Speech delivered by Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz

The annual address of the Vice-Chancellor, 1 October 2012


Just 40 miles south of Cambridge, in East London, we witnessed this summer one of the most memorable events of this still young century: the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Defying sceptics, the country was transfixed. We marvelled at the achievement of individual athletes – Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah, Ellie Simmonds, Sarah Storey and hundreds more. I personally found myself captivated by sports – I might mention taekwondo or dressage – of which I’d had only the sketchiest idea before the Opening Ceremony, let alone any conception of the intricacies that separate success from failure! Our own alumni did especially well: ‘Team Cambridge’, taken as a group, with two gold and two bronze medals, would have been higher in the medal table than Canada or Norway. But we supported and cheered the success of many individuals and teams who brought elation to a country in need of cheering up. Many congratulations to all our alumni who participated and all the medal winners! To achieve that success required personal commitment and self-sacrifice by the athletes, and investment from funders in coaching and infrastructure. All of this required world-class ability, a shared vision and, above all, ambition to achieve their goals.

As members of the University of Cambridge, we too are in a global competition of Olympic proportions, and it is a competition that we are winning. Rightly, we consider ourselves to be the best university in the United Kingdom, the best in Europe, and one of a handful of truly excellent universities worldwide. The finishing line in our academic Olympics is not well defined, and the race is never-ending. This makes it all the more challenging to maintain the drive and ambition to stay in our much-envied pole position. The global competition between universities can appear to individual scholars as a remote, even demeaning, abstraction. Although we may note in the newspapers the appearance of league tables, guides and other commentary, we rarely see the direct effects of these in our daily lives. So, some may ask, is competition in a university context not, in fact, pointless?

I take a different view. Competition makes you run faster. Just as an Olympic athlete is selected for competition by physical and mental strength, so Cambridge has been selected, through the brilliance of our predecessors and the investment of our supporters, to compete in this great race. Having been selected, we have a responsibility to run the race as well as we can – to be ambitious to succeed. The greatest contribution that the handful of the world’s leading universities can make is to strive to remain in that handful: the constant competition of the top few global universities keeps the leading edge sharp.

Competition, too, goes to the very heart of our mission. Our mission statement calibrates our successes against the most ambitious possible scale: we are urged to “contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence.” So we aim to be the best, never compromising on excellence, in order to serve society in its broadest sense.

Committed to benefiting society as we are, we believe that sustaining Cambridge’s excellence matters, not just to Cambridge, but to the wider international community. We are curators in this moment of an 800-year-old institution which has the potential to last many centuries more. We have a responsibility to the past, and especially to the future. How are we to discharge that responsibility? What actions must we take today to ensure our place tomorrow among the leaders, forcing the pace, keeping the world’s greatest universities contributing to the utmost of their potential?

I offer three answers. First, Cambridge needs to grow. Second, we need to change; and third, we need to ensure that growth and change are informed at every step by our values, our principles, and by the spirit and ambition that have seen us flourish for our first eight centuries.


In 50 years, Cambridge has never stopped growing – in numbers of students, numbers of postdoctoral researchers, numbers of Colleges, numbers of buildings, numbers of courses and research programmes. Mostly, this growth was organic: the taking of a series of opportunities. More recently, we have got better at planning it, in order to ensure long-term sustainability and stability.

The obvious place to start is with our students. We are a small university by British standards, recruiting just 3,300 undergraduates each year, but much larger by this measure than many of our US Ivy League peers. We have eschewed further growth in undergraduate numbers because of our determination to sustain the excellence of a Collegiate Cambridge education without compromise. The costs of sustaining that educational excellence are such that it would be financially perilous to increase undergraduate numbers, without tilting the balance significantly towards overseas students.

Cambridge has been research-led since the time of Isaac Newton. To continue to research at ‘the highest international levels of excellence’, we need to increase the numbers of postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers. These groups are essential in all disciplines to sustain active research programmes, and so are key to our future academic development and competitiveness, just as we are responsible for theirs. We must compete strenuously to attract the very best of them here, and to offer them the very best environment within which they can thrive. Therefore, as Collegiate Cambridge, we have committed to continue the gradual expansion, at 2% per year, of our graduate student numbers alongside continued growth in our research activity. All six of our Schools have explicit plans as to how that will be achieved. In support of these plans, the Colleges have agreed to increase their intake – but increasing scarcity of accommodation means that beyond 2015 we will have to provide additional accommodation for graduate students and postdocs. At the same time, we must continue to build up research infrastructure and ultimately increase academic staff numbers in Faculties and Departments to provide supervision and mentoring for these new doctoral and junior research staff.

Creating the headroom for this anticipated growth is unquestionably challenging, especially in the current economic circumstances, but failure to do so will significantly weaken our future competitiveness. Therefore, I should like to highlight today one opportunity before us, the North West Cambridge project, which matches our academic ambitions and will underpin them, and whose scale, like our academic ambition, is extraordinary.

North West Cambridge

North West Cambridge is the biggest capital project that this University has ever contemplated – indeed, I find it difficult to think of anything comparable in British higher education. Let me give you some numbers. On completion, there will be approximately 5,000 students and staff and their families living at North West Cambridge. The site is 150 hectares in area, and will include 1,500 rental homes for University and College employees, 1,500 homes for sale, accommodation for 2,000 graduate students and 100,000 square metres of research space (or 1 million square feet) including up to 40,000 square metres (400,000 square feet) for external research institutes and facilities linked to the University. The residents’ quality of life will be determined by the facilities they enjoy on the site. The plans envisage shops, a doctors’ surgery, a school, a nursery, and other neighbourhood services, many of them available from the very beginning, and many of them benefitting residents of West Cambridge as well as the new development. The final cost of the project will be close to £600 million.

This new quarter of Cambridge will be provided on a sustainable basis, setting an example commensurate with our global ambitions. This will include public transport and traffic management to reduce vehicle dependency, such as dedicated cycle routes throughout the site and an extraordinary 11,500 cycle parking spaces. In construction, we find inspiration all around us in buildings such as this Senate-House, built many years ago and still in use today. Accordingly, the new buildings will be designed to be virtually zero carbon, truly durable over at least a century and reconfigurable internally without being rebuilt. The wide range of architects who will design the site embody international and local expertise and excellence.

North West Cambridge will create a new public quarter, close to the city centre. So we have engaged with local authorities to ensure that the project achieves a joint vision for the future of Cambridge as a city. The quarter will be permeable, with public access, so that people can see and take part in what we do; it will even have a café-restaurant opening onto a new market square, welcoming all. The green space at the heart of the site will create in effect a second Parker’s Piece which, along with the Community Centre, will be managed jointly by the city and the University. Together we are committed to creating a mixed and balanced community.

Make no mistake: this proposal will change the way that Cambridge works – as a University and as a city.

North West Cambridge will further develop part of the University to the West, but it is insufficient in itself to match our needs for the future. Further major developments are planned on our biomedical campus at Addenbrooke’s to the south of the city. In conjunction with our NHS partners, planned developments include building the new Papworth Hospital, with its attendant research institute focusing on cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Centrally, in the city, we will also continue with development of the New Museums and Old Press Sites. All these major projects are essential if we are to remain ahead of the field.

North West Cambridge, alongside the other developments, is a visible measure of our commitment to growth and change, and of our ambition as a world-leading university. However, it must reflect and be informed by our unchanging values and long-term perspective. I am highlighting this exciting project today because I want the whole University to be aware of the magnitude and ambition of the proposed development. In keeping with the way the University decides such matters of momentous change, it will be brought forward for a decision by the Regent House during the Michaelmas and Lent Terms. As would be appropriate for such a major development, I look forward to a full and constructive discussion. I hope the Regent House will be as impressed as I have been by the quality and scale of what is proposed, and by the way it responds flexibly to meet our vision for the future of Cambridge.

To me, the outstanding feature is the recognition provided by this project of the importance, and consequently the needs, of our postdoctoral staff: this community, so important for the future academic development of Cambridge, is so often neglected. Our postdocs, alongside our postgraduate students, embody our future and our world-class scholarly ambition, and they deserve the ambition on our part to match it. They are, and will be, successful but we must also want them to think of Cambridge as the place that changed their lives, and helped and supported them in all aspects at this critical time in their careers. In achieving that, we empower them to ensure the continued international standing of the University.

Despite its ambition, the North West Cambridge project is affordable. It will not draw resources from other parts of our academic mission or from our wider capital plan.


The development of our physical infrastructure that I have discussed, then, is of a size and scale that enables our future development and ensures that we can grow our postgraduate community. But we cannot stall academic change and growth in other vital areas and risk losing our global competitiveness. It is vital, even with the reduced support for physical infrastructure introduced as part of government austerity programmes, that we do not lose that momentum. This year we opened the Alison Richard Building to support integrated research activity in the Social Sciences and Humanities, and the University will continue to invest in key infrastructure developments elsewhere, to support current research and teaching in, for example, engineering, stem-cell and conservation initiatives.

However, our success in the future does not depend on buildings and facilities, but on continued growth and change in our academic staff. In doing so, we must maintain our commitment to our values and hence excellence; therefore, this too will need careful planning with the Colleges and Schools. Here, support from philanthropy will be vital and this will be a key component of our next Campaign, to build on the success of the 800th Anniversary. Since the end of that Campaign in July 2011, Collegiate Cambridge has continued to raise philanthropic funds at the rate of £2 million per week. This is essential for our academic mission and must continue unabated.

As I have said here on previous occasions, the nature of research and its funding is changing – but the University is already responding, with Strategic Research Initiatives that are now well entrenched in our fabric and supported by substantial external funding. Examples include the establishment of the £8 million MRC/Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research, and the acquisition of further support for the Food Security theme from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, BBSRC, DfID and the Indian Government. Increased collaborations to tackle the global issues encompassed by our Strategic Initiatives are already evident in the Schools and other bodies. However, this year has also seen further major interactions with industrial partners, including BP, Rolls-Royce, Dyson, Laing O’Rourke and GlaxoSmithKline. The list continues to grow.

The sheer scale of the problems that we seek to solve will require wider collaboration internationally, and our research and international strategies are therefore developed in tandem. I have always stressed the importance of international engagement, to build and enhance our research potential, particularly in the strategic initiatives that we have identified. This year has seen the development of joint working with the Nanyang Technological University and National University of Singapore, supported by by a multi-million pound award from the Singapore Government under their CREATE scheme, as part of the Energy Initiative. I have just returned from India, where we cemented a collaboration to establish a Centre for Chemical Biology and Therapeutics with the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, supported by the Indian Government’s grant of £11 million. We also hosted a conference in Delhi to highlight the Humanities in the context of India with the Centre for South Asian Studies, and I hope that the importance Cambridge places on these disciplines will be reflected in the further planned collaborations with Indian institutions. Europe’s Horizon 2020 programme offers the prospect of research support on a similar scale. Again, such collaborations will continue into the future.


Lastly, I turn to the third element of discharging our responsibilities: values. Here I can be very brief. While we embrace change in so much that we do, our values – our relationship with society, our commitment to academic freedom and to nurturing talent – have stood the test of time and changing them is not on the agenda, because they provide the continuing acid test in challenging and sometimes uncertain times.


Cambridge is one of a small handful of truly world-changing universities and we are ambitious for our institution. That ambition is born not just because we find ourselves curators of an 800-year legacy, but because we have a duty and a responsibility for its health and strength, its spirit and its power to transform. It is incumbent on us to look to its future. That we do so matters, for a score of reasons, rational and emotional: our own institutional loyalty and affection; a respect for Cambridge’s past; a competitive streak, glancing westwards to our sister institutions in the United States, and increasingly to the East. There is, too, a responsibility to the UK: in our teaching, where we want the country’s 18-year-olds, and others of more mature years, to have options for further study worthy of their talents; in our cultural contribution to the nation; and in our economic contribution. Like North West Cambridge, our ambition must be on an Olympian scale, commensurate with our ambition for our future. Not least among the reasons why it matters is that Cambridge transforms lives, through our teaching and our research – and by doing so, we keep the rest of the global universities running hard alongside us.