About this speech

  • Title: Annual address to the University
  • Speaker: Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor
  • Date: Monday 1 October 2018

Annual address to the University

Proctors, Members of the Regent House, Distinguished Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen –

A year of challenges

Trial by ordeal was not an uncommon practice in medieval law. The past twelve months have certainly been eventful, and at times have made me think that some of those old traditions are alive and well. As rituals of initiation go, I hope this one has run its course.

It is not only in Cambridge that the past year has felt like a very long time, but across British higher education, as the sector continues to be buffeted by winds of change.

It has been perplexing to see Britain’s outstanding university system, which in many ways is the envy of the world, become the focus of public and political discontent.

Much of it springs from a shift in how society understands the role of higher education.

But we ourselves, as universities, have fallen short in demonstrating the value – societal, economic, cultural, civic – our institutions can offer.

The end result has been growing mistrust of universities, and suspicion of our motivations.

Even Cambridge, with its distinguished history and exceptional record of achievement, has not been immune to this disquiet.

Some of the issues we have confronted over the past year have been divisive.

Take, for instance, the decision of the University Council, on how best to manage the University’s endowment in ways that are consistent both with our responsibility to make our university financially sustainable, and our responsibility to battle climate change.

Equally fraught – because it directly touches on people’s livelihoods – is the difficult matter of pensions.

I understand the frustration expressed by colleagues. I deeply regret the erosion of trust between those who have voiced their concern about the proposed changes, and those of us whose job is to keep the university running and to focus on the long term.

I saw the immense strains that industrial action put on colleagues I met on picket lines across the University. I repeatedly expressed my own genuine dissatisfaction at not being able to deliver easy answers to questions that trouble the entire system.

On this complex issue, we have not YET reached a resolution. As I have done over the past few months, I will continue to push for a positive solution that offers fair remuneration while being sustainable for future generations.


A year of discovery

And yet, for me the past year has been a year of discovery.

I have had the tremendous pleasure of travelling across the collegiate University, meeting with the exceptional people who make the University the world-leading institution it is.

In my visits to colleges and departments, to labs and lecture halls, I have confirmed first-hand what I could only speculate about a year ago: that the excellence on which our reputation rests is genuine, and widespread.

And I have marvelled at much of what I have learned.

Sometimes, our history of excellence is palpable. This struck me when I attended the reopening of the Museum of Zoology, in the company of Sir David Attenborough, and was shown the perfectly preserved finches that led Charles Darwin to formulate his ideas about the evolution and differentiation of species. Here they were – “Darwin’s finches”!

It has been a year of milestones for the University.

One of them was the launch of the “Breaking the Silence” campaign, the impact of which has helped spark a conversation about a very difficult issue. It has also shown that, at its best, collegiate Cambridge can have societal and cultural impact well beyond the academic sphere.

The re-opening of Kettle’s Yard was a much anticipated moment not only for the University, but also for the city of Cambridge – and indeed, for art lovers everywhere. “Back with a bang” is how one newspaper described the relaunch of one of the country’s most beloved galleries.

The creation of the Bennett Institute of Public Policy demonstrated the University’s commitment to contribute to the reimagining of public policy in an era of turbulence and growing inequality. I can think of few academic-driven endeavours that are timelier – or more necessary.

Though no sportsman myself, it was hard to contain my excitement as all six of the  women’s and men’s crews beat our rivals at the 2018 Boat Race on the Thames and at Henley. Just as remarkably, our rugby teams – both women’s and men’s – did their part to turn Twickenham light blue.

Barely three years since it opened, the University of Cambridge Primary School was found to be outstanding in all categories when it received its first OfSTED report.

We passed the 1.2 billion pound mark in our ambitious “Dear World, Yours Cambridge” fundraising campaign – including a donation from the Dolby family, the largest philanthropic gift ever made to UK science. The success and continuing strength of the campaign is evidence of how much can be achieved when the collegiate university acts with common purpose.


A year of listening

As part of getting to know and understand the University, I have also spent much time listening to staff and students through a formal consultation process – mycambridge. A report summarising the feedback to the consultation has just been published.

The consultation, alongside my various formal and informal meetings with staff and students across the collegiate University, has offered a unique opportunity to understand where our greatest strengths lie – as well as a frank assessment of what challenges and risks we face.

Those challenges and risks are considerable.

The questions raised through the consultation go to the heart of our work:

How do we maintain and enhance the infrastructure needed for our research at a time when traditional sources of public funding are diminishing?

How do we give our students the best experience we can – from offering appropriate financial support, to ensuring their academic and personal wellbeing needs are fully met?

How do we put in place the right incentives and supports to sustain and expand our excellence in teaching?

How do we ensure that all our staff – in academic, administrative and assistant roles – are fairly rewarded, and appropriately encouraged in their professional development?

How do we nurture a truly welcoming, diverse and inclusive environment for students and staff?

How do we remain a global university, open to talent and to partnerships around the world, even as we grapple with the uncertainties of Brexit?

Few of the issues and risks that emerged from the consultation are entirely surprising. But the consistency with which some of them were raised gives me a clear indication of where our priorities must lie – not only in the year ahead, but in the years to come.

Across the University, work is already underway to address many of those priorities. From our engagement with local authorities over housing and transport, to our initiatives for widening participation in admissions; from our efforts to enhance the University’s global presence, to our initiatives promoting equality and dignity in the workplace – I have witnessed teams across the University intensely engaged in serious efforts to make Cambridge the university we all want it to be.


Shared priorities and objectives

The end of the consultation is not the end of the conversation. There is no end to learning, as Robert Schumann observed, and neither should there be an end to listening. I will continue to listen and to learn from all of you.

I am confident, however, that what I have heard over the past twelve months allows me to sketch out some widely shared objectives and common goals.

The first of these must be to safeguard those unique elements that have made our university an exemplar of learning and scholarship globally:

  • A fundamental commitment to critical thinking and academic freedom;
  • A tightly knit community of colleges that fosters and facilitates interdisciplinary dialogue;
  • A democratic system of governance that includes, and benefits from, diverse viewpoints;
  • A robust system of deliberation that ensures our university’s values are maintained in all our partnerships – whether in research, in education, or in philanthropy.
  • A common recognition that Cambridge must be a local good citizen, a regional champion, a national asset, and a global leader.

I fully recognise that balancing these distinctive elements can be challenging – but the pay-off from achieving this balance is worth our efforts.

Further strengthening Cambridge research

In the realm of research, perhaps more than most others, we might rightfully apply the truism – that we must run as fast as we can just to stay in place, and if we wish to go anywhere we must run twice as fast as that.

Continued and expanded excellence requires that we build on existing strategic research initiatives and centres by identifying and fostering new areas of exceptional Cambridge research strength, and by addressing the new research questions that excite, challenge and trouble our societies.

Seeking new sources of sustainable funding, at greater scale, is an imperative. This will require greater interdisciplinarity, and collaboration amongst our various University units and offices. It will also require that we continue to enhance administrative support for research funding applications.

We were largely successful in the last Research Excellence Framework. We aspire to do even better this time. Work has already started to ensure that we are well prepared for the next REF. This includes continuing departmental and faculty strategic research reviews, to ensure a continuous focus on quality, measured by global standards.

Apart from being excellent, Cambridge must be more nimble in responding to emerging opportunities for collaborative research both in the UK and abroad. So I have proposed the creation of a modest seed fund to support promising early-stage research clusters. This will allow us to be more effective as we seek to gather some of our finest minds to address issues of global importance, such as how to move rapidly towards a carbon neutral future.

Further strengthening our teaching and learning

No matter how good we are at research, no matter how many Nobel Prizes or Fields Medals we claim – and we claimed one more of each this year – we can only truly call ourselves a university because we offer students an education.

I was vividly reminded of the tremendous potential that can be unleashed by the Cambridge experience while reading a brilliant memoir, Educated, by American Gates Scholar Tara Westover. For Dr Westover, who grew up home-schooled and isolated in a Mormon family in rural Idaho, dominated by a father who did not believe in the state, a university education was a way to escape a life of violence and emotional abuse. Later, the opportunity to come to Cambridge for a postgraduate degree was more than an act of defiance, or even intellectual development. It became a step in Dr Westover’s path to self-affirmation.

There lies the power of a Cambridge education. I know that power first-hand.

In order to continue providing it, it is essential that we give as much attention to our teaching and learning provision as we do to our research performance.

I will continue to push for further progress on staff recognition schemes, and for appropriate rewards for teaching. This will include re-assessing and, if necessary, further adjusting the weight given to teaching in the promotions process.

I have encouraged colleagues to reflect on the potential for change in the organization of undergraduate Tripos and of Master’s Courses. We need to constantly reflect on the overall balance amongst the various disciplines to ensure that the university remains committed to broad disciplinary coverage, and that it is open to emerging disciplines and greater inter-disciplinarity.

In the short term, we must also continue to encourage diverse forms of assessment beyond traditional written examinations.

Supporting our students

We cannot be truly great as a university if – even inadvertently – we are not open to the social and cultural diversity of the world around us.

I would go as far as to ask: can we call ourselves a place of excellence if we are not fully inclusive of the most diverse talent?

This is not just a matter of box-ticking. For me, it goes even beyond acknowledging the obvious fact that all of us benefit in countless ways from teaching, learning, researching and working in environments where diverse nationalities, ethnicities, skill-sets, world-views or family backgrounds enrich one another.

For Cambridge, this is an ethical issue.

We can only expect to have full public support for our university if we are prepared to encourage top talent to pour in – regardless of where it flows from.

We will not lower our academic standards for admission. We will, however, continue to actively encourage applications from those eligible students – undergraduate and postgraduate, from the UK and from overseas – who may have been disadvantaged as a result of their educational journey.

We are committed to establishing a Transitional Year programme that will raise attainment among students to compensate for the educational handicap they may have suffered. We will also ensure that our widening participation activities are extended to explicitly encompass postgraduate students.

I want us to be genuinely open to all who have the talent to flourish at Cambridge. The challenge is considerable. But so is the scale of our ambition.

That is why I am delighted today to announce that we will be seeking to raise at least half a billion pounds over the next six years entirely for student support.

We will be raising funds for postgraduate studentships, to ensure that the very best students come to Cambridge.

We will be enhancing financial support for undergraduate students, from home and abroad.

We will also be focusing on ensuring that students at Cambridge have the best experience possible, and that they are not deterred from participating in the richness that Cambridge has to offer.

Some early strands of this student support initiative have recently materialised. One example is the scholarship scheme recently launched by Grime artist Stormzy, which will help us support talented black students who might otherwise not have decided to study here, or have been in a position to take full advantage of the Cambridge experience. Our hope is that, in doing so, these scholarships will help us raise aspirations among other students from underrepresented groups.

Yet another example is the recent creation of a dedicated studentship fund for applicants from conflict zones, or who are at risk of discrimination, persecution, suffering, violence or abuse of their human rights. I am pleased to announce that the Cambridge Trust has set aside half a million pounds to create the Rowan Williams Cambridge Studentships, starting in 2019. The Trust is also supporting five students from Syria and two from Palestine to study at Cambridge this academic year.

I can think of few things that are more important to us than breaking down those barriers that prevent the brightest from thinking that Cambridge is for them.

But supporting students goes beyond diversifying our intake. I am determined that we do everything we can so that Cambridge offers an equally positive experience to all. That will mean doing much more to bolster our students’ mental health – including more opportunities for sport and cultural pursuits that promote general wellbeing.

My hope this year is that our ambitious plans for improving student support become a genuinely collective endeavour across the whole of the Collegiate University.

Valuing our staff

We are an excellent university because we have excellent people. And in the years ahead, we must take further concrete steps to demonstrably value our staff.

We are all aware of how prohibitive the cost of living can be in Cambridge, and the pressures this can place on staff – particularly those in early and mid-career.

So valuing our staff begins with improving the total reward package for academic and professional services staff. Such an improvement must include enhancing staff benefits – particularly transport, child care and housing – to ensure that Cambridge is an attractive place to live and work. But it should also entail higher pay levels, with an initial focus on more junior staff.

Earlier this year the University took the decision to become an Accredited Living Wage employer. I want us to do more. To further improve the position of our staff we are looking at adopting a minimum rate of payment for University employees that goes beyond the Accredited Living Wage. This initiative recognises that high living costs are disproportionately felt by those at the lower end of the pay scale.

One of the concerns raised through last year’s consultations is that the current system for academic progression is opaque and slow. We are working to fully implement a new system that is faster and fairer.

Being truly inclusive

A year ago, I spoke about the importance of openness to the wider world. One very specific aspect of that openness is being inclusive, and open to diversity in all its forms – diversity of interests and beliefs, of gender, of religion, of sexual identity, of ethnicity, of physical ability.

Later this month, I will be specifically addressing the issue of race equality as a guiding principle of our work. This work should begin with developing a better understanding of the value of diversity within a framework of excellence.

Even as we push on with our plans to increase diversity – importantly, including diversity of opinion – we must be mindful of our other fundamental principles. In the light of our unwavering commitment to free speech, we will continue to keep under review the ways in which the University implements the obligations arising from the Prevent legislation, and work to better coordinate approaches across collegiate Cambridge.

Being truly global

As a collegiate university, we are deeply committed to nurturing relevant and meaningful international partnerships. Our agreement with Nanjing municipality in China, signed in March, for the development of research into smart cities, is a fine example of the type of creative collaboration we aspire to develop.

The wish to remain internationally engaged came through very strongly in the consultation feedback. For many of us, being globally connected and influential is not only an aspiration – it is central to our identity.

Even in an era of potential national retrenchment, Cambridge will not abdicate its responsibility to connect globally. And yet we must acknowledge political realities. We are six months away from the enactment of a decision that could dramatically change the UK’s place in the world. Inconceivably, at this late stage we do not yet understand the full implications of Brexit. Which does not mean that we cannot prepare for it.

We are assessing and implementing the recommendations of our Brexit Strategy Group. As part of that process, we will continue to reaffirm that European partnerships are centrally important to Cambridge.

Just as we did over the past academic year with the Max-Planck Society, or with the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, or with SciencesPo in Paris, we will continue to seek out and negotiate collaborative arrangements with top European universities and research organizations that share our aspirations.

Let’s not forget that our links to the wider world begin at home. If and when the country transitions out of the European Union, we will continue to look out for those European citizens who are members of our community, and will offer as much support as we can to them and their families.

One specific measure I can announce today is that we will fund applications for settled or pre-settled status for all EEA members of staff and their dependents who joined the University before 29 March 2019, or make a contribution to the costs of obtaining permanent residency for EEA members of staff and their dependents who took such a step after June 2016.

Let me be clear: we greatly value, and heavily rely on, our European colleagues. We will continue to do our utmost to reaffirm your confidence in the choice of Cambridge as the place where you and your families live, where you work and where you thrive.

We also intend to further strengthen efforts to recruit top international students, and to encourage more applications.

But let’s remind ourselves that international students are emphatically not recruited as a means to balance the books. They are integral to a global university like Cambridge, which seeks to admit the best students regardless of where they come from. They enrich classrooms and supervision rooms with diverse perspectives, and at the post-graduate level they help to bolster international linkages between labs and research groups.

And they become our alumni, who – as I know from meeting with many of them over the past year – are our best ambassadors the world over.

Being good citizens

Just as we strive to be engaged abroad, I heard that you expect the University to be a local good citizen and a regional champion.

It is important that we continue to work collaboratively with local and regional authorities, with local MPs, and with other major employers. Only by engaging closely with them can we ensure that the University remains influential locally and regionally on crucial issues including housing, transport and high-tech developments.

We will continue to harness the entrepreneurial strengths of the Cambridge Cluster through the work of the Judge Business School, Cambridge Enterprise, the Cambridge Network and other platforms for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Not only should we reach out to the rest of the city – we should also let the city into the University. I will be proposing that we actively open up more of our buildings and facilities to Cambridge city residents, targeting especially some of those communities that might not normally have the opportunity to enjoy them.

Streamlining our processes

In his book about the failure of democratic politics, How Democracy Ends, Professor David Runciman wonders 'how long we can persist with institutional arrangements we have grown so used to trusting, that we no longer notice when they cease to work.'

The exact same question should be asked of our university.

We take great pride – and rightly so – in being 'a self-governing community of scholars'. Yet the concept, as old as our University, has not always kept up with the evolving needs of a modern, world-leading, research-intensive university.

To say that there is among colleagues an appetite to simplify the University’s decision-making processes, and to strengthen the professional support it offers, would be… an understatement. I heard deep frustration expressed again and again throughout last year’s consultations.

But simple solutions often require complex thinking.

So some serious thinking is currently going into ways of streamlining over-complicated processes, and reducing the unnecessary burdens imposed on staff.

We are operating in an increasingly regulated environment. It is up to us continually to assess what is truly required by the regulatory frameworks set by the government, and what is merely our own bureaucratic box-ticking.

When asked about the things that have surprised me most about Cambridge, one of my first answers is always its abundance of committees. I wish to ensure that each committee is clear about its role and adds value to our decision-making, without reducing democratic over-sight of policy decisions.

Our objective must always be to balance the need for a system that encourages careful deliberation and appropriate due diligence, with the need to respond with more agility to changing circumstances and new opportunities.

 We must avoid at all costs the complacency that might leave us with a barely serviceable system where, to quote Professor Runciman again, existing arrangements 'can continue to function as they ought while failing to deliver what they should.'

My aim is that we are a university defined by its purpose and its principles, not by its processes.

Ensuring financial sustainability

I realise that much of the work mentioned above can be only fulfilled over the next few years with enhanced resources.

One of the principal tasks for the Council and the senior leadership team over the coming years will be to ensure the University can run a balanced operating budget without undermining our mission or compromising our key principles.

Securing Cambridge’s financial sustainability will entail careful stewardship of our assets, protecting our existing resources, and tapping new sources of revenue – all while improving our financial planning and ensuring greater efficiency in our work.

A key concern will be to balance the necessary investments in capital expenditure – including IT systems and buildings – and expenditure on the University’s primary resource: people. These are not exclusive of each other. The truth is we must invest in both. But we cannot invest in everything, and so we face difficult decisions about how many eggs we put into which baskets, and when.


Cconcluding remarks

Ladies and gentlemen –

On June 15th of this year, in a Service of Thanksgiving for his life and achievements, Professor Stephen Hawking’s ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey. What is mortal of Professor Hawking was laid to rest between the remains of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

The roll-call of scientists whose remains are also interred at the Abbey – including Dirac, Rutherford, JJ Thompson – was a vivid illustration of the place that our University’s scholars and researchers have in this country’s history – and in the history of knowledge, more generally.

To be there, taking part in the ceremony, was also a humbling reminder of the trust placed in our generation to carry forward this university’s great history of discovery and innovation.

An equally powerful sense of the University’s contribution to the arts and culture in the UK and beyond was impressed upon me at the recent Memorial Service for Sir Peter Hall, a Cambridge alum and one of theatre’s giants. Cambridge was a common thread running through the many stories told about Sir Peter and his peers.

One of his protégés, Sir Trevor Nunn, first met his future mentor at an event in this very building. It was a scholarship to study at Cambridge, Sir Trevor reminded us, that allowed a young Peter Hall, the only child of a Great Shelford stationmaster, to fully indulge his passions and develop his talent before going on to change the face of theatre forever.

I will never express regret for wanting Cambridge to be anything other than excellent by global standards – and in that sense, an elite university. Nor will I hold back from reaffirming a commitment to the highest degree of integrity and openness in everything we do. This is why I have acknowledged – and will continue to do so – that we have our work cut out.

I said a year ago that I wanted our University to be “an unstoppable, unapologetic force for knowledge and understanding, for more inclusive community, and for the betterment of our shared world.”

Today I am more ambitious than ever for our University. I also recognise that, in order to deliver on our ambitions, it is essential that we adopt a stance of modesty, of listening to others, and of learning from their concerns and experiences.

US president Theodore Roosevelt hit the nail on the head when, speaking about leadership, he said: “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Outside of these walls, beyond this magnificent city, people won’t care how much we know until they know how much we care.

So we have to be better at listening to our society – locally, nationally, globally. We have to be better at sharing the knowledge we create. And we have to be better at telling the story of what we do, how we do it, and why.

In telling that story, we must find ways to encompass the entire collegiate University, so that our story is both genuinely joined up, and also representative of the myriad perspectives gathered within it.

It falls on all of us to dispel the facile stereotypes of Cambridge as a bastion of privilege and self-serving elitism. Let us prove instead – by showing, not just by telling – that Cambridge is increasingly open to diverse talent; that it is a spark for ideas and innovation; that it has the capacity to understand, explain and adapt to the social and economic realities of our own era.

I ask that you join me so that together we make Cambridge not only a university that reflects the society it serves, but one that is able to challenge conventional wisdom and help make our world smarter, more inclusive and fundamentally more decent.