About this speech

  • Title: Speech to open the Universities UK Annual Conference in Cambridge
  • Speaker: Professor Alison Richard, Vice-Chancellor
  • Date: 10 September 2008

Speech transcript


First – a very warm welcome to Cambridge. It is a great pleasure to host the conference, and I am very pleased that the UK’s university sector has chosen Cambridge as this year’s venue – as far as anyone can remember, for the first time since such meetings began about 90 years ago.

Cambridge occupies a distinctive place in the UK university system, and I survey the sector from that distinctive viewpoint. But I also start from the passionate belief that Cambridge’s health and vitality are dependent on the health of the system as a whole, and vice-versa.

In my remarks this morning, I want to talk about history; about what it takes to be distinctive and competitive today; and, picking up the theme of this conference, about the future. Though I start from the perspective of my own university, we do not live as an island here, and I believe my observations have relevance for the sector as a whole.

A brief excursion into the past

In 2003, when I became Vice-Chancellor, I instantaneously acquired an 800-year perspective, so let me begin by looking at eight centuries of global university history from Cambridge’s point of view. In a nutshell, for the first 500 years Cambridge, with a small handful of others represented in this room, was pretty much the only game in town – and in the world. Notwithstanding the existence of another handful of institutions in continental Europe, I surmise that bubonic plague was further up the list of worries than international competition. Over the next 200 years or so, universities began to spring up in the New World, but here we rode along successfully on the coat-tails of the British Empire -- which, among other things, helped us establish a strong sense of global connectedness at an early stage.

And today? Well, Cambridge is a great and important university, with global horizons derived from our heritage and our ambition, but we compete with more and more universities worldwide -- and we’re located on a very small island indeed.

International competition

Cambridge is not alone in this of course. The evidence of the UK’s full participation in a globalised university system is clear. Vice-Chancellors, academic staff, and students are recruited from a global field; graduates of our universities live and work around the world; we win research funding from international sources, and we collaborate internationally. UK scientists have played no small part in the world’s most ambitious experiment, taking place today in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

Fretting about losing academic talent in a ‘brain drain’ to the United States has by and large ended. We recruit as well as provide, and the image of ‘brain circulation’, in AnnaLee Saxenian’s phrasei, is more apt. The greater risk today is that of universities losing out to the private sector, not to each other, in the quest for talent.

Back to Cambridge – in the presence of intense competition and the erosion of the geopolitically dominant platform we once had – how can Cambridge continue to succeed at a global level?

Being part of a great, national university system is a crucial piece of the answer to that question. Cambridge can only be as good as it is because other UK universities are as good as they are. Together, today, for now, we are pretty good indeed.

Characteristics of a strong system

Our system is among the best and most vibrant in the world. It can maintain that standing, in my view, by focusing relentlessly on the quality of what we provide, the talent we attract, and the diversity of strengths that we offer as a system.

How is quality best recognised and assessed in our institutions? Certainly not by league tables alone: they measure only readily measurable features – and they don’t necessarily do that well. The measurements, in turn, almost always end up bundled into a single “mark”, as though quality were simply a linear affair. It isn’t, and the exercise is unhelpful.

But my point this morning is a broader one. The high quality of our individual universities depends today and in the future on two deep, shared characteristics of the university system here: first, the institutional independence and freedom that help make us creative and daring communities, attractive places for talented people deciding where they want to work and live; and second, a modicum of resources, without which autonomy, let alone competitiveness, has little real meaning.

A strong university system attracts talent, but it also nurtures the talents of its students. Which students, and what talents? UK universities are enjoined by Government to help achieve their target of 50% of 18-30 year-olds in some form of higher education. I am often asked about that number, as I am sure you are. I don’t know the correct answer, but I am certain that more, not fewer, UK school leavers should be benefiting from a university education. I am certain that neither family poverty, nor misplaced ideas about ‘not fitting in’, nor poor advice from schools, should discourage bright and capable students from applying here – or to any university – and that the quite exceptional efforts of UK universities to raise aspirations and seek out talent must be maintained. And I am equally certain that the question of who we educate should not be driven by budgetary pressures on our institutions coupled with a pricing system for undergraduate education calculated to drive our educational activities more and more to an overseas constituency.

What talents are we looking for? Assessing applicants is hard, because the assessment encompasses not only their attainments – hard enough themselves to measure – but also their potential, far harder still. And then we have to make a judgment about the balance between the two. The admissions process is not and cannot be a science, it is an art. Cambridge is under constant media scrutiny about so-called fairness in admissions, but in truth it is a challenge we all share – we are all of us looking for some balance of achievement and potential in our students, and we all make judgments in the hope of forging a good fit between our particular institution and the needs and ambitions of the students to whom we offer admission.

This brings me to the matter of diversity. Our universities make a broad range of contributions to the world. Those diverse contributions are made by a diversity of institutions. By that I do not mean that here is a direct mapping of institution onto mission: Lord Sainsbury’s excellent report TheRace to the Top, for example, championed diversity but divided the sector into research universities and “business-facing” universities, which made me want to respond that Cambridge is as business-facing as any other. Nevertheless, his point is well taken in that our institutions clearly vary in how we combine our portfolios around a single, broadly shared purpose. Our diversity is reflected in our students, their age-range and ratio of part-time to full-time students, the places they come from in the UK and overseas, the courses they study and how they learn, and what they then go on to do. As institutions we differ, proudly, in age, size, history, governance, course offerings, emphasis on research and teaching, and balance of academic and professional or pre-professional training. That diversity is a real strength for students, for society, and also for our individual institutions. I believe we still have work to do to make that strength fully evident and welcomed.

Risks and uncertainties

What are the greatest risks and uncertainties we face?

The quality of what we provide and our capacity to attract talent are both at risk. Ironically, in my view one of the greatest risks is driven by the growing appreciation of the relevance of universities, in many ways so welcome: the problem is that the conception of relevance is often narrow while the fact of relevance encourages meddling. As institutions charged with education, research and training, our purpose is not to be construed as that of handmaidens of industry, implementers of the skills agenda, or indeed engines for promoting social justice. Responsive to and helping shape the national policy context, we need the independence and autonomy to chart our individual institutional courses, and to experiment.

A second risk is that of underfunding, of course. Britain still spends less on Higher Education than most other OECD countriesii -- in terms of GDP, in terms of expenditure per student, and in terms of total expenditure on education. The longer that continues, the more we erode our international competitive advantage. Closely allied to this risk is the deniability of the problem. Most universities in this country balance their annual budgets, because they are by and large well managed. But what if in some or many cases it is the wrong budget, and a prescription for long term, but year on year deniable, decline? That is my own greatest nightmare.

The diversity of the university system in the UKis one of its great strengths, I have suggested. The uncertainty or risk in this instance is different. While there is broad agreement among us, I believe, about the importance of our independence and funding, the very idea of diversity as a strength is still questioned by some within the university system. The linearity of league tables fuels the idea that there are institutions present here today that do what Cambridge does, but do it 50 or 100 times less well. This is a nonsensical view. Take the metaphor of an orchestra: is the flute ‘better’ than the cello? Can the orchestra play a convincing national anthem on flutes alone?

Funding models

I have spoken about the features I consider key to the present and future strength of the UK’s university system because I don’t think it’s possible to talk intelligently about funding models without characterizing the kind of system for which we are creating those models. As our conference begins to debate ‘Funding models for the future’, I hope the discussion will include not only levels and sources of funding but also ways of achieving greater flexibility in the way we derive and combine revenue streams.

Funding levels must be adequate to support our diverse portfolios of activity - and these different portfolios have different associated costs. The overall funding gap is still all too real. An example: Cambridge will balance its books this year. But we are competing, as some of you are, in a global market for the best PhD candidates, with US universities offering full tuition fellowships and annual stipends of 22,000 US dollars up front for five years. We must be able to respond in kind. Yet there is a prevailing view in the UK that students, all students, are a source of income, not an investment in the future. The abandonment of the Commonwealth Fellowship and Scholarship programmes, Chevening Scholarships and now the Overseas Research Student awards are dismaying indicators of this at national level. Of course there are financial constraints, but these decisions do disproportionate damage to our capacity to recruit the most talented students.

The well-documented, long-term under-investment in Higher Education in this country compared to other OECD countries has been recognized by the UK Government over the last decade and welcome steps have been taken to counter it. But they are not enough, the UK still lags, and tough economic times are no reason to abandon our historic strengths by backing away from further investment. For our part, UK universities must articulate an agreed, coherent vision and make powerful arguments for the distinctiveness and the value of our system -- arming those who have a stake in our success to argue on our behalf, and convincing those who simply don’t understand why it matters.

Levels of funding are one thing; sources of funding are another.
There is no mystery as to the potential sources of funding available to us. There are six of them: taxpayers, whose contributions are channelled via the central Government, HEFCE, the Research Councils, and regional authorities; fees, paid by students and their families; industry, whose contributions are direct, and also indirect through revenues from intellectual property; charitable foundations; and, fifth, alumni and other philanthropic individuals. The sixth category is income from within our institutions, particularly from endowment but also from trading activity. None of these revenue streams constitutes a magic bullet. The student fee cap commands the most attention, and fees are important, to be sure. But they alone do not constitute our financial salvation.

What we must secure from Government, and from UK society, is not only a deeper investment in our universities, but also the freedom and the trust to marshal and deploy the sources of revenue available to us in combinations fitted to our particular institutions.

Conclusion and action

In practical terms, what do I see as priorities for the sector to work on?

First, I believe we must keep working toward a greater acceptance and celebration of the diversity we represent and the unity of strength embodied in that diversity. This, for me, is the starting point for a coherent and compelling vision of our role in society here, and around the world. I am encouraged by what I have heard and experienced over the course of the last five years, and I believe Universities UK deserves no small part of the credit in leading what is, in effect, an ongoing evolution of the system -- a work still in progress, but progressing.

Second, and quite practically, we must keep hammering away at making our contributions understood. It’s not as if we don’t already, and so the operative phrase is “keep hammering away”. We need to illuminate those contributions, in 3D, to those who benefit from our activities.

Third, we must make the case for increased, and more diverse, funding. We need stronger, reliable income streams from all six possible sources and greater freedom to mobilise them for ourselves.

I began by noting my pleasure that UUK has chosen Cambridge as this year’s venue. That was not an idle pleasantry. I began also by noting that I speak from the distinctive viewpoint of this University. Cambridge is one of the greatest academic centres in the world today, and you are all critical to our success as I hope and believe we are to yours. This leads me to conclude by re-iterating that we need a system that champions its ambition for quality, talent and diversity, supported by appropriate funding.


i The New Argonauts: Regional Advantage in a Global Economy, AnnaLee Saxenian, Harvard University Press, 2007

ii This footnote comes from the footnote to a recent Russell Group news release:

“ Based on the most recent OECD data, the UK’s annual expenditure on higher education is lower than most other OECD countries, in terms of GDP, expenditure per student and as a proportion of total educational funding.

  • The US invests 2.9% of GDP on HE and China now spends 1.3% of GDP (to be raised to 2.5% by 2020). In comparison, the UK spends1.1%.  
  • Annual expenditure on higher education (for all services including research activity) per student shows that the UK is spending less than all of its main competitors – US, Australia, Germany and most Nordic countries. The UK spends approximately $11,484 (USD), while the US spends double at $22,476.
  • Average funding spent on HE as a proportion of all educational spending is 24%. The US spends 36.4% on higher education, the UK spends 19%. The only country to give a lower proportion of educational funding to HEIs is Iceland.
  • Since 1999, China’s spending on Research & Development has increased by more than 20% each year. Spending by central government in 2006 reached £4.7 billion in China compared with £3.2 billion in UK.”