Speech delivered by Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz

The annual address of the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, 1 October 2014

We have just recognised the tragic loss of staff members who died in service this year. Their loss to the University, and more importantly to their families and friends, is incalculable. But in this of all years we also remember the 2,470 members of the University, who made the ultimate sacrifice through their service in the Great War, and whose names are recorded for posterity on memorials in the Colleges and the City. We respect their individual sacrifice and recognise their sense of responsibility to the values of the early 20th century. The sheer scale of the loss was staggering.

As we look around the world today, be it to the Middle East or Ukraine, we can be forgiven for asking whether we have learned anything from these events. Many Cambridge scholars lead the way in trying to learn the lessons of history; among them, for example, is our new Regius Professor of History, Christopher Clark, who argues in his recent prizewinning monograph, The Sleepwalkers, that no nation really meant to wage the First World War, but each sleepwalked into it. This cataclysmic event heralded key social changes in this University and the country. For the University, this included changes in how it was funded, the status of women (although another global conflict would occur before Cambridge finally admitted women to full membership) and our relationship with the City of Cambridge, our region, Europe and the world.

The search for understanding the cause and effect of things has underpinned the 800-year history of the University. I say this not out of egotism or pride. It is born out of our desire and our responsibility to contribute to society – a responsibility rooted in our mission. Last year, I stated that we had earned the freedom to choose how we develop, and started a discussion on to what extent and how the University should grow. That debate has involved all parts of the Collegiate University and will help set our direction for the next ten years.

This year, I would like to focus on what we have done with that freedom granted to us by society; that is how we address the responsibility to others that comes with that freedom.

In October 1943 at the height of the Second World War, Churchill received an Honorary Degree from Harvard University and he gave an inspiring speech. He told his listeners:

The price of greatness is responsibility.”

His message then was to people and nations at war. But those words speak to us now as we face up to the responsibilities of our University today.

Our responsibilities lie deep and wide. At the forefront, education has to take pride of place. We have evolved a Collegiate approach which has stood the test of time. Our 31 Colleges provide a unique environment, encouraging direct interaction between scholar and supervisor, fostering interdisciplinarity in a way that most of our competitor universities envy, and providing a human scale for students in a broad and complex institution. It is no surprise, therefore, that Cambridge has just been described as the best British university at making students feel at home. While the Collegiate model may be rooted in history, I would argue it is ideally suited to deliver the personalised education that may characterise universities in the future. Frankly, I would argue that if we did not already have the Collegiate system we would need to invent it today!

But our responsibility to education starts much earlier than at university. We are fortunate to have an internationally leading group of researchers in the Faculty of Education. Some of their research points very compellingly to the fact that inequalities in education and attainment start at a very early age – indeed, some may be evident by the age of three! This year, the University has undertaken two key new initiatives. Firstly, together with the Faculty, we bid for and were awarded funding for a University of Cambridge Primary School in North West Cambridge. This will be a working school, which will deliver excellent, inclusive education to young children in Cambridge. But it will also become one of the network of schools in the region which work with our Faculty of Education to train new teachers. On graduation, many of our PGCE students take up teaching posts in these schools – making a personal contribution to children in our region. Research carried out at the school in partnership with our academics will improve understanding of teaching and learning throughout the UK. And through the Faculty’s international links the best practice identified here will be shared with practitioners across the world. Secondly, we are participating in a University Technical College, sponsored by our colleagues in Cambridge University Health Partners. This will give young people an early experience of the work of the research institutes, companies and healthcare providers in Cambridge, helping them build careers in the biomedical and environmental sciences. I am delighted that the entry for this year is already full. These initiatives grab headlines but I remain absolutely convinced that our major contribution in the long term has to be an unswerving commitment to sustain the quality of future teachers and educational systems both in the UK and worldwide, and I am confident that researchers in the Faculty, in part through a projected new centre focusing on educational excellence for all, with particular concern for the poorest countries, will continue to be international leaders in delivering our responsibility in this area.

We also take seriously our responsibility to make Cambridge as accessible as possible to potential undergraduates. Our access work aims to ensure that anyone with the ability and commitment to succeed here is encouraged to apply – and knows that their application will be considered thoroughly and fairly. The Collegiate University has successfully established a wide range of initiatives which work throughout the UK, such as HE+. We are rightly proud of the impact of these achievements. But we recognise that we cannot do this alone, nor will we compromise on the academic qualities required of potential undergraduates. As I wrote in our prospectus:

“…we are confident that the education we offer is truly accessible to all with the academic ability and potential to succeed here. There is no ‘right background’ for Cambridge, no right school to have attended, no hidden test of social and economic circumstances. Quite simply, if you have the ability, the enthusiasm and the motivation to study here, then we want to hear from you.”

During this year, we have strengthened our ties with the City and County. Most important for the long term has been our engagement with the City Deal. This deal, which was agreed with government, will help Greater Cambridge to maintain and grow its status as a prosperous economic area by improving transport links, speeding up the development of new homes, creating thousands of new jobs and forging new arrangements for joint decision-making between local councils. It is no surprise that Cambridge has been described as a model to other areas of Britain.

As a University, we have absolute confidence in our capacity to continue to deliver high-quality research and innovation. But to ensure our long-term competitiveness – and to allow us to make the contributions I have described – it is essential that we address our ability to recruit world-class staff and students. Many of the problems we face in recruitment require us to focus on issues of accommodation, transport and schools. North West Cambridge takes care of some of these needs but the City Deal enables us to work alongside colleagues in the councils to develop a wider regional solution.

Such ventures will also sustain our ability to deliver on our responsibility to the region and the nation through discovery, entrepreneurship, economic growth and local employment. The 1,500-plus technology companies based here, the 57,000 people employed by them and the revenues of more than £13 billion a year they produce are testament to the contribution our freedom allows – and impels us – to make to the economic and social well-being of our region and nation.

And through this contribution we change the lives of individuals. This year a great example of how Cambridge research makes a difference is the approval of Alemtuzumab by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence for use in people with relapsing – remitting multiple sclerosis following clinical trials of the drug, co-ordinated by the Department of Neurology. Alemtuzumab affects the natural history of the disorder, reducing disease activity but also limiting the accumulation of further disability over time – to my knowledge the first medication to do so.

Our responsibility is not just to those who can access such care. Our responsibility – and commitment – is global, and in particular to those in poorer parts of the world. Our Cambridge in Africa programme involves more than 100 academics and staff collaborating with or mentoring African researchers. This engagement is not new. In the past two years, the Cambridge – Africa Partnership for Research Excellence (CAPREx), funded by the Carnegie Corporation and Isaac Newton Trust, has supported 40 visiting African Fellows, and the Alborada Cambridge – Africa Research Fund has initiated 66 partnerships across all academic disciplines in 11 African countries.

These programmes have helped to embed a generation of top African researchers, based in Africa, and to build a research culture that can address African and global problems. The University of Cambridge was also one of the founding partners of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, set up in Cape Town in 2003 as a centre for postgraduate training and research across Africa. Operating as a partnership between African and international universities, the Institute brings in outstanding international and African lecturers to teach three-week courses and helps talented students from all over the continent develop their advanced mathematical skills. So far, 731 students – over a third of them women – from 41 African countries have graduated from Institute centres in South Africa, Senegal, Ghana and Cameroon. Most go on to Masters’ and PhD programmes at top universities in Africa and abroad, before moving on to bolster African universities, research centres, government and industry. We have now embarked on a new initiative, an international forum for science in Africa – the Next Einstein Forum – of which I have been asked to be the Founding Patron. The Forum has the dual goal of promoting African science on a global platform and highlighting the essential role of science in the continent’s development.

Another great example is Cambridge’s leading role in the Square Kilometre Array radio-astronomy project, with detectors based in Australia and South Africa but data analysis conducted in the UK. This is a data-intensive task and in order to ensure that scientists in southern Africa have the opportunity to develop skills in this area we, working with the Southern African Development Community (SADC), are taking our four-year-old High-Performance Computer and separating it into eight machines which will be used for the development and training of a new generation of researchers. The arrival of these computers will act as a catalyst for high-performance computing in southern Africa, which could dramatically improve, for example, in-country research into agriculture, HIV/AIDS, weather pattern modelling, and the mining of those countries’ natural resources.

These are examples of leadership shown by academics who are supported by the University. The responsibility of leading debate into new ideas and helping shape policy is one that we also embrace. But we are clear that our contribution is for the common good and not driven by self-interest. We do not have a ‘party line’. Our academics are free to advise, challenge and support policy-makers. This principle is of particular importance as we enter a year in which the turbulence of national politics will take centre stage. Our objective is to be a trusted and politically impartial adviser on matters of policy. However, we will speak out on issues that have significance for the University’s future and when we believe our ability to contribute most effectively to society is at risk. But we will continue to do this in a measured, selective way. In the past year, for example, I have spoken publicly on issues related to immigration, A-levels and the problems of modern languages. Cambridge will not be a ‘rent a quote’ institution with a comment on every issue in the public domain! But whatever the challenges the year brings, Collegiate Cambridge will face them with a clear awareness of its responsibilities.

Our key requirements for maintaining our enviable international competitiveness in the future in order to fulfil our responsibilities remain the same as always:

  • The right people
  • The right environment
  • The right financing

People - staff and students - are the bedrock of any university and that is why the commitment to Collegiate Cambridge is vital. Although numbers of undergraduate students will not expand, we will need to grow our postgraduate and postdoctoral numbers, alongside an expansion of staff numbers.

To secure the individuals of quality we need, we must continue to provide the right academic and physical environment alongside the social needs I have already referred to. I believe that it is vital that Cambridge enables a ‘bottom-up’ approach to support individual endeavour in research while continuing to enable interdisciplinary thematic groupings to arise from their initiation by individual investigators. However, all our major competitors are developing world-class facilities so that academics can be best supported in their chosen studies. We have already embarked on an ambitious capital programme to provide new facilities for the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, the Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology Department, and the Maxwell Centre as well as to fund numerous developments on the Addenbrooke’s Campus, often in partnership, such as the construction of the Cardio-Respiratory Research Centre with the new Papworth Hospital. However, as large as it is, our current capital programme is smaller than those of our global competitors and needs further investment.

From where and how is this investment in people and facilities going to come? How can we ensure sustainable funding for the ambitious programmes that we must pursue if we are to deliver on our responsibilities? Let me do a little crystal ball gazing. With the financial pressures of the economic downturn still evident it is unlikely that we can look to the UK government for any substantial and much needed expansion of research funding. There has been a welcome government commitment to capital infrastructure development and we will take advantage of that where possible. Similarly, the charities continue to provide valuable resources as do the European Union and other overseas agencies. However, our academics already exploit these diverse sources – so where can further growth occur?

Philanthropy always has been, and always will be, a cornerstone of the University of Cambridge. As our philanthropic partners, donors share our sense of responsibility and commitment to society. Their generosity and engagement enables us to fulfil our historic purpose, to contribute to society. If we are to achieve our shared ambitions – as we must do to live up to our responsibilities to the world – we cannot depend simply on government or institutional funding. The problems the world faces in education, security, food supply, climate change, health and energy supply are complex, vast… and urgent. These challenges are what drive our imperative duty to ensure we remain at the forefront of academic activity in education and research. These challenges are why we need to focus our efforts to support our staff, to expand recruitment of postgraduate students, to develop our facilities and, most importantly, to support the research programmes that seek to produce ‘change that matters’ – not just in the UK but globally. And these challenges are why we must develop and grow our ability to attract philanthropic funding now and in the future.

To finish, let me return to the conclusion of Churchill’s speech at Harvard that was couched in language that would have been instantly meaningful to those from Cambridge who gave their lives in the conflagration of the First World War. It calls all of us to recognise our responsibilities and resonates still to our purpose as a University today. I quote:

“Let us rise to the full level of our duty and of our opportunity, and let us thank God for the spiritual rewards He has granted for all forms of valiant and faithful service.”