About this speech

  • Title: Annual Address to the Regent House
  • Speaker: Professor Alison Richard, Vice-Chancellor
  • Date: 1 October 2005

Speech transcript


I want to talk today about the relationship between society and universities, and the relationship between Government and Cambridge University in particular.

In the run-up to the vote on the Higher Education Bill last year, the public debate was waged primarily as a conflict between two propositions: on the one hand, that charging higher fees is a reasonable way of providing new and much-needed funding to universities and, on the other, that higher fees would deter qualified students from poorer backgrounds from applying to university. Alongside this debate, a deeper but less fully articulated argument rumbled on about the proper role of Government in Higher Education. The debate about the impact of higher fees will be settled by the evidence after the Higher Education Act takes effect in 2006. The deeper argument remains open.

One set of voices in this argument calls for Cambridge to raise many billions of pounds so that we may show the door to Government. This is often referred to as "privatising" the University, ignoring the fact that Cambridge is already a set of selfgoverning charitable corporations. More important, such exhortations duck what is in my view the essential issue, the proper relationship of the University to institutions and individuals beyond itself, including many agencies of Government.

Like all universities, Cambridge cherishes freedom of thought and expression and gives this freedom pre-eminence among its core values 1. Like all universities, Cambridge receives financial support from society. The freedom we are granted and the support we receive bring with them obligations to society, squarely recognized in the University's mission statement, which begins: "The mission of the University of Cambridge is to contribute to society..."

A certain tension between society's expectations and universities' need for freedom and financial support is inevitable. I believe that managing this tension better depends first on developing a greater, shared understanding of the relationship between universities and society, and of the role of finance in mediating that relationship. From this understanding, ideas about practical ways of improving things flow readily.

At Cambridge, we must be explicit and clear about our societal obligations, and honour them even as we use our freedom to provide the quality of education and research that keeps us among the foremost universities in the world. Financially, we must broaden and deepen the range of our funding sources and avoid heavy dependence on any one source. Government should surely be amongst these sources, administering public funds on behalf of society collectively. But the terms of our relationship with Government must change, rapidly, for Cambridge to remain in the ranks of the very best.

This morning I will develop these ideas, with John Henry Newman's celebrated lectures my starting point.

Newman's Legacy

In the series of lectures Newman delivered in Dublin in 1854 2, he defined values, or "intellectual virtues". These values remain at the very heart of universities to this day: free speech and free inquiry, and intellectual honesty. To these values Newman linked the moral obligation to convey the results of research to others. This obligation both demands and explains the unity of research, teaching, publication and other ways of transferring knowledge to the wider world 3. It is the ground on which we still stand, and reminds us that knowledge transfer is not an invention of the 1990s. Universities have always existed to serve society, from their special position of honest independence.

Given the continuing resonance of some elements of Newman's lectures, it is perhaps ironic that they were intended to defend the importance of church doctrine in university education. Newman argued simultaneously and paradoxically, from a modern perspective, for freedom of inquiry and the absolute necessity of bending to the sovereignty of the Church. The man who laid the foundations for the core values of the modern university could still write: "the Church has a sovereign authority, and, when she speaks ex cathedra, must be obeyed". 4 His writings are a useful reminder that conflict and concern about the controlling influence of bodies external to the university are not new. There is no single voice so compelling and simultaneously conflicted as Newman's addressing the issue today. Blatant religious assault on free inquiry in universities and schools is a fact of life, however, in many parts of the world.

In modern Britain, universities and their supporters worry more about undue influence from Government than from the Church. Sometimes conceived as a recent development, in fact the influence of Government stretches back to the very beginnings of this University almost 800 years ago. In the annual commemoration of the University's Benefactors in Great St Mary's Church, the sonorous prose of the Form of Commemoration invokes the "acts of personal munificence which we have received at the hands of our sovereigns". Sovereigns were largely synonymous with Government for a big span of Cambridge's history and, cast differently, the Form of Commemoration can be read as a long saga of Government influence.

What are we to make of this? Moral philosopher Gordon Graham's perceptive comment provides part of the answer: "...the state will interest itself in anything that is of social and cultural importance. This observation is two sided. If universities are institutions of consequence, they must expect government interference; freedom from such interference means that they are of no consequence." 5

We are of consequence, of course, and may expect "interference". We, then, must be energetic guardians of our values. As we look beyond the University for developments that could jeopardise our freedoms, let us remember and reaffirm that the stewardship and protection of those freedoms, and our moral and societal obligations, reside first of all with us.

Beyond the University: a plurality of support

Society provides financial support to universities through five channels: students and their families; alumni and friends; charitable foundations; industry; and Government and its agencies, administering public funds on behalf of society as a whole. This holds for most universities in most countries in the world. In addition, some universities, including this one, develop and manage significant revenues of their own, through endowments, businesses, and intellectual properties.

Heavy dependence on any one of these sources brings institutional risks. A university entirely sustained by student fees would be susceptible to the faddishness of consumerism, as well as putting too much of a burden on students and their families. The demands of donors could open up a route to distortion of the academic purposes of the university. Funding from industry might invite a slide toward research dominated by a quest for results amenable to rapid commercialisation. Exclusive dependence on endowment revenues would expose the university to the roller coaster of the financial markets. And then there's Government.

In the UK, the balance among funding sources is steeply tilted toward Government. Only Cambridge and Oxford have significant endowments, and the fees universities may charge Home and EU undergraduates are capped by Government at £1,200, rising to £3,000 in 2006. During the last fifty years philanthropy has played little part in the finances of most universities, discouraged until recently by the tax laws in place and the notion that "the state will provide". As a result, almost all UK universities today rely on Government agencies for peer-reviewed research grants and for block grants in support of teaching and core research needs.

Thus, the overall picture in the UK is indeed one of heavy dependence on a single funding source, Government, with successive Governments holding strong and conflicting views about the purposes and value of universities. The financial structure of universities of very different character is relatively homogeneous 6, highly regulated, and still insufficient for their needs, recent improvements notwithstanding.

Looking further afield, the overall homogeneity of the UK university system contrasts with the historic diversity of the US system, described by Charles Vest, President Emeritus of MIT, 7 as a landscape of private colleges and universities in the East typically founded with religious as well as secular objectives, publicly-funded universities in the Midwest responding to the shared needs of 19th century agrarian societies, and a designed, comprehensive system of publicly-funded colleges and universities in California living alongside a "second growth" of West Coast private universities.

Today, the financial strategies of state and private universities in the US are converging. With state budgets under mounting budgetary pressure, state universities are increasing student fees and building their endowments with gifts from alumni and friends. Private universities, with budgets fuelled by endowment growth and major fee hikes in the 1990s, have experienced freezes and cutbacks since then, as financial markets have slowed and public opposition to big fee increases has grown. State and private universities alike have long looked to the Federal Government to fund research and graduate training.

We can draw several conclusions from the UK and US experiences. First, much of the highest quality research in the world over the last fifty years has come out of universities in these two countries, indicating that government funding for research and graduate training is an effective and important model of support. Second, although some universities primarily dependent on public funding to support their educational activities have flourished in both countries, this funding model is fast becoming less viable. Third, heavy dependence on government funding leaves universities vulnerable to changing economic conditions and political philosophies.

Changing the equation

What does all this mean for Cambridge University? It is right to pose the question in these specific terms, because British universities differ widely in age, size, history, mission, balance between research and teaching, course emphasis, governance, and so on. We also differ in cost, depending on the subjects we teach and how we teach them, our locations, the kinds of research we do, the pools from which we recruit our academic staff, whether we house big libraries and collections, and the age and architectural significance of our buildings. This diversity is healthy and desirable, because students themselves have different needs and aspirations, and society itself makes a wide range of calls upon universities.

Cambridge is among the foremost universities in the world, with high ambitions and deep obligations to society. In order to sustain our ambitions and meet our obligations, it is urgent that we reengage the spectrum of political leadership of this country in the unfinished business of Higher Education funding and the relationship that underpins it. This is neither special pleading for Cambridge nor a suggestion that the Government has no place in our support. It is a request for a progressive transformation in our relationship, to afford us greater opportunity to achieve our ambitions and greater freedom from constraint and oversight.

Foundations of a new relationship with Government

This University's obligation to society is to provide an excellent education to the most outstanding students, selected and admitted without regard to their background; to pursue scholarship and research of the very highest quality; and to transmit the results of this work for the benefit of the nation and the world. We must honour these commitments. I see strong evidence that we do, and that we strive in good faith to do better when we fall short, but I believe we must do better at describing all this to Government, to society at large, and perhaps also to ourselves.

What might reasonably be our expectations in return, and our expectations of Government in particular? A fuller recognition and appreciation of the value of our contributions to society and the importance of our freedoms should surely be the first and most fundamental. With that in place, three practical but crucial points seem obvious, rather than radical:

Sustained and secure funding in support of the University's mission.

Government should provide strong and secure support for the "public good" represented by the educational and research activities of the University, and by the great collections in our stewardship. Student loans and financial aid helping to redress income inequalities among students accepted on the basis of merit point to an additional, welcome role for Government in promoting a just society. This role can well be played in partnership with the University's own significant efforts, through its bursary system and activities to widen participation.

New mechanisms for the flow of public funds.

Some good mechanisms that balance the need for accountability with avoidance of undue Government regulation or interference already exist. A notable example is the management of research grants through the peer-review process overseen by the Research Councils. But there is much more to be done, particularly to modify or indeed transform the presently cumbersome system of block grants and the perverse incentives to which they give rise.

Greater opportunity to raise income and rebalance our revenue mix.

Freed to do so, Cambridge could decide to ask some students and their families to contribute more to the cost of their education, but first we would have to demonstrate that higher fees do not deter qualified students, regardless of their background. Next year, fees will increase modestly, but for the first time the Cambridge Bursary Scheme will recognize all the expenses covered by undergraduates and their families and will seek to cover the unmet financial needs of students already admitted on the basis of merit. I am confident we can keep our doors wide open to students of all backgrounds. But we have to prove it.

Further changes in the tax laws would both help and encourage the University to exercise even more energetically a freedom we already have - to raise funds through philanthropy. Collegiate Cambridge already receives generous support from benefactors, and the 800th anniversary in 2009 offers a unique opportunity to increase that support further. The goal of the 800th Anniversary Campaign is to raise £1 billion in additional funds across collegiate Cambridge, with many gifts directed toward endowment.


I am an optimist by nature, but I am also a realist. My concluding observation is that of a realist. In my remarks this morning I propose changes, urgently, but these changes involve neither the slamming of doors nor revolution. Collegiate Cambridge is strong and distinctive, and makes extraordinary contributions to the nation and the world through the students we educate and the research that we do. The weight of these facts makes me confident that further change is not just possible but achievable, so long as we remain determined, measured, and serious in our purpose.

1 Notice in Reporter 2001-02, Grace 6, p.255.

2 John Henry Newman. The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated: I. In Nine Discourses Delivered to the Catholics of Dublin [1852]; II. In Occasional lectures and Essays Addressed to the Members of the Catholic University [1858]. Edited with introduction and notes by I.T. Ker. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976.

3 Jaroslav Pelikan discusses Newman's ideas in detail in The Idea of the University: A Reexamination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

4 John Henry Newman. Ibid. II.vii.2.

5 Gordon Graham, 2002. p.12 in Universities: The Recovery of an Idea. Imprint Academic.

6 There are two exceptions to this general picture. The London School of Economics has shifted its mix of students to include a far higher proportion from outside the EU, who pay something approaching the real cost of their education. LSE is less dependent on Government as a result. Cambridge has different traditions, and internal deliberations over the past year reveal little enthusiasm, at least for the present, to back away from our historic role as educators of British undergraduates.B uckingham University has eschewed all forms of Government support.

7 Charles M. Vest, Federal, State and Local Governments - University Patrons, Partners, or Protagonists? 2005 Clark Kerr Lecture, University of California at Berkeley.