About this speech

  • Title: The annual address of the Vice-Chancellor to the University
  • Speaker: Professor Deborah Prentice, Vice-Chancellor
  • Date: Monday 2 October 2023
  • Delivered at Senate House, Cambridge

Speech transcript

Colleagues, students, alumni.

By tradition, the Vice-Chancellor addresses the University from the Senate House to mark the beginning of the academic year.

It is just three months since I stood in this very place to address the University on the occasion of my admission to the office of Vice-Chancellor. Rather soon for another speech, you may be thinking.

I view this annual ritual as one of the great privileges of my office. It gives me the opportunity to speak directly to all Collegiate Cambridge about the State of the University and the important issues and decisions that face us going forward. It is my address – my bully pulpit as one might say in the United States, my soap box as one might say in the UK – and therefore the views expressed are my own. But ideally, these October addresses will punctuate an ongoing conversation with all of you about how we can best realise Cambridge’s mission.

I want to talk today about my evolving understanding of the Collegiate University and how it works. This understanding comes from six months of getting to know the place, and it is just the beginning of what I expect to be an ongoing quest. I confess to a fascination with living systems – human systems especially – and the University of Cambridge is one of the most extraordinary human systems I have ever encountered -- extraordinary in both its complexity and its achievements. But understanding the University is more than just an absorbing pastime; it is key to the development of a shared agenda going forward.

The complexity of the University of Cambridge defies unitary description. I have found it useful to think of Cambridge as three separable entities, distinct in their goals, cultures, and modes of conduct and interrelated in their pursuit of Cambridge’s overarching mission.

Cambridge is, historically first and foremost, a community of scholars: a group of people, young and old, living and working together in pursuit of knowledge, understanding, and truth, wherever that might lead. Its dominant values are freedom, intellectual rigour, and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. It functions largely through interpersonal exchange, within and across settings, disciplines, and scholarly communities. This is what we mean when we say we study, research, or teach “at Cambridge.”

I have found the community of scholars to be alive and well – indeed, more alive and more well here than in any other research-intensive university I know. I have seen the community of scholars at work in everything from undergraduate admissions to the supervision of doctoral students, from the intellectual life of the Colleges to the academic planning of faculties, departments, and schools. I learned about it from students who told me about their lives and work, and from academic staff – world-leading scholars and researchers – who told me they could never have pursued their particular career paths anywhere but Cambridge.

The community of scholars is a vibrant ecosystem – a moral community, but not a self-sustaining one, especially conducted at scale. It asks a lot of people, including the huge network of professional and supporting staff across the Colleges and the University and the scholars themselves, who must sustain a level of effort and engagement that is challenging under the best of circumstances. The past year was not conducted under the best of circumstances, with unresolved questions about student workload, tensions in the supervision system, and the Marking and Assessment Boycott. Although each of these challenges had its own underpinnings and dynamics, they shared a similar structure, whereby decisions taken at an individual or local level aggregate up to threaten the functioning of the community as a whole. The community of scholars is vulnerable to problems of this sort, which can only be resolved at a collective level.

A second face of Cambridge is the public institution – the university with a mission to serve society, the nation, and the world. This is the Cambridge outsiders usually refer to when they talk of “the university.” This Cambridge contributes around £30 billion a year to the British economy. Only last week it was ranked top in Research England’s Knowledge Exchange Framework, which measures universities’ impact on the economy and society, in terms of the revenue generated by its spinouts. It generates research discoveries that shape policy and practice in every sector. It produces a steady stream of graduates who go on to do transformative work in the UK and globally and, in doing so, creates a legion of passionate and loyal alumni who serve as unofficial ambassadors, enthusiastic supporters, and powerful advocates for our community.

This is the Cambridge that, through its Press and Assessment, reaches over 100 million learners around the globe. This Cambridge welcomed the King immediately after his Coronation to the ground-breaking for the new Whittle Lab. This Cambridge is partnering to build two new hospitals on the biomedical campus and is working to define an innovation strategy for Greater Cambridge.

I have found this side of the University to be thriving, thanks to the ambition of staff and students to make a difference in the world and Cambridge’s history of making big bets and establishing strong partnerships that pay off. The focus of Cambridge, the public university on application, translation, and impact is not in conflict with the academic rigour and truth-seeking of Cambridge, the community of scholars, but nor is it the same. It requires a different mindset and vocabulary – a view outward rather than inward, an appreciation of what society and our partners need from us, an eye to shared interests, and a comfort with opportunism, negotiation, and compromise.

These two faces of Cambridge – the community of scholars and the public institution – are both pursued here with extraordinary intensity and passion. They are intertwined in the University’s mission and are jointly responsible for its most notable successes. Let me give a recent example: the Teaching Excellence Framework or TEF is a government assessment of the quality of teaching in UK universities that gives separate scores for the quality of students’ educational experiences and the quality of the outcomes of their education. In the TEF results just released, Cambridge received Gold – the highest score – in both these categories and overall, one of just four Russell Group universities to achieve Gold across the board. This is an endorsement of Cambridge both as a community of scholars and as a public institution; we received a similar endorsement in the Research Excellence Framework last year.

Another example: this year saw the launch of the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program, which welcomes talented students from economically marginalised communities in Africa into Cambridge’s community of scholars and through their development builds capacity in their African communities. The recently launched Foundation Year Programme plays a similar role for younger students and their underserved communities in the UK. These are examples of the extraordinary things that come when Cambridge’s community of scholars mobilises in pursuit of the public good.

Of course, none of this could happen without the dedicated efforts of a third face of Cambridge: the modern organisation. This is the Cambridge many of us refer to as “the university” – the organisation that employs staff, manages the estate and the finances, runs the IT systems, staffs the committees, represents the University in professional organisations, raises funds for University endeavours, and communicates on the University’s behalf. This Cambridge aims to work smoothly and effectively to support the academic excellence of the community of scholars and the impact of the public institution. It does not deliver the University’s mission directly, but it enables those who do.

Because of its supporting role, the modern organisation at Cambridge has different drivers than the other faces of the University. Its primary objective and, indeed, its biggest challenge is ensuring it is in step – with the changing needs and requirements of cutting-edge scholarship, with an expanding research portfolio, with top academic talent, with an increasingly diverse student body, and with an increasingly demanding regulatory environment. Adaptive and bent on improvement, this side of the University is always looking for ways execute more effectively and more efficiently on an ever-expanding range of goals. The University’s change programmes illustrate this orientation toward improvement. These programmes are working to transform the University’s management of its finances, professional services staff, HR systems, and research support. Along with the ongoing effort to map and plan the Estate, these change programmes will bring the modern organization into the 21st century. They will make a significant, positive difference in the work lives of us all.

Now, you might be asking, “Isn’t this an awful lot of change all at once?” Yes, it is, but remember, change is what a modern organisation does. It is what it needs to do to stay on top of its brief. You do not want to be a part of a modern organisation that’s not changing, especially if you aspire to international excellence, as we all do. Change is a given; the objective is to manage it well.

I have described the University of Cambridge as a composite of three entities -- the community of scholars dedicated to truth-seeking, the public institution dedicated to societal impact, and the modern organisation dedicated to effectiveness. I should acknowledge straight away that this description provides a gross oversimplification of the many purposes and identities that give this great university meaning. But it begins to hint at the sources of achievement and success, of creative tension and vibrancy –and yes, of conflict and misalignment – that occasionally characterise the work that goes on here.

What this description highlights for me is that Cambridge’s sweet spot is where the aims of the scholars, the needs of society, and the capacities of the organisation align. Alignment is the key, and it cannot to be taken for granted. Although I find people at Cambridge to be on the same page about many topics, the devolved nature of the University makes that common ground difficult to recognise, much less to realise. Those of us in a position to recognise alignment or potential alignment, need to seize on it, cultivate, nurture, and support it, and repair it when it goes awry. That is what constitutes leadership at a university like Cambridge.

Now to the year ahead. The occasion of this address is the start of a new academic year, and this one begins in a mood of optimism. I send my own good wishes to our students, especially those who are new to the University. I share their excitement at the prospect of being part of this great institution, both ancient and modern, and admired around the world. We all know what a rough deal students have had over the past few years. As the cost of living goes up, and with mental health needs increasing, we must be more supportive of our students than ever. Supporting them will always be front and centre of my mind.

Just about a month ago, the UK government announced that we are re-joining the Horizon Europe programme, the world’s largest research collaboration programme, from January 2024. This was brilliant news, long-awaited, and a huge boost to our research community.

Much of the work of “the University” this year will focus on people, for people are at the heart of everything we do. People are the means and the ends of the work of a university. I have talked about the opportunities and challenges of aligning the academic and public sides of Cambridge’s mission, but none of that matters if people do not want to come to work here. It is people who animate the community of scholars, and people whose imaginations and ambitions fuel the impact of the public institution.

The past few years have been difficult for people at Cambridge – I only just arrived, but I see how difficult. Some of the difficulties, such as the cost of living and mortgage rates, are beyond our control; others are not. We want to be a good employer, to provide people with good jobs at fair pay and to make them feel good about working here. We also want to be competitive in the labour market. We want to be able to recruit and retain the most talented people. To these ends, we are working on a people strategy. It is not ready yet, but be assured that work on the people strategy has been underway for several months now and will occupy much of the coming year.

We are aiming to improve pay and conditions in ways that respond to what we have been hearing from staff and are fair and equitable across the University, competitive with our peers, and financially sustainable. That’s a tall order, and it will take a multi-year plan to get there. Will it meet everybody’s expectations? Fully mitigate the effects of inflation? Probably not, and I want to be clear about that up front. What it will do is enable us to recruit and retain top staff and ensure that they can live and work here comfortably. That is the goal.

Talk of the people strategy leads directly on to the question of resources. The finances of this University are manageable in that we are not in a crisis, but the margins are small. Year in and year out, we can balance the budget, but growth is another matter. If we want to do something new or do more in a specific area – for example, make appreciable enhancements to the value proposition we offer our staff – we have to do less somewhere else. These trade-offs can, in some cases, point to efficiencies and make us a better organization, but they can also constrain progress and ultimately compromise our ability to carry out our mission.

Increasingly for Cambridge, the way out of that box has been philanthropy. The Collegiate University has always raised funds from generous donors, but in recent years, the effort has become more focused, coordinated, and strategic. The Dear World campaign raised over £2 billion, an impressive amount to be sure, but what was more impressive was how much of that two billion was brought in for top-priority, critically important initiatives. Broadening access, student support, mental health – Cambridge was able to make progress on these initiatives because donors were willing to step up when asked. So let me convey three messages: first, a huge thank you to our donors – you have made Cambridge’s continued vitality possible; second, a shout-out to University and College Development teams – thank you for continually upping your game; and third, my own commitment to make fundraising a top priority during my time as Vice-Chancellor.

A final issue that I expect to be on the front burner in the coming year, and simmering away during my tenure as Vice-Chancellor, is Cambridge’s contribution to the health of the planet. Of all the academics who have approached me for a conversation in the past six months, half or more wanted to talk about some aspect of climate, sustainability, and the energy transition. The University Council is deliberating a set of policy proposals regarding the University’s engagement with fossil fuel companies. Net-zero plans are being developed across the Colleges and by the University’s Estates Office. Development colleagues are partnering with academic staff on at least a dozen major fundraising proposals. In short, Cambridge is aligned around a desire to make a difference in this critical domain.

I hope to build on that alignment in the coming year and beyond, with the help of colleagues throughout the University and especially the climate-related units – Cambridge Zero, CCI, CISL and others – that have brought us this far. Let me be clear that greater alignment does not mean that everyone will agree a strategy and march forward in lock-step. That is not a desired goal at any great university and certainly not at Cambridge. There are issues on which our scholars fervently disagree – issues regarding how Cambridge should lead in the energy transition – and I do not expect that to change. Greater alignment simply means that the University will build capacity to support the community of scholars working in this area, enable their interactions and cross-fertilisation, and position their work for greatest impact.

For me, the year ahead will include starting out on the Vice-Chancellor’s dialogues, which provide a public forum for the exchange of conflicting and possibly controversial views. The idea of the dialogues is to create a free-speech environment built on an exchange of views that enables audience members to learn all sides of an argument and develop their own opinions. I am working with colleagues on some initial ideas for topics and speakers. More soon.

I also plan to venture out beyond the boundaries of the University to learn more about the region and the country. I crossed the Atlantic with a keen sense of Cambridge as a global university. But over the past six months, I have met my counterparts throughout the UK and learned much about the country’s higher education sector. I’m convinced that Cambridge cannot be a great global university without being a great national and a great regional university too. Our impact on the world starts at home. I want to learn more about Cambridge’s opportunities and obligations in the East of England and the United Kingdom.

I look forward to seeing more of this beautiful country – especially the parts to the north and west that I have not seen before. I look forward to visiting areas with many Cambridge applicants and alumni, and areas with very few. I look forward to meeting partners and potential partners throughout the UK. And I look forward to engaging meaningfully with current and future development plans for our city, our county, and the wider region.

In closing, let me express my heartfelt gratitude to all who have welcomed me to Cambridge so warmly. It has been a real privilege and an honour to step into the role of Vice-Chancellor – that much I expected. But it has also been a good deal of fun – and that has been a very pleasant surprise.

Thank you.