The annual address of the Vice-Chancellor

Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz 1 October 2011


Looking back twelve months has been a curious exercise for me. As another university head has remarked, "Inaugural speeches are a peculiar genre. They are by definition pronouncements by individuals who don't yet know what they're talking about".1 Yet I was reassured, looking back on my remarks last year, that some of what I said has not been entirely irrelevant. My speech set out some of the challenges we could expect, and touched on our mission and on the values we hold dear. I said: "The byword for all that we do now and will continue to do in the future is 'excellence' and that excellence has to be measured by international not national standards. Short-term vicissitudes must not deflect us from this goal. While we are entering a period of turbulence, it must not prevent us from re-iterating and developing the vision that will ensure that our future is secure."

In my remarks today, I shall review the changes of the past year, and argue that they reveal new imperatives for our future.

(1. Drew Faust, President of Harvard, 12 October 2007)

Review of the year

First, though, from among the many events of the past year, I wish to begin by singling out the retirement from the Chancellorship of His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh, after 35 years of unstinting hard work on the University's behalf. In that time, there is scarcely a department he did not visit, scarcely a new building he did not open, scarcely a benefactor he did not meet and encourage and thank on our behalf. Prince Philip has been the University's great ambassador over three decades and more, and Cambridge owes him a debt of gratitude.

The past academic year has certainly provided the expected turbulence, and has played out largely to the tune of politics: clashing beliefs over what 'responsibility' means in an era of national deficit. Financial concerns have coloured almost every aspect of government policy with consequential impact everywhere in society: the aftermath of recession, the struggle to avoid another, not seemingly yet averted, and the cutting of an accumulated deficit by a reduction in public spending. Universities have not, of course, been spared.

The academic year began with the Browne Review, and the government response: dramatically reduced central funding for undergraduate education, and a raised ceiling for fees paid by individual students from the UK and the European Union.

Yet it was at root more than that: what we have in fact witnessed is a conceptual shift in undergraduate education, with the cost moving from the state to the individual graduate. We shall see over time how these changes affect universities, students, graduates and society as a whole. For Cambridge, however, one fact remains true: our income streams for teaching were not sufficient to meet the cost of an undergraduate education before these changes, and nor are they anywhere near sufficient afterwards.

Our University Council made its position clear last December: individual graduates certainly benefit financially, as a cohort, from their university education, but the undoubted benefit to society as a whole is equally important and merits a financial investment from government, as society's proxy as well as its protector. Since evidently we are of value to society, it is right that society, through the state, contributes to our funding. Meanwhile, it is right that universities exercise the autonomy that allows them broadly to choose what, and whom, to teach, and what to research, without state intervention - and, I contend, in that way society will be best served. It has been a challenging year in which to assert those values, because of the short-term financial perspective through which governments view the world, yet as the UK's leading university, we have a responsibility to look to the long term.

From competition, Cambridge has nothing to fear - we are among the best in the world at what we do. In their false impression of detail and precision, league tables are problematic - it is hard to credit that University A can be 0.5% better at teaching than University B - but Cambridge, top of global and national league tables this year, is at or near the top every year. We know that we are international leaders - that what we do here matters - and the consistency, rather than the detail, of external validation tells us that our confidence is not misplaced.

This tumultuous year ended with the long-awaited White Paper on Higher Education 'Students at the Heart of the System', followed by a consultation to which Cambridge has responded. Our response has developed the Council statement of last December and included additional points raised during our own internal consultations. I was especially impressed by a point made by the President of the Students' Union, during the Discussion on this topic that I chaired, who was as disappointed as I was to see that the White Paper focused so much on undergraduate students, and that the research role of universities was neglected entirely - even though the benefit to students of being taught by those with active and successful research careers is demonstrably transformative, and at the heart of education in Collegiate Cambridge. The theme of omissions is one to which I shall return.

Our values haven't changed - our commitment to excellence, and our achievement of excellence, have not changed - but in this new landscape there are new imperatives demanding our attention. What are they?

Firstly, what Cambridge contributes to society has been put into sharper focus. How is that contribution to be assessed and given its full value? This is of particular importance in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

Secondly, how can we develop strategic, considered research directions, taking advantage of the critical mass provided by the communities of researchers who populate Cambridge?

Thirdly, those communities themselves: our doctoral and postdoctoral researchers, always in danger of slipping from the public gaze; how do we ensure they do not slip from ours?

Fourthly and lastly, our relations outside our walls with our alumni, our friends and our donors. In this new context, what is the state of our relationship with our supporters?

I have felt the urgency of these questions increase as the year progressed. They merit our attention in the coming year.

The new imperatives

Assessing our value to society

Firstly, then, what will it mean 'to contribute to society' in 2012? In Britain, our concept of 'society' was shaken this year by rioting and looting: an attack on our society by its own members. Will our self-image, our understanding of ourselves, be different as a result? 2012 will reveal the answer, and looks set to be an interesting year all round.

Some years in history are freighted with meaning because of a single event: 1454 saw the first examples of the Gutenberg Bible; 1492 the discovery by Columbus of America; 1789 the start of the French Revolution; 1989 the fall of the Berlin Wall. Other years resonate with global consequences stemming from multiple events: in 1848, for example, revolutions spread across Europe. Revolution in the UK is hardly likely, but 2012 is shaping up to be a year of consequence in other ways, here and elsewhere. We already know that some things will happen: this country will host the Olympics and Paralympics, and will celebrate The Queen's Diamond Jubilee. A Presidential Election will take place in the United States of America. Others are widely anticipated, based on trends in 2011: the continuing travails of the Eurozone and its consequences for the future direction of the European Union; further cuts to services hitherto thought essential; and the continued economic rise of China, India and Brazil. Yet more developments are predictable but uncertain: the coming of democracy in the Arab states, for example. None of these events are controllable by us, but many will affect us. Therefore, we should perhaps pay particular attention to what is expected of us, in 2012, in response to them: what the consequences for the United Kingdom, and for the University of Cambridge, might be; but also what our role might be in confronting the challenges that this next year will throw at us.

The UK has a particular contribution to make. As a nation, we have thoughtful and educated citizens with technical skills, ambitious entrepreneurs, a rich cultural history, informed commentators, a diverse population and, above all, a strong cohort of innovators and creators.

Many of the UK's strengths are the strengths of its universities, and Cambridge, make no mistake, is an immense asset to the country and to the world, as we make our way through the challenges and opportunities of 2012.

Universities such as ours play a tremendous number of roles: governments, industry and business look to us as leaders as well as creators of new knowledge and original ideas - the R in R&D. Increasingly, they look to us for the D in R&D, too: the past year saw the 50th Anniversary of the Cambridge Phenomenon of high-tech companies, fostered in its beginning, as now, by the University. We are sources of skilled labour and of the qualifications that certify the highest levels of achievement and capacity. We also contribute to cultural life, we attract talent and investment, we further social mobility and social justice. We pass knowledge, crucially, to the next generation, we store it for generations to come; we champion enlightened and rational thought, and we articulate humanity's values. In performing these roles, we engage our capacity across the full range of academic disciplines.

This is a lot for the world to ask of its universities - but Cambridge is among the best: we do all of this and more, and we do it excellently. Our contribution to global society goes far beyond the mere economic and far beyond the short term: so, as we make that contribution, we should insist that it is valued appropriately.

Our transformative research

If the past year was 'the year of the undergraduate', is it time in 2012 that our transformative research reclaims its share of attention? 2012 is, after all, a key year for the Research Excellence Framework for all UK universities, and so there is a reason the spotlight might shift. Indeed, it is the second of my four 'new imperatives'.

I spoke last year about new trends in research funding: large funders are reducing the amounts available for investigator-led projects, preferring instead to support top-down 'grand challenge' initiatives. This trend has accelerated as reductions in funds have forced Research Councils to redirect resources and in some areas to remove support.

There is understandable anxiety here about this trend, particularly as Cambridge has so successfully championed the individual investigator whose ideas may result in paradigm-shifting discoveries. Our continued ability to attract such individuals must remain to the forefront of our Research Strategy. After all, Cambridge continues to do extremely well in competition where such support is made available: Cambridge investigators won more Wellcome Trust Investigator Awards than any other university, and we are the top institution across Europe for grants to individuals from the European Research Council, whose budget grows as national agencies retrench. This effort must continue. In some areas, it is vital that the University itself replaces pump-priming activities that are being lost, for example through the recently announced EPSRC Strategic Fund and our small grants scheme for the Arts and Humanities.

But even as we support individuals, Cambridge is busy matching our strengths to the new larger-scale funding opportunities. Last year, I highlighted the importance of a strategic approach in giving a clear direction to research funders and potential benefactors, alongside the continued commitment to investigator-led research. To identify these priorities for large-scale strategic initiatives in multidisciplinary areas, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research has undertaken a process of consultation and engagement with academic staff. Seven initiatives have emerged -Neuroscience, Conservation, Infectious Diseases, Cancer Research, Energy, Stem Cells and Language Sciences. These seven are not exclusive - the process continues to add others. While not detracting from the ability to pursue unrelated or new themes, they will break down unhelpful barriers between disciplines, and focus on the grand challenges in productive ways. My desk is swimming with glossy publications and thick books all seeking to explain, to redefine and rearrange the problem of climate change or drug discovery or food security: our research initiatives must also seek to define solutions, if they are to fulfil the University mission of 'relevance to society'.

These are ambitious goals. To fulfil them, we will often need partners, and sometimes these partners, distinguished by their excellence and complementarity, will be overseas. The Pro-Vice-Chancellors for International Strategy and for Research are working together to support these activities. The bulk of our international engagement is in the unconstrained interactions of one researcher with another, but where the possibility exists for sustainable, long-term partnerships as required by our strategic priorities, central support and attention must, and will, be available. As one example, on a visit to Bangalore in these past weeks, I signed a Memorandum of Understanding which I hope will lead to a significant new centre for the development of new medicines, led by Indian scientists with Cambridge academic advice. It builds on complementary strengths and has the potential to make a tremendous difference to India's capacity as well as demonstrating a novel approach in this field. This activity was not created by my signature on a piece of paper, but by the ideas of Cambridge academics and many years of development, and therefore passes the test of sustainability.

The key to developing research coherence without losing individual entrepreneurship will lie in our working in a co-ordinated and devolved manner. For this, we depend on the mechanisms provided by the six academic Schools, which have begun to hit their stride, and the five Pro-Vice-Chancellors, to whom the University owes a very great deal, and whose portfolios without exception have grown in complexity even as the stakes get higher. They, I know, are supported by all of you, and their contribution will grow to ensure that the strategic approach to priorities can be implemented without derailing the very best that Cambridge has produced at the level of Faculties, Departments and individual groups.

To be 'useful' to society, universities must also take responsibility for helping to put our discoveries to work. Cambridge has excelled in this regard and the close working relationship with our region has helped to foster the success of the Cambridge Phenomenon. This spirit of academic entrepreneurship, often supported by Cambridge Enterprise, remains vibrant, and will continue to be an important element in fulfilling our mission.

Whether bottom-up or top-down, short-term or long-term, fundamental or applied, what animates and drives us all in our research, regardless of discipline, is the thrill of discovery, and knowing that those discoveries can make a difference to the health of society, both locally and globally.

Redressing the balance: recognising our communities

A third imperative: recognising the totality of the communities that make Cambridge successful. From outside Cambridge, where I stood a year and a day ago, the University seems a place of outstanding individuals. The roll call of brilliance was known to me as it is known across the planet: Newton and Darwin, Crick and Watson, Wordsworth and Coleridge, and their heirs and successors in our own time. From my new vantage point - looking at Cambridge from within - it is equally a place of communities, and I want to let the notion of communities come to the fore.

My observation is that national changes we have witnessed in the past year have focused firstly on the state, and secondly on individuals, and communities have largely been forgotten. The challenge of widening undergraduate participation is largely couched in terms focused on individual applicants from individual families: whether they are confident enough or ambitious enough to apply to university in the first place, and how they are to pay for it if they do.

I have already noted that the Higher Education White Paper 'Students at the Heart of the System' neglects the role of research in education. Equally, by focusing so much on undergraduate study and how to pay for it, it takes little notice of the contribution and role of graduate students or postdoctoral researchers. We, for our part, are not forgetting these communities - because the creation and sustaining of communities is what makes Cambridge such an attractive place, and because community building is something we are good at. Every College, whether founded in 1284 or 1977, has intensely loyal members, and the intensity of the Collegiate community is wholly beneficial and productive and a fundamental strength of Cambridge. We need to share that magic.

Our graduate students and postdoctoral researchers are the future of the University - the means by which academia will replicate itself. Growth has been tremendous: to take as a reference point 1977, the year in which the most recent College, Robinson, was founded, the number of graduate students was 1,900; now there are well over three times that number. Similarly, there are now 2,800 postdocs, and it is vital to recognise them institutionally. Just as the University embraced graduate students when that category surfaced in large numbers at the turn of the 20th century, so we are looking at how Collegiate Cambridge can best support the postdocs on whom we now as an institution rely. Cambridge's best, tried and tested support mechanism is the College, and I want the involvement of postdocs in the wider community of Collegiate Cambridge to be enhanced. I am deeply grateful to those Colleges that do extend their facilities and services to embrace these researchers, because their contribution is key to the success of Cambridge today. In their later careers, they will become leaders in their chosen careers and I want them to consider Cambridge to be the place where, as researchers, they were best supported.

During this year, we will be discussing the opportunity that is the development of North-West Cambridge. One already important contribution to that discussion has been made through the report by the Working Group, chaired by the Master of Emmanuel, on a College model for North-West Cambridge. If we decide to develop this site, then there may be a real opportunity to create, alongside other Colleges, this sense of community for our postdoctoral staff. I hope there is.

Paying attention to our friends

Fourthly and lastly, we should not neglect the external relationships that make our contributions, through research and otherwise, possible.

Collegiate Cambridge has excelled at raising funds through philanthropy. Under my predecessors' leadership we paved the way for large-scale fundraising in the UK, with the most ambitious campaign ever launched by a UK university - a campaign that has been successful beyond even those high expectations. We have learned how to do it and do it well. Even as we draw the current 800th Anniversary Campaign to a close, philanthropy will be of the highest importance in the advancement of the University's strategic priorities over the coming years.

Although proportionally philanthropy is a small fraction of our funding, it matters to us disproportionally, because it allows creativity and provides added value. Our global alumni and our many other friends are willing to invest in our future because we consistently translate our mission and values into excellence in teaching, research and scholarship. Our supporters have a choice in what they support. That they choose Collegiate Cambridge is vital to our global standing and reputation.

The rhetoric of the current government recognises the importance of philanthropy but actions to develop a strong culture of giving have been slow to follow. The recent White Paper on Giving had many good ideas but ignored Higher Education as a key part of the non-profit sector. The Higher Education White Paper, for its part, largely ignored philanthropy. We will be using our leadership in philanthropy to push for a more constructive and joined-up approach to this important area of public policy.

Our benefactors will also be vital in helping to overcome some of the 'hidden' challenges contained among the cuts in public funding of Higher Education. An important example is capital funding for buildings and equipment, which has reduced precipitously. In response, Cambridge is strengthening its capital planning process: it is vital that our buildings are refurbished and replaced in a planned way, and kept adequate for the purposes they need to fulfil. Such plans must apply to administrative as well as academic buildings, and equipment needs, too, fall in unexpected places: as well as astronomical telescopes and gene sequencers, electronic equipment in the University Library needs to provide us all reliably with journal access and data archiving for the decades to come.


In conclusion, we will contribute to society in 2012 in many ways: through our world-changing research as well as education; through our communities of graduate students and postdocs as well as undergraduates; through developing strategic research without losing the autonomy of the individual; and through nurturing the external friendships and internal structures that sustain us.

In other words, we will contribute by fostering quality and excellence, the bedrocks on which the success of the institution lies. We will not help society by compromising on quality, and quality relies upon autonomy. My final thought, then, is about autonomy, and I shall repeat here what I said in a speech a few months ago, to Europe's higher education ministers at the start of the Polish Presidency of the European Union:

"In an economic environment of austerity and cutbacks, autonomy appears to be a luxury, and governments are tempted to create incentives for universities that are fine-grained in terms of desirable outcomes, and heavy-handed in terms of rewards and penalties. Governments know what they want: economic growth. But autonomy is nota luxury. It is an absolute and indispensable condition for excellence, and every step which tends to remove the power of universities to decide who they educate and how; and what they research and why; is a step towards mediocrity and paralysis."

If we look to the long term, and fiercely defend scholarship and autonomy and unfashionable fields, it is not because we disdain being of relevance to the world, it is because we serve society better that way. That is the unique contribution that universities make. The imperatives for the world of 2012 may seem familiar, but they command new attention and require fresh commitment - a task to which all of us must rise.