Chancellor, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz told The Cambridge Student that the University Council “will be looking to seek to certainly exceed” £6000 tuition fees, “because we know that wouldn’t even make up for the situation we currently are in.” He added, “I would suspect would be towards the upper end, but that’s a personal view, but against that we also have to decide what best we would do to ameliorate this.”

Borysiewicz acknowledged that fees of £9,000 – the upper limit set by the government – will “affect people across a far wider range of family income than hitherto the £3,000 would have done,” but insisted: “I want to end up in a position that it is no more expensive to come to Cambridge than it is to go to other major universities.”

In a wide-ranging discussion, the Vice Chancellor also said he was caught in the middle of disagreements over how to react to last month’s Old Schools Occupation: “There was pressure to do more and pressure to do less.”

He maintained that the decision to take the occupiers to court was ultimately his, although other sources have claimed it was actually Dr Jonathan Nicholls, the University Registrary, who first suggested a Possession Order and Injunctions be sought to remove protesters from the Senior Common Room. Borysiewicz told TCS he “believed the way eventually came to its conclusion was appropriate,” but pleaded for students to “understand that these circumstances may be different” in future cases.

Throughout the sit-in, protesters were constantly concerned the University would exercise its power to send in bailiffs, who would have licence to use appropriate force to evict them; this fear was heightened when the University was granted a Possession Order in Court, reasserting their right to own the Old Schools and to lawfully evict trespassers.

However, the Vice Chancellor insisted that although he was “sure that within the university consideration was being given” to sending in bailiffs, it was never his intention to do so.

Borysiewicz cited a concern for the occupiers as one reason for his reluctance, saying “in a situation where there is an enforcement order that has been issued, once the bailiffs are sent in people are in contempt of court and that means that criminal action can then be taken against them.

“I happen to believe that the way that the issues were resolved was entirely appropriate in the circumstances that we faced.”

The University has claimed that total costs incurred during the Occupation will reach more than £50,000, including over £34,500 spent on security staff, legal fees yet to be exactly calculated, and nearly £10,000 billed as “maintenance.”

When TCS put forward the view of our own reporter, that there was “no noticeable damage done” to the Senior Common Room when the occupiers left, Borysiewicz replied “that is probably in the eye of the beholder,” adding that “staff were being intimidated by noise, attempts to get into the HR department – remember that we had staff actually working there, who were stressed as a consequence – on Friday they were prevented access to the building by groups blockading the entrances.” He did, however, admit: “I’m not going to pretend that I actually know what every £9,000 is actually spent on, but I’m sure that it was actually required for cleaning the building.”

The Vice Chancellor was never fearful for his own safety, despite being pursued back to the Old Schools by protesters after leaving the University Council meeting in which Cambridge decided an official stance on the Coalition’s education plans.

“I have a belief that actually students here are peaceful students,” he said. “So no, I did not feel unsafe at any point.” When asked why he felt it necessary to leave the meeting accompanied by several police officers, he replied “others were concerned for my safety on my behalf – I can’t make that judgement.”

Borysiewicz also fully defended his decision to allow police onto University property on Wednesday, 24th November, when students clashed with officers in front of the doors to Senate House in scuffles that saw at least two protesters hit by policemen.

“The police have to speak for themselves for the actions that they have actually taken,” he said, but claimed he had received information “that an imminent occupation and disruption of the university was a likelihood… I’m sorry, but it is my responsibility to ensure that the university continues to function, and on that day the evidence was so high that in discussion with the police they felt that this was an appropriate action.

“I abhor violence in any form… I was not there and therefore I cannot conceivably comment on whether one side provoked the other or whether the action was proportionate or disproportionate.”

James Burton – News Editor

Photo: Cambridge University