About this speech

  • Title: Annual Address to the Regent House
  • Speaker: Professor Alison Richard, Vice-Chancellor
  • Date: 1 October 2007

Speech transcript


The University of Cambridge is a place, a community, and an institution. It is also a pervasive presence in the world. This morning I want to talk about that presence, and about the opportunities, questions and tensions to which it gives rise.

Over the centuries, with startling frequency, Cambridge academics and their students have changed the world through their ideas and work. The primary role of the institution in their activities has been to provide material and intellectual support along the way. I cannot imagine this changing: transforming ideas come from exceptional individuals, not institutions.

Yet Cambridge is rapidly acquiring a more considered sense of its institutional role in the worldi. This development is driven by several factors, not least the invention of league tables, which use metrics and surveys first to reify universities as institutions and then to pit them one against the otherii. Success in these tables is of particular interest to prospective students, and of course to Government, which funds much of our activity in the reasonable expectation of economic and other returns.

But the roots of the new prominence of institutions lie deeper. For most of our eight hundred years, travel was slow, communication difficult, and Cambridge was one of a handful of universities anywhere. No more. Our fen is much less distant from the rest of the world than once it was, and institutional opportunities for competition and cooperation burgeon.

The signs of worldwide competition are everywhere. British education is considered a "global brand", with the value of education and training exports to the UK economy reckoned at nearly £28 billioniii. At the same time, the dominance of US universities in league tables is said to carry a "stark message"iv; we are in a global "war for talent"v, and so on.

The facts and the prose, with its splashes of military language, conjure up a lurid image of universities in society. To be sure, we must pay attention to these trends and how they may affect our day-to-day activity and future plans. But Cambridge is also part of an increasingly cooperative international community, and as an institutional focus this should be at least the equal of competition. Cooperation opens up educational opportunities for students and supports a growing number of academic collaborations across national boundaries. Universities learn from one another by sharing expertise and comparing experiences; and sometimes cooperation arises simply out of the desire to help.

Against this backdrop, I will consider three questions, each of consequence for institutional action. First, is it possible or desirable for Cambridge to remain a British university when more and more of our activity is international in scope and impact? Second, how does the fact of our attachment to this place – our geography – shape or constrain our international activity? Third, as we bring the world to Cambridge, recruiting staff and students from the four corners of the earth, should we also do more to bring Cambridge to the world?

A question of identity

In what sense are we still a Britishvi university, and should we strive to remain so in the face of the world's growing interconnectedness?

The Cambridge University community is preponderantly British: 75% of our academic staff are British, 85% of our undergraduates, and almost 50% of our postgraduates. Collegiate Cambridge remains deeply committed to the education of outstanding British students, and is singularly well equipped by its past and its present to support scholars and students in tasks of particular importance to the evolution of cultural identity. These tasks include inquiry into history, the creation of new cultural wealth, and providing insight into the ways we identify ourselves and fit in a world where many cultures interact on a daily basis. As Stefan Collini writesvii in his recent exploration of the role of intellectuals in 20th century Britain, "…countless acts of reading, thinking, speaking, and listening…unseen by history, make and unmake cultural patterns…" Collini argues that "the least we can do, though it is no small thing, is to understand and possess our own history."

The processes of making and unmaking cultural patterns, of understanding and possessing history, flourish in twenty-first century Cambridge. They incorporate and interpret elements from around the world as they have always done, but they are rooted here – supported by a wealth of scholarly materials in libraries and museums, nurtured by the Colleges, and by an abundance of places and spaces for music, drama, art, the reading of poetry, religious practice, sport, dancing, cooking, eating, and – not least – conversation.

The creation of identities is far beyond the reach of my remarks this morning. My point is simply that Cambridge works, brilliantly, at understanding cultural patterns and creating patterns particular to our time and society. I believe this work is important for British society and beyond, and also that it is helped by the University's own long and particular history, by its British identity in other words.

That assertion is fully consonant with a Cambridge fast becoming more international in many ways. A wealth of research collaborations between Cambridge academics and colleagues around the world are documented in the online International Directory to be launched by the University this year. Although teaching and learning are still overwhelmingly Cambridge-based activities and relatively few students study abroad, the number of international programmes for training and education is growing – with Peking University, the National University of Singapore, the Indian School of Business, MIT, Harvard, Yale, and the US National Institutes of Health, and with many European universities through the Erasmus Programme. The Colleges and the Institute of Continuing Education host an array of international summer schools.

To the web of bilateral relationships created by individuals, Faculties and Departments, Colleges and the University, can be added our institutional participation in international alliances, notably the League of European Research Universities and the International Alliance of Research Universities.

International activities extend well beyond teaching and research in the traditional sense. Cambridge University Press has over 24,000 authors in 108 countries, and branches or offices in 40 countries. Cambridge Assessment, our international examinations business, is similarly global with over 8 million subject enrolments, its qualifications available and recognized in 150 countries.

Cambridge University 's global presence is such that already it has few if any equals. Some would build that presence further on the grounds that it promotes the UK's educational export industry, or that fees from overseas students can subsidize under-funded educational activities at home. But our purpose is not that of an export business and we do not, in fact, generate a surplus from overseas students. Those kinds of justification do not hold up here.

What Cambridge does well, and must keep doing, is respond to change in the world and help shape and lead it. Most of the examples I have mentioned were developed as opportunities arose, not as a result of institutional planning. Will that be enough in the future? As global solutions are sought for global problems, we must be ready to play a leading role in international collaborations. As more and more people live and work across a range of cultures, our teaching must help prepare our students for that life. As communications transform the meaning of access, we must use that opportunity creatively. With these possibilities before us, I am certain our institutional engagement internationally will keep growing, for the best of reasons – because it is important, interesting, and matters to staff and students alike.

One could imagine a future in which UK staff and students would be a small minority here. The population of this country is a tiny fraction of the world population, after all. In a recent study of the development of Silicon Valleyviii, AnnaLee Saxenian emphasized the crucial role played by talented young people from other countries. She calls them the "New Argonauts", celebrating their spirit of adventure and discovery. As I read her book, it struck me that Cambridge has had Argonauts arriving for centuries. That tradition continues and builds, to the University's great benefit, and it is right we devote growing effort and resources to their welcome and supportix. But for my own part I believe Cambridge should also be a magnet for the very best UK students. We need to work hard to make sure that remains the case.

For undergraduates, the challenges have really yet to come, but as we consider the future of fees, government teaching support, and bursaries, we must be alert to the danger of unintended consequences driving our UK undergraduate numbers down. For graduate students, the potential transformation of Cambridge to a fully international University could be much closer if the decline continues in the number of British students studying for doctoral degrees, with dramatic shrinkage in certain fields. These students are not being kept out by international students: they are not applying, or not applying here. We must improve funding for UK postgraduate students as a matter of urgency, and we must also work to improve the rewards and career prospects for those who choose postgraduate study. It is undoubtedly important for the long-term economic health of this country, and I think it is also important for us: I aspire to a future that still includes strong cohorts of British academics – returning Argonauts and homebodies alike!

A question of place

Wander as we may, many of us do return. How does attachment to this place shape or constrain our international activities? I am not surprised that the creation of overseas campuses received little support in the consultations of the international working groups last year: the unity of teaching and research, the collegiate system and the communities it sustains, the rich mix of fields and disciplines – none of these is readily transportable, and each requires a great human investment here. But that's not all: Cambridge is among the most beautiful universities in the world, and experiencing that beauty is part of what it means to be at Cambridge.

And there's more still: we are an integral part of a lively and interesting city. There was a time in the 1950s and 1960s when things looked different, and the University was too dominant in the local economy for anyone's health. That changed, happily. Doors opened wider and let more women in and more ideas and people out, not a few of them to flourish in the new Science Park.

The vitality of Greater Cambridge today depends on a mix of long-established businesses, start-ups, private and public sector research labs, not-for-profit organizations, the staff and students of two universities, one regional college, a major teaching hospital, and a wide array of schools. All make their contributions. New clusters, in conservation and the arts, are emerging to join the high-tech and bio-tech clusters that are the "Cambridge Phenomenon". The University of Cambridge served as an initial magnet and catalyst for these clusters. But the scale and the diversity achieved by Greater Cambridge are far beyond the reach of the University alone. They make Cambridge not just interesting but exciting, and make the University yet more attractive to staff and students. These staff and students enhance the lustre of the University and, in turn, add their energy and talents to the mix. The immense productivity of Greater Cambridge is itself a source of ideas about future international activity for the City and University alike. In historical terms, this "virtuous circle" is recent and fragile, and success poses new problems, particularly with housing and transportation.

Institutional time, energy, and attention are all in finite supply and we constantly, often unconsciously, make choices about how to use them. A policy against establishing overseas campuses is perhaps the most dramatic but by no means the only one with consequences for our engagement here in this place, the City of Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, East Anglia. The University must keep up its local and regional engagements, and work hard with other members of the community to meet the challenges of our shared success. The point is simple but merits emphasis, I believe, lest it become neglected by a world-class university eyeing requests and invitations from potential partners far distant.

A question of reach

A mosaic of activities links individuals, Departments, Faculties, Colleges and the whole institution with other parts of the world. Cambridge is a magnet on an international scale, drawing much to itself. Is there more we could and should be doing as an institution to take Cambridge to the world, to make the distant fen feel closer? Web-based technologies give us a new realm of possibilities for teaching, learning, and access, and universities everywhere are deploying those technologies. Online catalogues shine light on the collections of libraries and museums, a few libraries are digitizing their entire collection, and open courseware delivers educational materials to any taker. In a flash, access, of a kind, is simultaneously local, national, and global.

Cambridge is by no means inactive in this exploration. As usual, creative and energetic individuals have spontaneously and admirably taken the lead in many initiatives. Our libraries, museums, and many other Cambridge institutions are actively and creatively engaged. Online materials and services are fast becoming a dominant part of the global businesses of Cambridge University Press and Cambridge Assessment. The online Darwin Archive and the Millennium Maths Project are but two examples of a rapidly expanding array of initiatives, and their extraordinary take up and huge impact underline the power of the Internet, well used. But I believe we still need to do more and be more ambitious, experimenting and investing selectively in activities suited to Cambridge, activities that enhance our mission. Two opportunities are clear to me – though I know others abound.

One is to engage our alumni and alumnae around the world more actively. Heads of Colleges and others have had experiences similar to my own when we meet our former students in the UK and abroad: the warmest of welcomes, interest, offers of help, advice, nostalgia – and questions, many questions, about Cambridge today. We estimate that Cambridge has 175,000 living former students, a quarter of them outside the UK, and engaging them with contemporary Cambridge has never been more important, wherever they may live. This year, we begin building a stronger office to support alumni relations, working closely with the Colleges and with alumni themselves. It will increase our capacity to connect our former students to Cambridge, giving them greater access to what's going on here today, as well as to memories and old friends.

A second opportunity may give Cambridge a greater chance to take the lead in experimenting with innovation. It is to extend our efforts beyond the community of former students to a second group equally important to the enduring excellence of Cambridge – future students. Universities are expected to have attractive, navigable websites for prospective students, and most do. We do. But that is not enough now. I am a novice in these matters, and listen hard to colleagues, and to current students in particular. Their observations convince me that, with skill and determination, we can use new modes of communication to attract the attention of bright, inquiring students whatever their background and wherever they may be, and make Cambridge much more accessible. Our summer programmes for school students transform the understandings and aspirations of the students who participate in them, but their numbers are necessarily small. Let us mobilise the power of new media to carry the essence of that experience out from here.

Cambridge and the World

Cambridge was once one of a handful of universities, its influence primarily extending nationally and into continental Europe. The British Empire opened up new routes along which people and ideas travelled further. Today, we are one of many hundred research-intensive universities worldwide. Our home is a small island, yet a great deal of history gives us global reach and impact far beyond what might reasonably be expected from any simple notion of the connection between size on the one hand, and levels of power and ambition on the otherx.

As we grapple with some of the larger questions I have outlined in my remarks, we must be sure not to damage the fundamental prescription for what a truly great university should do: attract the finest minds into communities of teachers and students, and provide a modicum of resources and a great deal of freedom. As I said at the outset, individuals change the way the world works, not universities. But the prescription is incomplete. The world changes around us, and the changes require institutional attention and, often, institutional action.

There are three spheres where I believe action will serve Cambridge well in an increasingly interconnected world, and help ensure its continued importance and influence in that world:

  • First, we must assert our own unique identity with confidence and invest in it; even as the University becomes increasingly international in outlook and activity. Let us redouble our efforts to build support for the defining importance of the arts and humanities, the libraries and collections, and also for UK postgraduate students in every field.
  • Second, we must keep energetically engaged in the future of this place, which is our place, even as we look to the horizon. We must secure sufficient backing from partners in the Greater Cambridge community to meet the pressing need for attractive, affordable homes for staff, and we must work together toward sound, long term solutions to the traffic logjams that beset us all.
  • Third, we must step up our exploration of ways to bring Cambridge to the world. New investments in better communication with former students have been made and must be followed through. I am keen to see the institution's creativity and capacity be further mobilised in the direction of future students.

When the founders of Cambridge arrived in the fen country, it was remote from government control, a distant region of wetness, cold, goblins, and contagion. The University was part of that place then, as it is part of this place now. It will always be so. Amid the frenetic buzz of internationalisation, one of the greatest challenges for Collegiate Cambridge in the next few years will be to strike the right balance in our attentions: to nurture this fen, while working to ensure that it is distant no more.


iReports of the two international working groups have helped this process greatly (Reporter No. 6037, 19 May 2006).

iiA recent commentary in Science (317:1026, 2007) considers some of the growing concerns.

iiiGlobal Value – The Value of UK Education and Training Exports: an update by Pamela Lenton for the British Council, September 2007.

ivThe Future of European Universities: Renaissance or Decay? Richard Lambert and Nick Butler, published by the Centre for European Reform, 2005.

vA CBI conference on 12 June 2007 bore the title 'Can Britain win the war for talent?'

viSince 'United Kingdom' lacks an elegant adjective, 'British' is used throughout in its informal sense to include Northern Ireland.

viiAbsent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain by Stefan Collini, p.505. Oxford University Press, 2006.

viiiThe New Argonauts: Regional Advantage in a Global Economy by AnnaLee Saxenian, Harvard University Press, 2006.

ixCambridge's scholarship trusts – principally the Gates Cambridge Trust, Cambridge Overseas Trust, Cambridge Commonwealth Trust and Cambridge European Trust – enhance our capacity to support international students.

xCaptives: the story of Britain's pursuit of empire and how its soldiers and civilians were held captive by the dream of global supremacy, 1600–1850 by Linda Colley, p.379. Pantheon: New York, 2002.