About this speech

  • Title: Making the case for universities: how do we best tell our story?
  • Speaker: Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor
  • Date: Thursday 31 January 2019
  • Delivered at Council for the Defence of British Universities Annual lecture, London

Making the case for universities: how do we best tell our story?


Colleagues, friends, ladies and gentlemen –

It is an honour to join you today.

I’m very grateful to the Council’s executive committee, and to its board of trustees – in particular to Sir Keith Thomas – for the invitation to speak today.

I admit to being a little awe-struck. Sir Keith’s wonderful book, Religion and the Decline of Magic, influenced me greatly when I was an undergraduate studying English history and literature.

Many thanks also to Professor David Midgeley who, at our first meeting in Cambridge, introduced me to the work and the aspirations of the Council.

I was impressed by the list of founding members and, as you’d expect, was gratified to see so many names with such close connections to Cambridge.

People like Sir David Attenborough , or Lord Rees, or Professor Quentin Skinner, or Professor Stefan Collini – to name only a few.

It is wonderful to see some of you here today.

Despite this being an organisation among whose members I feel so welcome, and whose aims I share, I must confess to a sense of trepidation in speaking to you:

First, because I am a relative newcomer to the clashes and quarrels of the UK’s higher education system.

Whereas most of you will have spent many years pondering changes in the British university landscape, I have been Vice-Chancellor at Cambridge for only fourteen months.

I have had to learn a lot, very quickly – and often the hard way.

I hope to turn this to my advantage by playing the Canadian card, and perhaps offering some comparative sense of perspective in my observations.

But I am also slightly uneasy because there is a risk that, in addressing this particular audience, I may find myself preaching to the choir.

And what would be the point of that? We might as well skip straight to drinks.

So I hope you will not think me uncivil if I begin by expressing an outsider’s surprise at the very name of the organisation that gathers us today.

The fact that we should be gathered in 'defence' of British universities seems, to me, to strike a dissonant note.

I’m reminded of the quote from Mae West: “Every man I meet wants to protect me. I can't figure out what from.”

I will try to make the case tonight that, instead of setting out to “defend” our universities, our collective efforts should go into championing them, and specifically into telling the compelling stories that will persuade our governments and our societies of our universities’ relevance and their enduring value.



Let me begin with the rather obvious reflection that we now inhabit a very different university system from the one that formed most of us.

This is not a value judgement, but a statement of fact.

Our current higher education landscape would likely be unrecognisable to the authors of the Robbins Report of 1963, which made the intellectual case for wider university education – and in doing so put in motion so many of the transformations that have shaped British universities over the past few decades.

Much has changed since the years when I was a postgraduate student at Cambridge, in the mid-eighties, after which the Education Reform Act began to tighten government control over university finances.

Not the least of those recent changes was the introduction of tuition fees in 1998, their trebling in 2004, and trebling again in 2012.

I know that the intention of the proponents of this policy was honourable: to try to protect university budgets from the pressures that more politically salient expenditures – on the NHS, for example – were inevitably going to create.

So of course these reforms may have been intended to shore up university finances, but in my view they happened too fast, and without adequate social preparation.

In doing so, they tore at the fabric of an unwritten social contract, placing significantly more of the burden on students and their families than they would have expected.

We are still dealing today with the consequences of the rushed implementation of those policy changes.

I dare say that change has continued apace even since this Council was founded in 2012.

In fact, in the relatively short period since I came into office in autumn of 2017 there has been a blizzard of new initiatives for the regulation and assessment of universities – from the launch of the Office for Students a year ago, to the creation of UKRI, to the Augar Review, which we now await with bated breath.

If rumours are right, the Augar Review may recommend rolling back fees.

I personally do not hold a strong ideological position on the relative proportion of university costs borne publicly and privately.

But I do know that a dramatic reduction in the total support for each student place could have disastrous consequences for many UK universities.

I am frequently asked about the differences I observe between the Canadian and the British university systems.

One of the most obvious is in the efforts made by a succession of recent UK governments to measure and quantify universities’ outputs, impacts and performances – from research, to teaching, to knowledge transfer, to the welfare of students.

Perhaps this is not an unreasonable demand considering that the UK government is so heavily invested in UK universities.

What these efforts often fail to recognise, however, is the diversity and complexity of the university eco-system, and the variety of functions carried out by its constituent institutions. (I will come back to this point later…)

One of the Council’s founding aims – to take a stand against the excessive regulation of the sector – strikes a chord with many academics and HE leaders today.

As Vice-Chancellor I sometimes find myself criticised for not speaking out more loudly and not pushing back harder against the most excessive of these regulatory pressures.

Here I refer to the words of Professor Peter Scott, another of the Council’s founding members, who recognised in an article in 2012 that a Vice-Chancellor’s responsibility 'is to do the best for their universities in whatever policy environment they find themselves'.

So, this is the policy environment we find ourselves in.

Whether we like it or not – I assume mostly not – we must acknowledge that merely howling at the government will produce as much success as King Canute’s efforts to turn the tide.

This is especially true at a time when government agencies, inevitably caught up in Brexit discussions that take up all the oxygen and the attention, find it harder to listen and engage.



One of the reasons governments seek to regulate universities is that governments see it as their job to uphold society’s expectations.

More troubling for me than government pressures, then, is the sense that we have lost some of the trust that society used to place in us.

Today, public discontent aimed specifically at universities is most frequently on display in the editorial pages of the national press, and in the not-so-far reaches of social media.

Universities are criticised for being bastions of privilege.

For not engaging with less-advantaged groups.

For not encouraging more diversity.

For not upholding free speech.

For not offering value for money.

There is an unhealthy fixation with Oxford and Cambridge that does both the ancient universities and their sister institutions a disservice.

Some recent rebukes spring from the now fashionable suspicion of expertise, and the equally fashionable distrust in social institutions.

New technologies have certainly fanned the flames of this distrust.

Often, however, public disparagement of universities is the result of deeply entrenched misunderstandings about what universities do, and what they are for.

Public discontent with universities and the production of knowledge is not new – though the strident and discourteous language of the current public debates is.

(At least to me – I was speechless when one former minister of the Crown called on me to “go back to Canada”! Happily, he is the only person to have said that publicly – or to my face.)

Speaking of the importance of civility…

Sir Keith’s very timely new volume, In Pursuit of Civility, reveals the 'diminishing faith in the universities as schools of politeness' observable as early as the 17th century.

'[W]hereas the Elizabethan and early Stuart nobility and gentry came to acquire a considerable respect for learning and often engaged in serious legal and antiquarian study,' he tells us, 'the beau monde of the late Stuart era tended to dismiss the Latinate erudition of humanist scholarship as "pedantry"… The learning of university scholars, it was said, was "only a pedantic way of disputing and wrangling…"'.

Distrust of knowledge, and the people who produce it, has a long and distinguished record in the English-speaking world.

Writing about anti-intellectualism in the United States, American historian Richard Hofstadter claimed that it was 'a part of our English cultural inheritance'.

Closer to home, Leonard Woolf remarked that: 'No people have ever despised and distrusted the intellect and intellectuals more than the British.'

The University of Chicago sociologist Edward Shils noted some three decades ago that universities 'are much criticised nowadays by government, civil servants, professors of education, journalists […] There are numerous reasons for these denunciations – some are good reasons, many are poor. Nevertheless […] societies cling to [universities]'.

We should all acknowledge that some criticism of universities is justified: as microcosms of society, universities can never be perfect institutions, and there is always more hard work to be done.

Universities’ uniqueness as institutions does not give them the licence to divorce themselves from the expectations of the societies they serve.

Indeed, the public trust placed in universities depends on universities’ ability to demonstrate that they take society’s goals and hopes seriously.

If society does not feel we have its interests at heart, then the failure is partly our own.

If society at large does not believe that what we do is ultimately for the common good, we need to do a better job at engaging with it, and communicating the meaning of our work.

So how do we mitigate the serious risk of losing the public’s trust?

By reaffirming, and demonstrating, that society’s aspirations are closely connected to our own.

By improving the ways we engage with it, and by communicating about what we do, how we do it and why.

By widening access and welcoming talent wherever it is from.

By showing – not just telling – how we contribute to local, regional and national projects and aspirations.

By proving – to government, and to society – why our institutions deserve to be cherished rather than chastised.



Ladies and gentlemen,

It is perhaps an understatement to say that the standing of the British political class is currently going through a bit of a rough patch.

I have just returned from Davos, and can tell you that in most of the conversations I had it was very obvious that this country’s reputation for competence and pragmatism has been deeply dented of late.

The good news is that, in the meantime, Britain’s universities continue to be viewed across the world as one of this country’s truly great assets.

Even as drawbridges go up elsewhere, our universities remain an exemplar of openness and achievement.

This is why the campaigning efforts by the Council for the Defence of British Universities mattered in 2012, and why they matter today.

Who could disagree with your aims?

For instance: 'To defend and enhance the character of British universities as places where students can develop their capacities to the full, where research and scholarship are pursued to the highest level, and where intellectual activity can be freely conducted without regard to its immediate economic benefit.'

I am fully with you on that.

And yet – while I will defend to the bitter end the right of academics to conduct intellectual activity freely without regard to its immediate economic or even social benefit, as Vice-Chancellor I still have to prove to the government and to society that our institution does collectively have significant social and economic impact.

That social and economic impact is not what makes us a university – but it is what gives us our social licence to operate and to draw public funds.

That social and economic impact, by the way, happens all the time, through our research and our educating of graduates who go out into the world and leave their mark.

That social and economic impact happens regardless of whether we put it into case studies for REF, or include it in a submission to a government consultation.

But if we want to win and retain the trust of society, we need to be savvy about what we do to improve lives and societies, and more persuasive.

This begins by acknowledging – and raising awareness of – the complexity of the environment in which we operate.

The complexity of our own institutions, for instance.

In my first year as Vice-Chancellor I commissioned a university-wide consultation to understand what the biggest issues and challenges are for our staff and students.

We held open meetings, and asked for online feedback.  Hundreds participated.

The results were not entirely surprising:

Our staff and students want Cambridge to be known for its research excellence; for its diversity and inclusivity; for its innovation and openness to change; for its teaching excellence; for its global influence. (These are only the top five).

Things getting in the way of achieving this include, we were told, a lack of internal coordination; bureaucratic systems; unclear paths for career progression; major reputational hazards; resistance to change.

Digging more deeply into the data, however, one begins to see tensions emerge.

For while many researchers decried the growth of university administration, just as many said they would like to have more professional administrators supporting them in managing their research grants.

Both sides, incidentally, have a point worthy of investigation.

But I was reminded of this complex reality when looking at another of this Council’s aims – 'to encourage academic self-government and to ensure that the function of managerial and administrative staff is to facilitate research and teaching.'

I have not even broached here the issue of trying to run an institution that encompasses 31 colleges, all of which must respond (de facto if not de jure) to the same regulatory bodies as the University but often exercise their right to do so independently.

The point I am trying to make is that universities are increasingly complex institutions operating in an increasingly complex environment.

Understanding this is essential when we set out our negotiating positions and campaigning lines.

We need to recognise, for instance, that the needs of the University of Cambridge may not always be perfectly aligned to the needs of Warwick, or the needs of Manchester or – despite the often deployed but misleading term Oxbridge – the needs of the University of Oxford.

While we must always seek to agree on the common ideas and values that inform our work as a sector – principles like academic freedom and autonomy should not be negotiable – failing to acknowledge differences can be self-defeating.

It is important that we are honest about this diversity, and that we communicate it appropriately to our interlocutors in government and elsewhere.

It is important that we help them understand, through close and regular engagement, that universities come in all shapes and sizes, and that there may be unintended consequences to trying to fix one part of the ecosystem without considering the whole.

The government is absolutely right to call us out on the need to improve access and widen participation.

It is right to want to see the world-leading research that fuels discovery and powers economic growth, human health and social cohesion.

It is right to put pressure on us to deliver an outstanding student experience.

It is right to expect that we do more to increase diversity at all levels of our universities.

But universities must accomplish these goals in distinctive ways, depending on our histories, our organisational structures and our current work priorities.

One-size-fits-all frameworks can undermine our unique attributes and lead to a bland sameness of discourse and educational provision.

Meanwhile, we – university leaders, and campaigning organisations like this Council – must also realise that in dealing with government, as we raise the issues we care about, we are often dealing with an array of opinions and approaches.

Some government departments, I have no doubt, understand what our needs and challenges are. Others, motivated by different political agendas, may not.

But we need to work with all of them.

Talk of complexity always brings to mind the quote misattributed to American Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr:

'I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.'

It seems like an apt quote with which to finish.

What I take from it is the summons to remain vigilant – as this Council does – against simplistic policy solutions to complex problems.

In this, you have in me a staunch ally. Thank you.