About this speech

  • Title: Report to the Regent House by the Vice-Chancellor
  • Speaker: Professor Alison Richard, Vice-Chancellor
  • Date: 1 October 2004

Speech transcript


As a preface to my address, I would like to acknowledge and celebrate the notion of service to this collegiate University. Over 600 of our colleagues have served this place for 25 years or more, and their service alone totals more than 19,000 years. I attended recently an event in the Engineering Department to mark an extraordinary fifty continuous years of service by Mr Frank Dolman; more extraordinary perhaps is that half-centuries are not unique here. These are humbling thoughts as I reflect on a single year in office. Also humbling are the departures of colleagues from the Headship of their Colleges, for the roll-call is distinguished indeed — Peter Clarke, Peter Goddard, Brian Heap, Amartya Sen, and Roger Tomkys. We thank them too for their service, and wish their successors well.

It is with gratitude and pride that we celebrate these anniversaries and mark these departures and retirements. It is with sadness and respect that we commemorate the passing of the nine members of University staff who have died in the service of this institution during the past year: Simon Boniface; Barry Payne; Robert Boutilier; Rosalind Emra; Pamela Spoerry; William Mills; Yvonne Ostler; Clive Trebilcock; Laurence Haylock; Martin Cooper; and, two weeks ago, David Bennett, a University Constable and for seven years Keeper of this Senate House. Their loss will be keenly felt, even as their service will endure.

High Ambition

A year completed

Last Autumn, I returned to Cambridge believing it to be among the foremost universities in the world but with that position seriously threatened, primarily by inadequate financial support. Therein lay the attraction and the challenge. Much that I have learned since then has reinforced my view.

The world does not stand still while the new Vice-Chancellor listens and learns, of course, and during the past year Cambridge has made or acted on important decisions. Budgetary processes are being devolved. We have developed a needs-based bursary system for undergraduates, and improved the co-ordination of admissions and access activities, and of fund-raising activities too. Five pro-vice-chancellors are now appointed and in place. Their presence is evident already, adding welcome academic and strategic leadership and co-ordination. We have clarified the responsibilities and staffing of the University's principal working committees. Major new interdisciplinary research endeavours are underway, notably the initiatives in stem cell research and computational biology. We have also made choices with tough academic consequences, like the decision not to proceed with the planned neuroscience laboratory.

Amidst these changes, the University just keeps showing its mettle: 9 new Fellows of the Royal Society this year, 8 new Fellows of the British Academy, one President-elect of the British Academy, one Balzan prize winner, 1st place in the national league tables, third place in the Shanghai Jiao Tong World League Table. I could dwell at length on the University's accomplishments over the past year but I think it is time, rather, to speak about my priorities for the coming years.

Looking forward

Looking forward, I ask: Who will be ambitious on our behalf, if we are not ambitious for ourselves? And what is our ambition? It must surely be to keep education and research at this University among the finest in the world. Looking back over the centuries, we know that Cambridge has made history time and again, and has educated students who have become leaders in all walks of life. A hundred years from now, I want our successors to look back and say the same. It is a simple goal and a high ambition.

What is the key to Cambridge's unique history of radical innovation and life-changing education? I believe it is the bringing together of the finest educated minds in the world, along with the best students, a modicum of resources, and a great deal of freedom. We cannot count on continuing to do this or take it for granted, even after eight hundred years. We must tend our greatness with care and energy, and ambition must translate into tasks. This morning, I would like to talk about some of these tasks.

Who we educate is who we are

Who we educate is who we are. During the past year, I have spoken out emphatically on behalf of the University's commitment to attract and educate the most talented students regardless of their race, gender, or background. I know that commitment is acknowledged and embraced by this community. But we must incorporate it into our thinking about the future size and composition of the student body as a whole.

Educating undergraduates is important to society, and we do it brilliantly. A Cambridge undergraduate education is among the finest in the world, and many highly qualified school-leavers seek admission to the University. Yet in contemplating the possibility of admitting more of these students, we face the fact that the education of home and EU students is substantially under-funded today, and that this gap will by no means be closed even if we decide on higher fees from 2006.

PhD students contribute mightily to ongoing research activities. They inspire the present. And they are the future. Competition to attract the most outstanding Ph.D. students is increasingly intense and international, and requires steadily higher levels of support, promptly delivered. The competition is not simply with other universities, but between an academic career and the many other opportunities beckoning these students. The University also offers an array of masters-level courses. Some students in these courses go on to do Ph.D.s, others to careers such as law or medicine. Still others come to Cambridge simply for the love of learning. We do not lack for applicants. The primary question before us is about the quality of the experience we are able to offer these students.

Looking across the whole landscape of the University, significant growth in student numbers would have broad institutional consequences, driving quantum shifts in the University's geography, staff numbers, institutional management, and community structure. Major changes in the balance between undergraduates and postgraduates or in the proportion of home students have the potential to reshape both the University's identity and its mission.

In my view, significant overall expansion in student numbers at this time risks detracting from the quality of undergraduates' educational experience and from the quality of postgraduate students we are able to attract. I also believe we need to think hard about the institutional consequences of growing much bigger. But these thoughts are simply a starting point for discussion. The important thing, the first task, is to discuss and decide our course. The second is to ensure that we have the mechanisms in place to follow it.

Consultations with the Schools and Colleges about student numbers are under way, but we must engage in a discussion about our size and composition at the level of the institution as a whole. The means of doing so are at hand. There is serious deliberation in abundance at Cambridge — at the tables of the Council, the General Board and academic units, Finance, Planning and Resources, and the various committees of the Colleges. From these tables should come the strategic planning proposals to put before the Regent House. Among my primary tasks, our shared tasks, is to foster focus and purposefulness at these tables.

Cambridge and the World

On the international stage, we have a different kind of task before us. Through its academic activities and magnificent collections, Cambridge University is among the foremost stewards and creators of British history and culture. But with centuries of exchange with Europe and the rest of the world, Cambridge has always looked far beyond the fens. Indeed, Cambridge is very definitely a university of and for the world. More than ever, we educate students who go on to live, work and lead in different nations and cultures. Increasingly, our treasures and knowledge will be accessible electronically around the globe. I believe we need a more conscious international strategy, responding actively to the possibilities opened up by these changes.

At present, 12% of our undergraduates and over 48% of our postgraduate students come from Europe or overseas. The Gates Scholarship Programme systematically seeks out academically talented students and future leaders from all over the world. The research collaborations of the academic staff leave few corners of the world untouched.

Because so much of the international activity at Cambridge is based on the collaborations of individual academic staff and the interests of individual students, we need to ask under what circumstances institutional commitments are necessary or warranted. This autumn, two working groups will begin examining the University's growing international role. Consulting widely, they will consider how the University's interests are served by developing international relationships, what form those relationships should take, and whether they should focus on particular regions of the world. They will give thought to increasing the proportion of Cambridge undergraduates admitted from overseas. They will inquire whether Cambridge has adequate structures in place to attract the best overseas students and ensure that they benefit fully from the opportunities we offer. They will also explore the desirability of providing more overseas experiences for home students.

The working groups will present their conclusions and recommendations to the central bodies of the university and the colleges next spring and, in due course, to the larger community. I anticipate that these will spur our thinking, guide our individual and collective decisions in the years ahead, help direct institutional investments in international activities, and affirm Cambridge's position as an international leader among our peers.

The collegiate system is a hallmark of Cambridge

The collegiate system is a hallmark of Cambridge. We must ensure that it will continue to flourish in the years ahead, as a brilliant and admired feature of life and education here.

One essential task, in my view, is quite mundane: to keep attending to the mechanisms by which we work together, the colleges and the central bodies, the colleges and the schools, faculties and departments, and the colleges with one another. This is quiet work but it can have mighty consequences, as the evidence of this past year alone convinces me.

The colleges play a crucial role in undergraduate education through the supervision system. This system, highly valued by most students and staff, is under strain in some subject areas and in some colleges that lack the financial resources needed to support it. A second task, then, is to undertake a serious review of the supervision system and its evolving role. I believe, this is vital not only to the future health of the system itself and the educational mission of the colleges, but also to the whole way we approach and invest in undergraduate education at Cambridge

Third, we must attend to the future vitality of the college fellowships, in an increasingly busy world of two-career families and intensifying academic pressure. These fellowships are central to the idea of community at Cambridge, and they will grow old and fade unless the next generation participates fully in them. Colleges, in turn, must continue their efforts to be inclusive, and to adapt to the patterns and pressures facing this and future generations.

As part of this effort, I think we should use the development of new accommodation in Northwest Cambridge to explore together innovative ways of creating college communities, particularly for postdoctoral staff and students with families. I believe we will be missing interesting opportunities if we look only to expand the number of colleges or the number of beds available to the present array of colleges.

The collegiate system is diverse — gloriously so, for the most part. Colleges have vastly different histories and traditions. They differ in size and in the academic degrees for which their students study. They also differ in wealth. Too much virtue is ascribed to homogeneity in these times. Sameness is safer. It can also be dull, stifling, and above all fails to reflect the fact that not everyone actually wants the same thing. When do the differences among colleges become institutional weaknesses instead of strengths? I believe it is when differences in wealth, policies and procedures impinge significantly on the experiences of current and prospective students, to the students' detriment. This, like much having to do with the collegiate system, is primarily a matter for the colleges themselves but, make no mistake, it is of huge consequence for us all.

Cambridge, Research University

The importance of research infuses everything here: the students we attract, the education and training we offer them, our international links and impact, the wonderfully complex communities of the colleges and academic departments, the resources we need. I hesitate to speak about research today, for it is first and foremost the domain of individual scholars and scientists. And yet, it is fundamental to the idea of the University, many hours of my week are spent in its support and, along with education, it is the reason I am here. And so I overcome my hesitation, briefly!

Research of the highest importance goes on within current disciplinary boundaries, and sometimes it transcends these boundaries. I am proud of our continuing commitment to so-called small subjects as well as large. At the same time, our capacity to tackle multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary questions is increasingly powerful. This reflects our strength across all the fields of inquiry, the collegiate system which provides strong support for multi-disciplinary exchange, and also the ferocity with which individual academics hold on to the freedom to plough new furrows.

Yet, structures within the University for the most part conform with traditional disciplinary boundaries. It is not for the Vice-Chancellor to prescribe the research priorities of the University. I do see it as my task, however, to help ensure that our structures support interdisciplinary research and I am alert to opportunities to lower or knock away barriers, real or perceived, and encourage collaboration. I am encouraged by what I have seen over the past year. The sweep of science and technology at Cambridge is breathtaking, of course, but equally remarkable in a different way is the growing recognition of the fertile ground for interaction within the Humanities, and between the Humanities and the Sciences.

Strong financial underpinnings

Financially, Cambridge certainly does more with less than our international peers. Frugality is a virtue. But let us not confuse frugality with unsustainable economics, with the consequent slide towards mediocrity the more pernicious for being imperceptible from day to day. This University needs much stronger financial underpinnings to maintain its excellence.

A year from now when we launch the 800th Campaign, Cambridge must be able to make a clear case for additional support, and financial planning must be a major task for the coming year and beyond. In December, the Council will consider a plan to bring the operating budget into balance within three years. The longer-term task is to estimate the real financial base needed to keep us competitive with the best in the world, and to build our revenue streams accordingly. A long-range, integrated financial planning process will guide our decision-making and be a powerful platform from which to make our case outside the university. Let me speak briefly about certain aspects of this larger task.

Staff salaries and benefits are the single most significant driver of our costs, comprising about half the expenses of the central university. The future quality of many sectors of our staff, not just the academic staff, is imperilled by the situation today. Salaries for starting lecturers make it difficult to buy a home in Cambridge or provide for childcare in two-career families. I believe this is among the challenges we face in particular as we try to increase the proportion of women among the academic staff. But, women and men alike, recruiting the next generation of outstanding academics is a growing, urgent challenge.

At the high end of the scale, in several disciplines Cambridge salaries fall far below those of other universities in this country, let alone abroad. Our salary policies have not recognised the differing external influences at work among academic disciplines, and this limits our opportunities in a world that does. Young men and women do not choose to join an academic community primarily as a financial decision, and nor should they. But it must be possible to have a decent life style, and Cambridge must certainly be able to hold its own against our peer universities.

Strengthening the research infrastructure of this University is a second area still needing significant investment. We have some of the strongest programmes in the world, from the bluest of blue skies research to close partnerships with our many collaborators in industry. The last decade has been a time of massive expansion of our research facilities, and there is still more to do. But, in particular, we must invest more in the core facilities and other support infrastructure, including our libraries and collections, upon which research depends.

A good estimate of our real financial needs is the best starting point for the work of finding additional funds, and also of deciding how best to invest the revenues we already have. Where will we find new revenues?

The Government and nation have a central part to play in supporting Cambridge University. Indeed, one of our tasks is to help build the political will to maintain great universities in this country in the face of intensifying international competition. That will was not strongly in evidence during much of the public debate about higher education over the last two years, and working to change this is surely among the tasks before me.

On the research front, the Chancellor of the Exchequer's commitment to increase public investment in University research over the next ten years is welcome. In return, we are asked to take serious account of its full economic costs. Understanding those costs is no bad thing, in my view, even though it will undoubtedly add to our administrative burdens initially. Increased public funding must be matched by increased private sector investment, still low in the UK, and we at Cambridge must be as well-organised and nimble in going after new funds, whatever their source, as we are ambitious.

Like almost every top British University, Cambridge receives much more funding from the government than from private sources for education as well as for research. The safeguard of academic freedom makes it crucial for us to strive to reduce that state of dependence. There are several ways to achieve this. I will continue arguing publicly for the importance of academic freedom and do my best to keep the debate alive and the issue engaged.

The Higher Education Bill that received Royal Assent in July permits modestly increased undergraduate fees. I welcome this element of the Act because it provides much needed additional revenue outside the block grant system, even though it by no means resolves the problem of under-funding. This Autumn, I hope the Regent House will endorse the proposal to increase fees at Cambridge from 2006. With that decision, we must move quickly to an effective implementation of the needs-based bursary system designed last autumn, and continue doing all we can to encourage highly qualified students to apply to Cambridge regardless of their race, gender, or background.

As we look increasingly to today's students and their families to help pay for the education they receive, so must we look to our alumni and alumnae, and to those who simply value and admire what we stand for and do. Cambridge was built by philanthropy, and continues to benefit from major benefactions. Still, the 800th anniversary of the University in 2009 provides a unique opportunity to increase support for collegiate Cambridge, and transform the modest habits of asking and giving that have too often prevailed during the past century.

My predecessors laid strong foundations and we have made great strides over the past year, but a lot remains to be done before publicly launching the 800th Campaign next year, and much hinges on its success. There are tasks internal to the University, honing priorities and assembling the financial case, and we are already hard at work on them. At the same time, in close collaboration with the colleges, we are busy building the broad base of alumni and friends whose generosity will allow us to achieve our ambitious goals.

The heart of the matter

What will we say, as we call upon the government, industry, alumni, friends, students and ourselves as never before? Here is my answer. Cambridge offers a wonderful education to tomorrow's citizens and leaders of this country and the world. Cambridge academics expand our understanding of the world around us and the world of the mind. We are makers of history and culture, creators of new ideas and technologies, stewards of magnificent collections, and explorers of space and the future. We embody the ideals of intellectual community and freedom of thought. Discoveries and inventions made here bring improvements to human health and drive the economic prosperity of the nation and the world. The University of Cambridge contributes to and draws from this city and this region, but our reach and influence are global: we help make the world a better place. Such a university needs and requires us to have the highest of ambitions, and to face up to the tasks before us.

This has been a wonderful year for me. I have felt warmly welcomed, and straightforwardly questioned and challenged along the way. Trusted? Trust does not spring up just like that, I know. One just keeps working at it. My life with all of you is endlessly interesting and exciting. Rephrasing the question, not what will we say, but why does all this matter to me? My answer has two parts, I have come to realise: first, there's this great institution, Cambridge, and then there's all of you, my colleagues.