The mission of the University of Cambridge is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence.

The University reports annually on the ways in which it has delivered charitable purposes for the public benefit. Here are some of this year's highlights.

2020–21 highlights from the University Group Annual Reports

Environmental sustainability

The University’s Environmental Sustainability Vision, Policy and Strategy demonstrates the University’s commitment to making a positive impact through outstanding environmental sustainability performance. It also sets out the plans for achieving this including objectives, targets and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)Note 1. Cambridge is the first university in the world to announce a Science-Based Target for carbon reduction, committing the University to reducing its scope 1 and 2 emissions to absolute zero by 2048, with an aspiration to be a decade ahead of its decarbonisation pathway at all times and to reach zero-carbon by 2038. The University’s approach to carbon reduction is set out in its Carbon Reduction Strategy.

The University reports its environmental sustainability performance in an annual report. The 2020–21 report will be available in early 2022 and will be subject to independent limited assurance. For the first time in 2019–20, the University reported its market-based carbon emissions figure, alongside its location-based emissions figure. The market-based emissions figure takes account of the zero-carbon electricity the University procures via a Power Purchase Agreement. Therefore, in reporting progress against its SBT, the University will need to continue to report both figures.

The total scope 1 and 2 carbon emission figures are reported below. The total scope 1 and 2 location-based carbon emissions figure for 2019-20 has already been subject to independent limited assurance, and the figures for the year 2020–21 (both location- and market-based emissions) will be subject to independent limited assurance.

To ensure location-based emissions remain on track with the SBT, the University will need to take significant steps over the next 5–10 years to reduce its total energy use, as well as increase the proportion of its energy that comes from onsite renewables. There are several bodies of work in motion to achieve this; however, some significant interventions are now needed to ensure location-based emissions remain on track with the target.

The Sustainability Team is developing a SBT programme of work, to support delivery of the University’s commitment to zero-carbon. The main building blocks to achieving zero carbon are: decarbonising our energy supply, reducing energy consumption of the estate, embedding carbon reduction into the capital programme, and engagement and behavioural change to reduce energy demand.

Key performance indicator 2020–21 2019–20 2018–19 2017–18 2016–17
Total Scope 1 and 2 Location-based carbon emissions – energy and fuel use (tCO2e) 55,106 53,931 57,872 62,014 69,734
Total Scope 1 and 2 Market-based carbon emissions – energy and fuel use (tCO2e) 30,141 49,192 Note 2 Note 3 Note 3 Note 3

Explanatory notes

Note 1 — The University has adopted what is known as the Operational Control approach, under which the buildings, activities and operations included in our calculations and reporting are those over which the University has direct control or significant influence. Our KPIs therefore do not cover the Colleges or the University’s subsidiary organisations.

Note 2 — The 2019/20 Total Scope 1 and 2 Market-based carbon emissions figure has not been subject to independent limited assurance.

Note 3 — We only started reporting our Total Scope 1 and 2 Market-based carbon emissions figure from 2019/20 onwards as we did not have a Power Purchase Agreement in place before this time.

COVID-19 asymptomatic testing programme poster
COVID-19 asymptomatic testing programme poster

Responding to COVID-19

Throughout 2020-21, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on University business. There was only limited in-person teaching throughout the academic year, and while labs and workspaces began to open up at the end of the first lockdown in summer 2020, the majority of staff continued to work from home.

At the start of the academic year, the University introduced an innovative programme for screening asymptomatic students, complementing its testing programme for staff and students with possible symptoms of COVID-19. The Asymptomatic COVID-19 Screening Programme was set up in just eight weeks, and at its peak, 10,000 students were being tested each week. The result was a big success: combined with the Stay Safe Cambridge Uni campaign, infection control measures and genomic surveillance, the programme helped reduce the number of cases of COVID-19 at the University, keeping its students, staff and the wider community safe.

Swabs from the University’s testing programmes were analysed at the Cambridge COVID-19 Test Centre, set up by the University in collaboration with AstraZeneca and GSK. The Centre, based on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, analysed more than three million tests as part of the UK Government’s Lighthouse Laboratories network.

University researchers have played a crucial role in helping control the pandemic. The COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK), led by Professor Sharon Peacock from Cambridge, has been using cutting-edge genome sequencing to track outbreaks and to better understand how the virus spreads and evolves. Its scientists played a crucial role in identifying the Alpha variant of SARS-CoV-2 and in monitoring its spread.

COG-UK scientists were among a number of Cambridge academics who participated in or contributed to the UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). Particularly influential were statistical modellers at the MRC Biostatistics Unit who, together with colleagues at Public Health England, produced regular reports tracking in real time the number of infections, the reproduction ‘R’ number for ongoing transmissions, and predicted number of COVID‑19-related deaths.

Scientists at the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease – which pivoted to focus its entire research on the novel coronavirus – have helped in our understanding of how the variants emerge and why certain genetic mutations help variants become more transmissible and potentially evade our immune response. CITIID scientists also provided a deeper understanding of how the immune system responds to infection and why some people develop 'long COVID', with symptoms lasting several months.

The successful vaccine rollout, while welcomed by the vast majority of people, has been met in some circles with scepticism and hesitancy, often driven by misinformation (and even disinformation). Cambridge researchers teamed up with the UK Government and UNESCO to launch Go Viral!, an online game designed to fight conspiracies about COVID-19. The game proved successful – three quarters of players were better at sensing when they were being manipulated by misinformation.

As the world slowly begins to recover from the pandemic, Cambridge researchers are among those examining its knock-on effects, with studies looking at its impact on the mental health of young people, their education, and the economy – as well as some positive impacts, such as reducing the amount of urban crime.

Foundation Year

In January 2021, the University launched a Foundation Year, offering talented students from backgrounds of educational and social disadvantage a new route to undergraduate study.

The one-year course is aimed at an entirely new stream of applicants who have the ability to succeed at Cambridge, but have been prevented from reaching their full potential by their circumstances. It will prepare students for further learning and offer them the chance to progress straight to an undergraduate degree at Cambridge. Its launch comes at a time when the University’s work to forge new pathways into higher education for those groups already facing exceptional disadvantage has never been more pressing.

The Foundation Year is free to students; a cornerstone £5 million gift from philanthropists Christina and Peter Dawson will fund the launch of the programme and full one-year scholarships for all students who are accepted.

Students in the University Library
Students in the University Library

Projection of Stephen Hawking on the Senate House
Projection of Stephen Hawking on the Senate House

Hawking Archive comes to the University Library

Cambridge University Library and the Science Museum have received a treasure trove of papers and personal objects belonging to Professor Stephen Hawking, from his seminal works on theoretical physics to scripts from episodes of The Simpsons.

The arrival of the archive means that three of the most important scientific archives of all time – those of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking – are now housed under one roof at the Library’s iconic Giles Gilbert Scott building.

Professor Hawking’s extensive Cambridge archive will be cared for and made available to current and future generations of scientists hoping to continue his ground-breaking work in theoretical physics, and will provide future biographers and science historians with an extraordinary gateway and insight into Hawking’s life and work.

Millennium Technology Prize

Cambridge researchers Professor Shankar Balasubramanian and Professor David Klenerman received the Millennium Technology Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious science and technology prizes, for their development of revolutionary DNA sequencing techniques.

Balasubramanian and Klenerman co-invented Solexa-Illumina Next Generation DNA Sequencing technology that has enhanced our basic understanding of life. The techniques transformed biosciences into 'big science' by enabling fast, accurate, low-cost and large‑scale genome sequencing – the process of determining the complete DNA sequence of an organism’s make-up.

The technology has had – and continues to have – a transformative impact in the fields of genomics, medicine and biology. In 2000, sequencing of one human genome took over 10 years and cost more than a billion dollars (about £760 million); today, the human genome can be sequenced in a single day at a cost of $1,000 (£760).

Professor David Klenerman (left) and Professor Shankar Balasubramanian (right)
Professor David Klenerman (left) and Professor Shankar Balasubramanian (right)


The economics of biodiversity

A major independent review by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta argued that nature is a 'blind spot' in economics and that we can no longer afford for it to be absent from accounting systems that dictate national finances, or ignored by economic decision makers.

Commissioned by HM Treasury, and published ahead of the 2021 Convention on Biological Diversity, the review is expected to help set the agenda for the UK Government’s 25-year environment plan. It describes nature as 'our most precious asset' and finds that humanity has collectively mismanaged its 'global portfolio': "our demands far exceed nature’s capacity to supply 'goods and services' we all rely on".

The last few decades of human prosperity have taken a 'devastating' ecological toll, and the review highlights recent estimates that suggest we would need 1.6 Earths to maintain humanity’s current way of life.

Bamboo bats... howzat‽

The sound of leather on willow may have delighted cricket lovers for generations but researchers from Cambridge’s Centre for Natural Material Innovation say the sport should now consider making the blades of its bats with bamboo.

The team compared the performance of specially made prototype laminated-bamboo cricket bats, the first of their kind, with that of typical willow bats. They found that bamboo is significantly stronger than willow and able to hold much higher loads, meaning that bats made with bamboo could be thinner. Lighter blades can be swung faster to transfer more energy to the ball.

There is also a shortage of good-quality willow, which takes up to 15 years to mature. Even then, bat makers often have to throw away up to 30% of the wood they source. By contrast, bamboo can mature twice as fast as willow and less raw material is wasted during manufacture.

Dr Darshil Shah with a bamboo bat
Dr Darshil Shah with a bamboo bat

Working towards Cambridge University Press & Assessment

Preparations for the formal integration of the Press and Cambridge Assessment as a single organisation on 1 August 2021 were a major focus for both organisations throughout 2020–21.

That work accelerated ahead of the launch of the new organisation – Cambridge University Press & Assessment – building on initiatives such as Cambridge Partnership for Education and Cambridge Exams Publishing, and included completion of several significant projects, such as Test and Train, an interactive digital product that helps students prepare for English exams, and Project 5-14, a new curriculum with associated learning materials for primary and lower-secondary pupils.

Cambridge University Press textbooks
Cambridge University Press textbooks

Cambridge University Press

In addition to the joint initiatives above, which involved the Press’ ELT and Education groups, its Academic group also completed a number of significant projects. These included the launch of its new digital platform for higher education textbooks nearly six months early to help students during the pandemic. It also published the Cambridge Greek Lexicon, the most innovative new dictionary of Ancient Greek in almost 200 years, produced by a team from the Cambridge Classics faculty.

Collaboration with teaching and learning departments in the University included Cambridge Advance Online, a new programme of short, flexible courses for professionals.

Cambridge Assessment

The year also saw summer exams in the UK cancelled for the second year running due to COVID-19. Building on the lessons learnt in 2020, Cambridge Assessment and its UK exam board OCR contributed to the development of an alternative approach to the awarding of exam grades, working closely with other exam boards, England’s Department for Education and exams regulator Ofqual. OCR subsequently delivered results to over 120,000 A Level and more than 250,000 GCSE students as well as thousands more vocational and technical students.

Internationally, the response to the pandemic demanded a flexible and nuanced approach as almost every country experienced its own journey with COVID-19. Despite the pandemic, Cambridge Assessment’s exam board Cambridge International was able to issue 1.5 million grades in summer 2021, while more than five million Cambridge English exams were taken in 2020–21.