Vice-Chancellor interrogated by students in open panel discussion

Beth Price 29 April 2014

Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University and professed wannabe Hercules, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, spoke at an open meeting last night, answering questions from students on everything from his disappointingly non-existent attendance at Cindies to the more provocative issues of the living wage and disability access.

One highly contentious issue raised was the ethicality of the university’s investments. Borysiewicz explained that Cambridge operates a “fund of funds”, where the university invests in financial managers who they believe will provide the highest return. He explained this is needed in order to support the collegiate system, with a shortfall of almost £6000 each year per undergraduate student.

The Vice Chancellor was also forced to defend himself when challenged on his pay rise of £20,000 in comparison to university staff’s 1%. He made it clear that his salary is determined by an external committee who offered 30% of academics the pay rise and stressed that the university does not “acquiesce to the living wage” because, unlike the minimum wage, it is not set by a statutory government group. The 83 members of university staff who do not receive a living wage, he pointed out, are either part-time or trainees, and the issue of college staff being paid less than this was not down to the university.

Turning to the issue of student support, in response to a student who felt “marginalised and excluded” due to a lack of disabled access in university buildings, he claimed “we probably invest more than any universities in the United Kingdom”. Although he admitted to serious problems with retro-fitting historic buildings, he highlighted the accessibility of new and refurbished buildings, and said “I don’t want anyone to not come to Cambridge because of disabilities”.

Expressing a further desire to improve mental health he promoted Cambridge’s use of “three tiers of help”. This helps students access help and guidance at college level, via mental health groups, and at departmental or university level, refuting claims that last year he said mental health was only a problem for colleges.

The Vice-Chancellor also offered his opinion of student activism. “It’s good that [they] make their views known” he admitted, supporting the use of legal and non-violent protests, but the problem with activism is that it “promotes one side of an equation” and he has to represent the “totality” of opinion. Additionally, Borysiewicz was in support of students, saying that the police had “significantly crossed a line” by “merely ‘snooping’ or whatever” on student groups.

After the longest pause of the night, the Vice-Chancellor confessed to wanting to be eponymous hero Hercules of the Greek Myths, despite “probably” being seen as “Medusa or the Hydra”. He closed on a positive note, saying how “proud” he is of the University and expressed his view that Cambridge is “the best place in the world”.