Distinguished colleagues, students, alumni and friends –

A year of achievement

As we start a new academic year, and in the spirit of the traditional school essay, 'Things I Did This Holiday', allow me to share with you some of the 'Things I Learned This Year'.

For instance:

  • That stem cells can be used to repair broken hearts.
  • That we can reduce our susceptibility to disinformation and fake news through online games.
  • That a ghost galaxy lurks on the outskirts of the Milky Way.

I think, also, of scholarly or artistic treasures re-imagined or brought to the public’s attention:

  • A long-lost opera by Franz Liszt, rediscovered and now performed for the first time in 170 years thanks to painstaking work by a lecturer at our Faculty of Music.
  • Or the more than 800 medieval Greek manuscripts containing the works of Plato, Aristotle and Euripides, previously tucked away in special collections in Cambridge, Heidelberg and the Vatican, but now digitised and widely available for the first time.

All of these discoveries made the headlines over the past twelve months.

All of them (and many more like them) were the result of relentless and inspiring work by our Cambridge colleagues, driven by curiosity and by the urge to interrogate our world.

My question today is: what stories of discovery will we be telling about the University ten, twenty, or fifty years from now?

How will we, as a scientific community, have answered the growing challenges of mental health?

How will we have responded to the crisis in democratic institutions as we know them?

How will we have contributed to mitigating the existential threat of climate change?

How will the things we do today be remembered in the future?


There were many other stories over the past academic year reflecting not only the breadth but also the buzz of activity around the University.

We welcomed 1.3 million visitors to our museums and Botanic Garden, including some forty thousand school children on class outings.

Work began on the university’s new Cavendish Laboratory – a project that will help strengthen the university’s position as a globally leading site for physics research, while providing a pre-eminent facility for the rest of the country.

Also on the West Cambridge site, only a few days ago we celebrated the official opening of the new Civil Engineering building.

In March, our Student Services Centre opened on the New Museums site, bringing together for the first time in the University’s history all of the student-facing units, enabling them to provide more efficient and joined up frontline support for our students.

New college buildings, including Newnham’s Dorothy Garrod building, have added greatly to the city’s rich architectural mix.

I was pleased to join in celebration of some significant milestones for the Collegiate University, including Girton and Fitzwilliam’s 150th anniversaries.

We were honoured by a royal visit, when Her Majesty The Queen came to open the new Royal Papworth Hospital on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus.

In this latest phase of our Biomedical Campus’ expansion, I look forward to the opening of the Anne Maclaren building, and the new Jeffrey Cheah building, a hub for stem cell and therapeutic research.

Closer to where we are now, I welcome the imminent reopening of the Fitzwilliam museum’s main gallery with a stunning new exhibition conceived to explore the senses.

This was a landmark year for Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Assessment, the Faculty of Education and the Department of Psychology, who last autumn joined forces with UNICEF and Microsoft to develop a programme that will enable refugees and displaced children to keep learning, and to receive appropriate certification.

Not only have the Press and Cambridge Assessment worked together on many major projects, including the joint acquisition of Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, but they are also working more closely than ever with the academic university on the delivery of our digital education plans.

I'm excited to announce that, working with CUP and Cambridge Assessment, the University is now partnering with edX, the digital learning platform founded by Harvard and MIT, and home to more than 20 million learners.

Through this partnership, we will be reaping the benefits of digital learning here in Cambridge while also reducing access barriers to high-quality, Cambridge-made content for learners around the world.


Turning to sporting success, I had the enormous satisfaction of watching our crews row to victory at the 2019 Boat Races on the Tideway.

What a thrill to witness the women rowing to such a decisive triumph, and to see the men winning by a whole length to achieve their first back-to-back victory for 20 years.

And we had Varsity match wins in yachting, men’s road cycling, men’s ice hockey, women’s sailing and (once again) women’s rugby.

My compliments to all our athletes.

There was achievement of another kind: to the bright constellation of Cambridge researchers who hold prestigious European Research Council grants, 21 more were added this year.

ERC grants are a mark of academic excellence – and one of the many reasons that being part of the European research landscape has been crucial to Cambridge, and to the UK.

I warmly congratulate each one of those colleagues.

But among the past year’s happy tidings, one certainly stood out.

News arrived only a couple of days after my last address to the University that the Nobel Prize for Chemistry had been awarded to one of our own – and a Head of House, no less.

I hope you will all join me in belatedly congratulating Sir Gregory Winter for this exceptional recognition.


Something else caught my attention this year: it was widely reported that our University Library was to become the home to the Spitting Image archive and puppets.

It is a source of some satisfaction to be a member of a University that is as proud of guarding Margaret Thatcher’s handbag in one of its College archives as it is happy to be housing her unforgettably grotesque likeness.

I like to think that we are the kind of university that is prepared to help deepen our understanding of recent political history while also embracing the satirical and subversive streak of Spitting Image’s creators.

(I was interested to note that we may be seeing a new generation of the Spitting Image characters on air very soon.)

The subject of satire brings me to my remarks about current affairs.

I began last year’s Address to the University by referring to the rapid pace of change in the British political landscape.

If anything, the pace seems to have accelerated.

Dizzying is one word that comes to mind in describing that pace. Blistering is another. Alarming, even.

It has been modestly reassuring to note the importance that the current government is giving to British academia and research.

The government has singled out as priorities the development of new battery technologies, investing in biosciences, and bolstering research into food security – all areas in which Cambridge has enormous expertise.

We have especially welcomed the government’s statement about the change in immigration rules designed to attract more international scientists to the UK.

And we greet enthusiastically the recent government proposal to reintroduce a two-year post-study work visa for international students – something that Cambridge and other universities have long campaigned for.

(One can only hope that such policies survive the slings and arrows of the country’s current constitutional quandary).


We continue to engage with the public sector at all levels.

As part of the government’s industrial strategy, we entered into partnership for the creation of a £72 million Construction Innovation Hub.

In July, the government announced a £30 million award to the University of Cambridge to support the new Cambridge Heart and Lung Research Institute, adjacent to the new Royal Papworth Hospital.

Also in the past year, the government agreed to make a significant contribution towards the creation of a national Centre for Propulsion and Power at our Whittle Laboratory, with a focus on dramatically reducing carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, a £100 million government contribution towards the costs of a new children’s hospital on our biomedical campus, which will make Cambridge a beacon in public health for the region, was secured by our NHS partners.

Over the past year we have sought to work ever more closely with local authorities, including the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, local MPs, and the Cambridge City Council.

We are not just a Collegiate University that happens to be in the Fens – we are fundamentally rooted in the region.

Whether it is discussions about local transport solutions, or about the provision and deployment of skills, or about tackling coastal erosion, we are prepared to be not only helpful interlocutors but part of the solution.

The joint venture to expand Cambridgeshire’s digital infrastructure, agreed by the University and the Cambridgeshire County Council, is but one recent example of local partnership.


Of course when it comes to discussing public affairs, there is an elephant in the room, or perhaps it is a great blue whale.

When I addressed the University last year, we were six months away from the UK’s departure from the European Union.

The prospect of Brexit still looms over us – this time just over four weeks away.

We are no more certain now about the conditions under which it may happen, but we have continued to plan for the contingency of a disorderly and disruptive exit.

I am grateful to all those colleagues across the Collegiate University who have been tireless in making preparations and drawing up contingency plans.

The deadlines that have come and gone continue to affect our staff and students – both current and prospective.

It was certainly helpful to have confirmation, in May, that EU students admitted for the 2020-21 academic year would still be eligible for domestic tuition fees and student loans for the duration of their course, regardless of Brexit.

But the mid and long-term prospects are more uncertain than ever.

Cambridge colleagues continue to engage with the government – and the public – to ensure that the impact of Brexit on immigration, research funding, student mobility and collaboration are understood – and, where possible, mitigated.

And we continue to reach out to our partners around the world – from Munich to Nanjing, from Paris to Delhi – to show through our actions, not only our words, that we are a global university open to global collaboration.

As the UK struggles to define its role in what may be a post-Brexit world, it is my sincerest hope – and indeed, my expectation – that Cambridge will help articulate some of the answers.

It is precisely at these moments of uncertainty that our University must reaffirm its mission.

It is at these times of unease that our University must move forward with purpose and determination.

When other institutions are perceived to be failing their societies, our University must step up.

It is our duty as a public institution.


We are still waiting for signs of what, if anything, will happen following the publication of the Post-18 Education Review – the Augar Review. If its recommendations are implemented fully, it would have some serious consequences for the funding of higher education.

More immediate, however, have been the requirements laid out by the new regulator, the Office for Students, as it grows into its role as a fully-fledged universities watchdog.

We welcome the OfS’s emphasis on fair access, student wellbeing and participation – though the regulator is still finding its way in terms of tone and balance.

Over the summer, as part of our compliance with OfS regulations, the University submitted its Access and Participation Plan.

The Plan, which covers the five years up to the 2024/25 academic cycle, contains ambitious new targets on access:

  • We have said that, by 2025, more than 25% of our intake will be from the most under-represented and disadvantaged backgrounds if our targets are achieved.
  • That this will rise to 33% by 2035.
  • We have also declared that, by 2025, more than 69% of the home undergraduate student intake will be from state schools.
  • We have expressed a strong commitment to reducing all attainment gaps amongst student cohorts.

Our Access and Participation Plan, approved by the OfS in August, shows the Collegiate University’s determination to address barriers in education, widening access and helping students make the most of their experience at Cambridge.

Our most recent admissions figures show that we are making significant progress:

  • According to the provisional data, one in four of the new UK students who will be starting their undergraduate studies at Cambridge will be from under-represented and disadvantaged backgrounds, while over two-thirds of the new UK undergraduates will be from state schools.
  • For the first time, over 25% of our admitted undergraduates are of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic background – with a particularly noticeable increase in the number of black students admitted.

So the commitments we have articulated in our Access and Participation Plan are aligned with work already underway.

It has been one of my greatest satisfactions so far to announce, in February, an unprecedented gift of £100 million to help attract the most talented postgraduate and undergraduate students from the UK and around the world.

The donation from the David and Claudia Harding Foundation was the biggest single gift made to a university in the UK by a British philanthropist.

It is now the cornerstone of an ambitious £500 million fundraising drive, announced last autumn, aimed directly at increasing financial and wider support for students at Cambridge.

So far, the Collegiate University has raised over £170 million towards this goal.

I am very pleased to share news of the creation of the Harding Challenge – a dedicated fund allowing new donors who give to the Collegiate University’s Student Support Initiative to see their impact doubled.

The Transition Year I spoke about a year ago will be ready to launch in 2021. We have recently appointed a course director, and the first intake of students will begin in October 2022.

We are committed to widening participation among postgraduate students, too, and are in the process of creating a dedicated post with responsibility for this effort.

Other elements of our widening access plans have already been implemented: our pilot Adjustment programme has been a resounding success, with Colleges collectively recruiting 67 students whose grades exceeded their expected performance.

One of them is Zein Al-Hindawi, whose parents fled Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and who was inspired by a friend’s experience with cancer to pursue a career in medicine.

Zein’s hard work netted him three A*s, and the highest marks in biology and chemistry at his school. Visiting Cambridge, ahead of his first term, he told colleagues:

“Many students from state schools may think applying to Cambridge is a waste of time because they’re not going to get in…There are a lot of stereotypes about Cambridge, and most of them are unfounded.”

Ensuring fair access and participation requires collective efforts across our Collegiate community.

I wish to thank all those colleagues – in Colleges, in Departments and Faculties, in University offices – who work at the coalface of our admissions process to ensure that we are open to the most talented students, no matter where they are from.

We are committed to doing this not only because it is expected of us, but also because it is the right thing to do – and because it will make Cambridge a better place to study, to teach and to work.


Change and improvement

Change is the theme of this year’s Festival of Ideas, which begins in a fortnight.

It feels appropriate to our times.

Change is certainly something we must actively address as a Collegiate University.

For as the world changes, so must we.

I am not talking here, to paraphrase Giuseppe di Lampedusa, of everything having to change so that everything remains the same.

That is simply not good enough.

We change not so everything remains the same, but to be better.

Cambridge has not thrived by being a bulwark against change.

Over more than 800 years, beneath the cobbled, oak-panelled veneer of permanence, a constant process of change – led by students and scholars – has been a feature of University life.

And we can see it in action today.

Lucy Cavendish College, founded in 1965, and itself an example of the University adapting to meet new social needs, has announced that from 2021 it will change its admissions criteria to include both women and men, and from the standard university age of 18.

Trinity College, which only admitted its first female fellow in 1977, will in a week’s time have its first female Master.

Also welcoming their first ever female Heads are Jesus College and St Edmund’s College.

Along with the new Heads of Fitzwilliam College and Newnham College, they join their pioneering colleagues at colleges including Peterhouse, Gonville and Caius, Christ’s, Emmanuel, Churchill, Darwin and Wolfson.

(Indeed, I am pleased to note that, in the same year that the University secured an Institutional Silver Athena SWAN award, we have a record number of female Heads of House).

Sometimes, the change is in the way we understand ourselves.

In February I announced that an Advisory Group would be coordinating research into the University’s links to historical forms of enslavement.

The purpose of this initiative is not to atone, or to undermine this university’s proud history in the abolition movement, but to better understand and acknowledge our own complex, multi-layered past, and how that may affect our future.

Sometimes, the change we need is in our own processes.

Earlier this year we conducted a staff survey, which revealed, among other things:

  • That 87% of our members of staff are proud to work for the University of Cambridge.
  • That 87% understand how their work contributes to the success of their area of the University.

The same survey also suggested, however:

  • That 36% of our staff do not feel there are sufficient opportunities for career progression at the University.
  • That 29% do not feel people work effectively together between different parts of the University.

In an effort to address these and other issues, at the end of 2018 the University launched ourcambridge, an initiative designed to recognise and realise the potential of our professional services staff.

Led by the Registrary, the ourcambridge initiative aims to ensure that our professional services staff are properly valued for their contributions, and are able to do their jobs less encumbered by red tape.

We want to be a place to work where staff are – and feel – trusted and valued.

A place where staff are fulfilled and have clear prospects.

In that spirit, we have also announced the creation of a programme of Continuing Education Bursaries for university employees.

Over the summer we launched a new ‘Inclusive Leadership Programme’ for all university leaders and managers.

A year ago I announced the introduction of a Cambridge Living Wage, which I am pleased to report was implemented from 1 August.

We have started a review of our HR grading process, often described as opaque and cumbersome.

We have adopted a new academic promotion framework that will be implemented in 2020.

This year we will be undertaking a full review of career progression for teaching-focussed staff, and we will be reviewing academic titles to ensure we have a system that is globally competitive and accords appropriate recognition to our outstanding academic staff.

Work is already underway to put into place improvements to the career progression path for research staff.

A root and branch review of our admissions processes is ongoing, and will report by the end of this academic year.

At a time of increased economic pressure, and as we take action to reverse a budget deficit, we are working hard to improve the way we manage our finances.

There has been a significant move towards greater financial transparency over the past year, including significant changes in our budgeting and forecasting systems.

More needs to be done and will be done.

We are providing greater transparency on the University endowment’s investment activities.

We have restructured our Investment Office, and I am delighted that we will soon be welcoming a new Chief Investment Officer, Tilly Franklin – an alumna of Jesus College.

With enormous financial experience and profound commitment to responsible fund management, she is the ideal person to lead our Endowment Fund into a new era.


It troubles me to note that we begin this academic year with the prospect of industrial action over pay and over pensions at a critical juncture for the country and for the University.

On pay, we will keep exploring options to enhance our staff’s total compensation package through the targeted improvement of benefits, including childcare support and housing assistance.

On pensions, we will strive to find creative solutions to reach an agreement leading to a sustainable pensions system, agreeable to employees and employers and within the constraints of the USS’ collective arrangement and of public pensions regulation.

Other University processes are changing:

Following a period of consultation and a ballot of the Regent House, and effective from today, the University has introduced a new disciplinary code and framework.

We have moved to the civil standard of proof in cases of student misconduct, and away from the criminal standard of proof required under the previous framework.

The amendment brings greater transparency and clarity to our student disciplinary processes. It gives us the means to better challenge inappropriate behaviour, and the tools to better support complainants.

Meanwhile, a joint University and College group has been convened to develop an understanding of the Collegiate University’s aspirations for the size and shape of the student population over the next ten years – and the academic, financial or social implications of these aspirations.

Even as we discuss the changing shape of the future university, our commitment to fundamental principles is unwavering.

Absolutely central among them is the principle of freedom of speech, which has been invoked frequently over the past year.

Cambridge is the natural home for all those who want to challenge ideas, and are prepared to have their ideas challenged.

And even if ideas make us uncomfortable, it is our duty to ensure their free and lawful expression.

But let me be clear: we cannot allow the imperative of free speech to become a cover for hateful or unlawful behaviour or language.


Moving forward: from Priorities to Programmes of Action

The citation for Sir Gregory Winter and his fellow Nobel Laureates in Chemistry tells us that they 'have taken control of evolution and used it for purposes that bring the greatest benefit to humankind.'

'For purposes that bring the greatest benefit to humankind'...

It is no hyperbole to say that no other university has contributed more than ours to the sum of human understanding, or to breakthrough ideas and discoveries that have changed the way we understand ourselves, our planet and even the universe around us.

Indeed, Sir Gregory’s discoveries now underpin six of the ten best-selling drugs in the world – proof that our colleagues not only make great discoveries, but also place them in the hands of society.

Amid the external uncertainty, and the daily pressures of work, it is worth taking stock of the enormous impact Cambridge has on the world, and reflecting on what makes Cambridge such an extraordinary university.

Is it the diversity and distribution of our decision-making, which promote independence of spirit and allow for rich experimentation?

Is it that we value rugged independence while seeking shared purpose?

Is it that we engage in the deep exploration of specific themes, while nurturing broad collaboration across disciplines?

Is it that we are able to combine very local (often idiosyncratic) traditions with open engagement with the wider world?

In our Colleges and Departments, students explore intellectually and build extraordinary social capital.

In our labs, libraries and research groups, we expand and renew our understanding of the world on a daily basis.

And the world notices, providing remarkable support.

Over the last decade, our research funding has more than doubled.

Over the past few years, our spinouts raised more capital to support their growth and development than those of any other university in the world.

Our Dear World, Yours Cambridge campaign, which raises funds for specific projects across the Collegiate University, has already raised £1.59 billion.

The world knows that Cambridge creates.

That Cambridge discovers.

That Cambridge solves problems.

That Cambridge is daringly original, and insatiably curious.

The world needs Cambridge to succeed – and I truly believe the world wants us to succeed.

Knowing that is one of the reasons it is so uniquely rewarding to work and study here.

So despite all the inevitable challenges and worries, we can and must move forward proudly and ambitiously.

I borrow from the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who coined the term 'Global Village'.

Cambridge is extraordinary because it is, in effect, a global village – almost uniquely so among great world universities.

Its thirty-one colleges possess a human scale that enables an energising mix of students and fellows with different interests, fields of expertise and world views.

Our Schools, Faculties and Departments build further communities adding to the rich cross-currents of Cambridge intellectual life, as do the cross-school institutions like our University Library, museums and Botanic Garden.

This Cambridge model, which bridges the human to the global scale, continues to be extraordinarily effective in promoting both the thrill of new insight and real impact in the wider world.

The question before us today is: how do we move forward?

I have proposed to the University Council a Programme of Action for the next three years.

The Programme sets out specific initiatives but is based on three overarching objectives.


To ensure that Cambridge continues to be recognised as an extraordinary university, and continues to be seen as a global leader in interdisciplinary discovery and innovation with wide social, cultural and economic impact.


To ensure that Cambridge continues to be known as a rigorous and educationally innovative university, increasingly open to talented students from all backgrounds.


To ensure that Cambridge continues making its extraordinary contributions to society, in ways that are globally relevant and globally recognised, and is able to address fundamental issues facing our societies.

This last objective takes me back to some of the questions I posed in my opening remarks.

How will we, in years to come, have answered to the growing challenges of mental health?

Colleagues across the University are already drawing their work together, and we could imagine a Cambridge Initiative on Mind, Brain and Body.

An initiative linking together a network of researchers – from neuroscience and neurology to genetics and physics; from psychology and psychiatry to computer science and anthropology – to address widespread conditions such as depression, addiction, psychosis and neurodegenerative disease.

How will we have responded to the crisis in democratic institutions as we know them?

Again, I know that groups of colleagues are seeking connections to propose a Cambridge Initiative on Democracy, Social Inequality and Technology.

One that links together networks of researchers to understand the effects of economic and social inequality, and the effects of technological innovation on society, including the future of democracy.

How will we have contributed to the global response to the existential threat of climate change?

We have to build on expertise across the physical and biological sciences, engineering, the social sciences and the arts to generate those innovations that will allow us to tackle this urgent problem.

I can announce today that, later this term, we will be formally launching Cambridge Zero – the University of Cambridge Zero Carbon Future Initiative.

Under the direction of Dr Emily Shuckburgh, Cambridge Zero will harness the full breadth of the University’s research and teaching capabilities to respond to climate change and support the transition to a zero-carbon future.

The initiative will develop a bold programme of education, research, demonstration projects and knowledge exchange to address holistically the challenge of climate change; to help us think about what a sustainable future looks like; and to ensure that policy decisions are based on the best available evidence.

Through Cambridge Zero we will engage in active collaboration with other universities and research institutes in the UK and beyond, including the newly established Global Universities Alliance on Climate.

The Initiative will also promote operational shifts within the University’s own estate, helping us move to carbon neutrality as quickly as is feasible.

These efforts will allow Cambridge to meet bold targets. We are the first university in the world to announce science-based targets for carbon reduction, committing ourselves to a 75% decrease in 2015 energy-related carbon emissions by 2030, and to reducing them to absolute zero by 2048.

What could be more urgent?

A point underscored this past summer, when staff at our own Botanic Garden reported the highest UK temperature on record?


Concluding remarks

Colleagues, friends –

The great American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein said that “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.”

Well, we have a plan.

And we have limited time in which to put it into practice.

Some of the work in the Programme of Action I have outlined is already well advanced, while in other areas it is only just beginning.

I am fully aware that this work must be undertaken as we grapple with a deficit in our operating budget.

So we will have to exercise financial restraint and seek efficiencies across University operations, while investing in those critical areas that will bring additional resource and enable progress on our fundamental goals.

All these efforts will require close collaboration amongst Colleges, Schools, Faculties and Departments, and the University leadership.

But I am confident that these measures will, over the next few years, help us be the University we all desire:

A Collegiate University that embodies, in its day-to-day work, the values it proclaims.

A Collegiate University that earns the trust and respect of its staff, of its students, of its alumni, and of the communities it serves.

A Collegiate University that wears with pride its manifold and complementary identities – local, regional, national, global.

A Collegiate University that is truly open, diverse and public-spirited – not because we ever intend to sacrifice excellence, but because we recognise that excellence comes in many forms.

A Collegiate University with a shared sense of purpose, moving towards – and helping to build – a fairer, more inclusive, sustainable world.