The annual address of the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, 1 October 2015

1. Introduction

We are used to taking the long view at the University of Cambridge. Set against its 806 years of history, the past five years of my tenure are like the blink of an eye. Yet in those five years, the landscapes of higher education and research have changed at a dizzying rate.

The introduction of higher rate tuition fees and an expanded student loan system following the Browne Review have created significant challenges for the higher education sector. We have faced pressure from the Office for Fair Access to make faster progress in widening participation. The Collegiate University has risen to all of these challenges, emphasising our resilience and the strength of our undergraduate education programme. More prospective undergraduate students apply to Cambridge now than at any other time in our history. Our intake is also at its most diverse, with state sector and minority ethnicity admissions at a 30-year high. We have achieved this without compromising standards, and through a needs-blind admission policy based on academic merit alone.

We are again on the brink of yet more changes to higher education, including the reform of A levels, which will affect our admissions processes, and the implementation of a Teaching Excellence Framework. Just as for the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, where almost nine out of every ten (87%) of our submissions for the REF were rated as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’, I am confident that we will rise to these challenges and continue to demonstrate our commitment to international excellence in whatever field of endeavour we undertake. These successes provide tangible evidence that the Collegiate University continues to live up to our mission: “to contribute to society at the highest levels of international excellence”.

To sustain this commitment we continue to invest in our future despite national and sector-specific financial crises and regulatory pressures. This investment is particularly visible with respect to our physical infrastructure in the shape of the remarkable number of cranes and, yes, the inconvenience of road works dotted around the city in recent months. Developments include the West Cambridge site, the emerging scope of North West Cambridge, and the rebuilding of the New Museums Site, as well as the growth of the Biomedical Campus in the south of the city. These are all conspicuous signs of a University that is not only adapting to new needs, but also anticipating the future. However, buildings do not make a university and we continue a less visible but critical investment in undergraduate, postgraduate and part-time students and postdoctoral researchers – as the human bedrock on which our future can be made secure.

This is important as only the most resilient institutions can sustain themselves – and, indeed, improve themselves – in difficult times. And two things, at least, make Cambridge uniquely resilient.

The first is our uncompromising focus on autonomy and excellence, which I have previously discussed at length.

The second is our ability to harness the power of partnerships. It is this second point that I’d like to speak about today.

2. A new perspective on partnership

Collaboration and innovation have been at the heart of some of humankind’s greatest moments of progress, and it is my firm belief that they will continue to be so.

And what is true about humankind is equally true of institutions.

It is especially true of an institution such as ours.

If this University has achieved remarkable things in the past, it is because we have always understood the importance of building connections to the wider world.

If we are now a ‘global’ University, it is because we have shown the will to establish the strategic partnerships – both here and abroad – that allow us to confront some of the most pressing global challenges.

Acknowledging that we need others as much as others might need us is both a sober assessment of the sector’s realities and the expression of an aspiration for wider and more meaningful engagement.

Accepting that partnerships are essential to our work requires both humility and vision.

But what exactly do we mean by partnership, and who are those partners?

Local partnerships: the Collegiate University

To begin closest to home, the Collegiate University is, by definition, a partnership – and a very successful one. Quite simply, the University as we know it could not exist without the 31 Colleges that are so essential to the education and welfare of our students. Nor would Colleges have much purpose if they were not partners with the University.

It is the sharing of responsibilities between the University and the Colleges – from admissions, to teaching, to examination, to research and pastoral care – that distinguishes Cambridge, and continues to attract some of the world’s best students and staff.

Partnerships in the city and region

Beyond the Collegiate University, we are firmly embedded in local and, indeed, in regional partnerships.

The University has always been an intrinsic part of the city’s fabric. But by signing up to what has been called the City Deal, we have also demonstrated our willingness to work closely with the city, district and county councils to develop joint solutions to the problems of housing, transport and training.

The University of Cambridge Primary School is an outstanding example of our commitment to the city. Building work began on the School in November last year. The first phase of construction was completed in August, just in time for the new school year. The School, the first primary school in the UK to be granted University Training School status by the Department for Education, has now opened its doors. This will provide not only an excellent learning environment for pupils, but also a focus for our Education Faculty to research better ways of delivering that excellence during the hugely important formative years for children.

Partnership in the form of civic engagement is essential to the welfare of the University, and that of the communities it serves. It is our ambition to develop these ties further and work with partners across the East of England to continue to attract jobs and investment to the region.

Partnerships for knowledge creation

We know today that the creation of knowledge is a shared project.

Partnership comes, increasingly, in the form of collaboration with other universities, both here and abroad. An important example is the Alan Turing Institute, an initiative launched at the end of 2014 to tackle one of the great challenges of our times: to create, collect and analyse so-called Big Data, with Cambridge as a leading partner – along with the Universities of Edinburgh, Oxford and Warwick and UCL.

The project is being supported over five years with £42 million of funding from the UK government, and with additional contributions from the university partners. We will play a critical role both in shaping the Institute’s research agenda and in making a decisive contribution to questions about the application of Big Data – from genomics to sociology to astronomy.

Partnerships with industry

In seeking the partnerships that will allow us to achieve our mission, a closer relationship with key industrial partners remains essential.

There are so many examples that it is impossible to do justice to them all, so I mention only one here. Earlier this summer, AstraZeneca and Cambridge announced three new joint schemes to support more than 80 PhD scholarships and eight clinical lectureships over the next five years. The scholarships and lectureships will span basic and clinical research as well as translational science.

This collaboration will ensure that basic research is closely aligned with the real-world challenges of drug discovery and the development of new medicines in key areas such as cardiometabolic disease, infection, oncology and neuroscience.

International partnerships

As I have emphasised in previous speeches on this date in the Senate House, the Collegiate University must look beyond the boundaries of the UK. Our strength is as a global institution that supports and engages with others around the world by jointly tackling some of the major challenges we all face. And as we watch the heart-rending scenes of people risking their lives to reach our shores, there has never been a more vital time for this point to be made.

This month, a new cohort of postgraduates will be arriving in Cambridge with scholarships awarded specifically, and for the first time, to students from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Funding from a benefactor, as well as the Cambridge Trust and from the University’s own strategic funds will allow these students to study MPhil and PhD courses in Cambridge.

They will live, study and socialise in our Colleges. They will be taught and trained by our academics and, in turn, will make important contributions within their chosen disciplines.

These young men and women will be leaders of the future – in research, in industry, in government and in civil society. Some may remain in Cambridge; others will return home, becoming not only ambassadors for the University, but also working with us to tackle some of the biggest political, medical and economic challenges facing that continent, and indeed all continents. This is a real investment for the future, and a clear example to me of what partnership is about.

New partnerships have also developed in the typical Cambridge way – initial commitment through collaboration between individuals or teams subsequently strengthened by institutional or philanthropic support. Earlier this year, the University was supported by £2 million from the UK Medical Research Council and the Government of India’s Department for Biotechnology to develop a partnership with the National Institute for Research in Tuberculosis (NIRT) in Chennai.

The Cambridge – Chennai Centre Partnership on Antimicrobial Resistant Tuberculosis brings together a multidisciplinary team of international researchers, led by Professor Sharon Peacock, Professor Lalita Ramakrishnan and Dr Soumya Swaminathan. It will focus on developing new diagnostic tools and treatments to address the sharp rise in cases of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, a scourge that affects around half a million people each year across the globe. Running alongside this project is a collaboration led by Professor Kaivan Munshi at the Faculty of Economics focussing on the effects of social stigma on testing and treatment of TB, emphasising the importance of a humanities-based approach to solving some of our global challenges.

Partnership with society

Through all these initiatives and many others, we strive to serve the most important partnership of all, society itself, and by society I mean the whole of mankind. I can phrase it no better than Edmund Burke:

“Society is…a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

And that quotation brings us back to the importance of our history and our future. So how can we build our future when the funding and support of government and other public bodies is increasingly uncertain? We need to develop our current partnerships and forge new ones, in particular with philanthropic partners.

3. Philanthropy as partnership

As we ready ourselves to launch a new University-wide campaign, it is worth remembering that Cambridge has a rich history of philanthropy. As I am reminded annually at our service for benefactors, our first recorded donation was in 1284.

It is the foresight of our benefactors that enables us to serve society through academic excellence today. History records their generosity in figures and dates. But the full impact of philanthropy is not so easy to quantify. It lies in the many stories and experiences of men and women who have been inspired by their time here. People who have found a unique home for their talent and ambition, as well as their desire to make positive contributions to the world at large.

Nobody, myself included, can be associated with our Collegiate University without daily encountering the benefits of our partnership with philanthropy. When I first came to Cambridge in 1988, I was fortunate enough to be a Fellow at Wolfson College.

Wolfson, as with so many of our Colleges, was founded and has been sustained and strengthened through philanthropy. So I have special reason to be thankful, as Wolfson celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, for the gifts made available to the College by its principal donors.

And it is not just support that ensures people like me continue to benefit from that unique Collegiate experience. It is also people like Alice Gathoni. Alice grew up in the highlands of Kenya’s Rift Valley Province. But sadly both her parents died prematurely, and so she left school at 13 to look after three of her siblings, including a two-week-old baby girl. Through the efforts of her community, and her own indomitable determination, she subsequently went back to school and qualified as a teacher. And, thanks to the support of the Oxford and Cambridge Society of Kenya at Wolfson, she recently completed an MPhil, studying ways of helping children with disabilities transition into adult life. She has now returned to Kenya to put her work into action – and represents an inspiring example of the power of philanthropy to transform lives.

Most of us in this room, I’m sure, could tell similar stories. So why, given our philanthropic heritage, do we need to continue to strengthen our engagement with donors?

I believe there are three key reasons.

First, our donors are uniquely placed to reinforce the freedom of institutions, academics, researchers and students to follow their intellectual curiosity – something that has been at the heart of every transformative discovery in human history – despite the vagaries of political or economic developments. Given the inevitable short-term horizons of politicians, our donors are vital partners in helping us to sustain long-term investment in our core activities. If we are to be true to our mission, it is imperative that we remain among the top tier of global research institutions. I would not be doing my job if I did not seek to protect and nurture the diversity of income streams that are vital to deliver that mission.

Second, philanthropic partnerships are transformative. Put simply, we can achieve far more with the support, passion and vision of our donors than we can on our own. That is not simply a question of financial arithmetic – it is about the wonderful changes that can occur when people of conviction, ability and means come together around shared objectives. It is about resolving the most complex global problems, generating a step-change in scale and accelerating outcomes beyond those made possible with normal funding streams. At its most powerful, this process sees our supporters play a leading role in rethinking the world with us. One such philanthropic partnership has enabled the creation of the Cambridge Centre for Law, Medicine and Life Sciences, drawing together two donors, several departments across two University schools, two Colleges and the University of Hong Kong to create an innovative and multifaceted partnership. The aim of the new Centre is to complement the world-class biomedical research carried out by the University and help answer questions about the law reform we need to ensure the fair and effective delivery of modern medicine. For example, are we given the right sorts of choices about our births, deaths, medical treatments and medical records? Who owns or has rights in new genetic discoveries? How can we translate these discoveries into affordable new treatments in the quickest, safest and most ethical way?

Finally, philanthropy also has a critical role in developing many of our other innovative partnerships. A powerful example is the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and its new Conservation Campus in the David Attenborough Building. This Campus will see researchers from diverse academic disciplines working side by side with leading conservation organisations to transform the ways of conserving the Earth’s biodiversity. By integrating research, policy, practical action and capacity building, new solutions to one of our most pressing global challenges will emerge.

4. Conclusion

In keeping with the international nature of partnership, I would like to close with a well-known but nonetheless apposite African proverb:

“If you want to travel fast then travel alone. If you want to go far travel together.”

In many ways this great Collegiate University exemplifies both aspects well. Our support for individualism in challenging ideas, developing new thinking and promoting innovation is well established and must continue. But the University has also come far over the centuries and we would not have achieved as much as we have were it not for the partnerships we have forged. But we must recognise that we have the responsibility to go much further to tackle the many problems that beset society. To achieve these ambitions we need partnerships with like-minded and supportive friends, who share our values and are equally ambitious for change and betterment of society. So together, through partnership, we can and will make a difference to the world of tomorrow for the benefit of all.