About this speech

  • Title: University matters? The University of Cambridge in an increasingly complex world
  • Date: Wednesday 8 June 2022
  • Delivered at Homerton College, Cambridge


Lord Woolley, Dr Pretty, Vice-Chancellor Emeritus, Fellows and students of Homerton College, friends —

I am very grateful for the invitation to deliver this year’s Kate Pretty Lecture in honour of the College’s former Principal.

It feels right that we should be gathered to pay tribute to someone who contributed so richly to the life of the collegiate University: not only the key mover in Homerton gaining its status as a full Cambridge College in 2010, but also a senior University leader with a wide portfolio that included international strategy, outreach, lifelong learning, and our museums and libraries.

It must be excruciating for Dr Pretty to attend the lecture named after her and, each year, wonder if the speaker will live up to the billing. 
Kate, I promise to do my very best.

I am pleased to see Sir Leszek who, of course, delivered the inaugural Kate Pretty Lecture.

This is the second time, then, that a departing Vice-Chancellor is invited to share his thoughts.

It has been said that all it takes, in Cambridge, is for a thing to be done twice to become a tradition.

But this is, in fact, the fifth Kate Pretty Lecture.

And perhaps when something is done for the fifth time in Cambridge we can call it a 'venerable tradition' – and I am honoured to be able to add to it this evening.

When I was invited to deliver tonight’s lecture, the suggestion was made that I might take this opportunity to be candid and courageous. Grateful as I am for the encouragement… I still have some time left in office!

I do hope, however, to reflect honestly about some of the themes that have preoccupied me during my time as Vice-Chancellor, and that continue to worry me as I think about the future of our great university.

The title, I hope, will have suggested that I intend to discuss not only 'matters' relating to the University, but also the question of why the University matters – and why it may come to matter less if we are not careful.



Let me begin, in another time-honoured tradition, with a quote: “The basic fact of today is the great pace of change in human life.”

This observation was made in 1958 by the first Prime Minister of independent India, and is today as trite as it is true.

Note it was not the fact of change he was observing, but its pace.

In my inaugural address as Vice-chancellor, in 2017, I made reference to Professor Stefan Collini, who in his analysis of how the British higher education landscape had been transformed over the past few decades wrote: “The pace and scale of change have produced a sense of disorientation, an uneasy feeling that, as a society, we may be losing our once-familiar understanding of the nature and role of universities.”

That sense of disorientation – perhaps not unique to universities – has certainly increased in the past five years.

We are still reeling, collectively, from what I would characterise as truly paradigm-shifting events, the full consequences of which we have yet to understand:

  • who, in 2017, could have imagined a world completely shut down by a pandemic?
  • who, in 2017, would have imagined another war in Europe?

But let me focus, if I may, on three other areas of profound and accelerated change over the past five years, and talk about how Cambridge has – or hasn’t – moved in step.

First: the public sphere in which universities operate has changed.

When I arrived in 2017, universities were already fighting a rear-guard battle for public trust.

This was, after all, the time of Trump and, in this country, of people having 'enough of experts'. Earlier that year, the Higher Education and Research Bill had been enacted in the UK. Its stated aims were to increase competition and student choice, to ensure students receive value for money, and to strengthen the UK’s research and innovation sector.

The following year we saw, in quick succession, the launch of the Office for Students (OfS), then the commissioning of the Augar Review of post-18 education, followed by the creation of UK Research and Innovation.

So, quite a shakeup.

It is no secret that I worry greatly about the fixation with 'value for money' in university education. Of course students and their families care deeply about post-graduation prospects and opportunities, and it is right that we offer quality education. But a university education is not a commercial transaction.

A university education should be about preparing students for careers, and for contributing to society.

A university education should be about students’ engagement with established knowledge and with new ideas.

A university education should be an enlarging and enriching experience, an opening of eyes and minds to the world’s complexity, to the world’s beauty, and even to the world’s horrors.

It is misleading to think of universities as mere content providers – that diminishes their value. Nor should we think of students as passive consumers – that reduces students’ agency and devalues their experience.

I like to think that we should focus not on whether universities offer value for money, but on what values they can help instil.

I have sometimes been asked about the differences between the Canadian and the British university systems.

One obvious difference is the greater appetite of UK Governments to quantify, evaluate and regulate universities – from research, to teaching, to knowledge transfer, to the welfare of students. The basic premise is not unreasonable, considering that the UK Government is so heavily invested in the country’s universities. The Government is right to call us out on the need to improve access and widen participation. It is right to put pressure on us to deliver an outstanding student experience and to spend our research funding effectively. It is right to expect that we do more to increase diversity at all levels. In all of these, by the way, Cambridge has taken tremendous strides over the past few years.

But increasing efforts to regulate the sector often fail to recognise the diversity and complexity of the university ecosystem.

They fail to acknowledge that universities come in all shapes and sizes, and that one-size-fits-all frameworks can undermine our unique attributes and lead to a bland sameness of educational provision.

They fail to acknowledge that impinging on university autonomy does not increase public trust in universities – it erodes it. And there is good evidence from around the globe that less autonomy leads to reduced quality.

A very specific problem for us is explaining to the Office for Students that Cambridge’s Collegiate system is highly devolved; and that although it is the University that is responsible to the OfS, so many of the student-related issues are, in the first instance, the responsibility of our Colleges.

Meanwhile, the messages we get are decidedly mixed:

  • We are expected to raise attainment… but also to avoid grade inflation.
  • We are exhorted to defend unqualified freedom of speech… but compelled to publicly endorse specific positions regarding some hot-button issues.
  • And despite the promise of a 'bonfire of the bureaucracy', we are incessantly subject to new legal requirements, and constantly 'consulted' on possible changes and initiatives, not all of which have any clear purpose.
  • University colleagues spend more and more of their time reporting and justifying, rather than getting on with their work.

To deploy a phrase I have used in another context: “we are tap-dancing like crazy, but we are not in control of the music.” And the music, I should add, is not happy music.

It has been disconcerting, during my time in office, to see British universities – once proudly paraded by the Government as exemplars of excellence and soft power – turned into expedient political targets.

As I reflect on what lies in store for UK universities in general, and for Cambridge more specifically, this rise of external regulation looms large among my concerns.

A second thing that has changed, externally, over the past five years is the international landscape. 

Cambridge is a proudly global institution. It is international in the make-up of its student body, its staff and its alumni. An international outlook underpins our world-leading research. Our colleagues carry out research, and establish collaborations, on every continent.

Openness to the world is something I have always admired about Cambridge – when I was a PhD student here, and since my arrival as Vice-Chancellor. Before we were all grounded in 2020, I visited France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands; I had been to India, Singapore, China and Japan; I had been in the USA and Canada – all the time reaffirming the University’s commitment to tackling some of the world’s great problems in close cooperation with its global partners.

I was often reminded of Gustave Flaubert’s trenchant comment: “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”

And yet, in my travels I was also able to see, first hand, how far-reaching Cambridge’s impact is.

But clearly the writing was already on the wall when, in my inaugural address, I asked: “How do we pursue full engagement with the world at a time when disengagement and fragmentation seem to be ascendant?”

That was, after all, in the aftermath of the referendum that took the United Kingdom out of the EU.

It has taken a few years, but our concerns – about the loss of connectivity, the loss of researcher mobility, the loss of research funding – are now coming to pass.

Earlier this year we were celebrating Cambridge colleagues winning more European Research Council grants than peers at any other UK institution. Yet two weeks ago a Cambridge astrophysicist had to step down from the leadership of a pan-European project because the UK’s association with the Horizon Europe network has not been ratified. And we learned only last week that European funding has now dried up, too, for Cambridge’s Comparative Cognition Laboratory, raising the likelihood of its closure in July.

Great Britain – and Cambridge in particular – have long been a magnet for some of the world’s finest minds. But for the first time there is the very real and hugely worrying prospect of a brain drain, as colleagues with large European collaborations and significant European grants talk about leaving the UK.

The UK – we are frequently told – is a 'Science Superpower'. I worry that, if we’re not careful, we may sleepwalk in the opposite direction. Hopes for the UK’s association to the Horizon Europe framework programme are fading fast. But I remain hopeful that the UK Government and our European partners will recognise how much our scientific communities need each other. And I remain hopeful that we can still agree on some mechanism to ensure that UK researchers can continue to contribute leadership and expertise to European collaborations.

A time of global challenges is not the time to retreat into national pockets of academia. Instead, our universities should be doing what we do best – seeking solutions to vexing problems by working with partners around the globe. The scale of the tasks ahead – whether tackling climate change or battling pandemics – requires unprecedented levels of joint mobilisation. If we are serious about dealing with these issues, and many others like them, there is no alternative to international cooperation. This may mean finding ways of working with others, even in parts of the world that do not share our norms and values. But we must do so with full awareness of an expanding and increasingly complex series of potential risks. Whether they be risks to the safety of students and staff, or threats to academic freedom, or the risks to intellectual property, or to over-dependence on particular funding sources, we must be alert to them.

Because here, too, we are operating in an increasingly complex environment.

Less than a year before I was appointed as Vice-Chancellor, the UK Government of the day was proclaiming the beginning of 'a golden decade for the UK-China relationship.' That was possibly the shortest decade ever. Universities were then being actively encouraged to engage with Chinese counterparts and to help project the UK’s soft power.

We have since, and in a very short period of time, seen dramatic changes in China and in China’s relationship with the world. The 'golden decade' of Sino-British relations looks very different now, when we in the West are challenged by the imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong, or by the continued repression of minorities.

As someone with an academic background in international law and human rights, I find such things abhorrent.

Regrettably, China is not the only place in the world where bad things happen, connected to political repression and persecution. A Cambridge student was murdered in Egypt six years ago; a Cambridge student was arrested in South Sudan in 2018; another Cambridge student was arrested and is currently on bail in Ghana; a Cambridge alumnus has been jailed in Russia for speaking out against the brutal invasion of Ukraine.

Cambridge researchers are involved in research projects in over 120 countries. Not all of those countries apply the rule of law in the way that we do (or hope others will), yet the vital research colleagues carry out in areas such as public health, or conservation, or infectious disease, is of huge benefit to all. In an increasingly complex international environment, our core values are upheld – and change is effected – through enhanced engagement, not through increased isolation.

This, incidentally, is also the UK Government’s stated foreign policy approach.

The set of international engagement principles developed last year by the University – which will hopefully be of use to the Colleges, too – should allow us to approach our international partnerships with open minds and open arms – but also with open eyes.

I come now to a third thing that I would argue has changed significantly in the past five years: the surrounding culture.

The culture has changed in ways that, I think, would make it unrecognisable to my predecessors in the Vice-Chancellor’s role. I’ll try hard to not to use the term 'culture wars' – but there, I’ve said it! – because it is loaded. Also because, despite what some commentators would have us believe, it is a grotesque misrepresentation of what is happening in British society – and of what really happens at British universities. The irony would not have been lost on the wonderful Leonard Cohen, who observed that “there is a war between the ones who say there is a war and the ones who say there isn’t.”

But perhaps it is more accurate to talk about how the politics of identity have seeped into disagreements – normal, inevitable, even healthy disagreements – about the kind of society we want, and the role of our institutions in attaining that society.

Identity politics have, for many years, been fundamental in offering a voice to those in our communities who have been marginalised.

Technology – social media, for instance – has been important in empowering previously disenfranchised groups. The combination of those two has been explosive. It has also, in many ways, radically impoverished our sense of community.

When my own identity matters more to me than being able to understand others, or work towards shared goals, I lose the ability to listen and learn. That way extremism lies.

What we have witnessed is the emergence of extremism of all stripes. And it has tainted public discourse, which is increasingly intemperate, and intolerant of others. As communities, we have become fragmented, fractious and frayed.

Affirmations of identity – which should be about recognising and building upon the richness that comes from our differences – have instead become a wedge. As a society, we are failing to rise to the task set by James Baldwin, who urged us “to create ourselves without finding it necessary to create an enemy.”

This is a monumental challenge to societies built on the principles of democracy and open debate.

If there is one place that should be immune to this, it is our universities – at least that is what we like to think.

But here, too, we have sometimes seen the tyranny of small differences take over our ability to listen to each other, to debate, to challenge.
When I was a PhD student here in Cambridge, Enoch Powell was invited to address the Trinity College MCR. Even as an international student in this country, I knew what he represented. I knew what some of his views were, and I despised them.

But still I went along to hear him.

That was my choice. I could have been at the pub, instead, or in my College room listening to music – those were also possible choices. I chose to go – curious about what he’d say, and whether I would find any of it remotely compelling. As it happens, I didn’t. His arguments did not win me over, nor did they appear to convince the vast majority of my fellow students who were there that day. But that evening we listened to a man whose views we strongly disagreed with, we challenged him through robust questioning, and then we sent him packing.

“How do you measure a culture's health?” asks Booker Prize-wining American author George Saunders. “Part of it” he replies, “is how we speak to each other.”

We have all seen some of our own colleagues, perhaps forgetting what it means to be Cambridge scholars and scientists and students, lash out on social media in ways that are, frankly, shameful. We appear to have lost what Hannah Arendt called “the old virtue of moderation, of keeping within bounds”, which “is indeed one of the political virtues par excellence; just as the political temptation par excellence is hubris.”

Many of us in this room have been stung by public commentary, made by people emboldened by the relative safety of online platforms, who would – I am certain – behave differently if we were only able to air any differences in person.

I accept that, for a Vice-Chancellor, perhaps this now comes with the job. But we – this community of scholars and scientists and students – need to be better. A university is no place for cancelling, or for viciously attacking anyone whose lawfully expressed views we don’t share. But can we find ways to disagree without being utterly disagreeable?

The poet Robert Frost remarked that “education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” It is the job of our universities to educate minds – our own, and those of the generations of students coming through – to help us build our self-confidence, and better navigate our ill-tempered times.

Our University must do this by nurturing scholarly acuity, for certain, but also by instilling courtesy and civility – for they too are integral to a well-rounded education, and to life as part of a community.

Our University must do this by balancing intellectual fearlessness with intellectual humility. Because as another poet, Yehuda Amichai, reminds us: 
'From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world…'

I have been dwelling on a paradox: many of us take pride in our University’s track record of changing the world through disruptive research and outstanding education. Yet our University has not always been very agile in adapting to a world of rapid external change – change of the sort I have just described.

In preparation for this evening’s lecture, I was looking through some of the remarks made by Dame Alison Richard in her Gomes Lecture, delivered in 2010 a few months before she stepped down as Vice-Chancellor.

One of the things that struck me most was the continuity in the themes that, as a Collegiate community, we are still grappling with today.

It is reasonable to expect many of the same issues to come up repeatedly – the need to develop an international strategy, the need to bolster interdisciplinary research, the need to strengthen the Collegiate University’s financial underpinnings.

What I noted, with some concern, was that some of the structural issues that were salient then remain unresolved now. For instance, the need for the University and Colleges to determine and agree on the size and shape of our student body. It may be that this is not something that can ever be fully resolved, but remains instead an issue to be constantly managed.

Dame Alison made some acute observations about the tension that arises from Cambridge being both a self-governing community of scholars AND a large, complex organisation. In the years since she made those remarks, this tension has only been exacerbated.

One of the ways in which it is partly resolved is through the delegation of authority to University officers, including the Vice-Chancellor, whose job it is to ensure the organisation runs well.

Yet even the nature of those delegated powers is not always agreed on by everyone. And so the balance of duties in this complex organisation, operating in increasingly complex environments, becomes contentious. Take, for instance, some of the feedback we got when, during my first year in office, I launched a University-wide consultation to better understand our colleagues’ needs and aspirations. “Too many professional services staff”, we were told, making our administration “too top-heavy” – anathema in a place that prides itself in being 'bottom-up'. And yet, almost in the same breath, came the complaint that the University was not investing in enough staff to manage research grants, or to secure philanthropic gifts, or to process admissions.

Can the circle be squared?

And can we resolve the inevitable tensions that result from long-established forms of governance that may be less than well suited to a modern, thriving institution?

Or are we fated to constantly manage those tensions for the sake of honouring processes put into place when Cambridge was a very different sort of institution?

This, perhaps, is when we must all invoke Reinhold Niebuhr’s 'Serenity Prayer', and ask for the courage to change what must be altered, the serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.



Dear friends –

I am an inveterate optimist. I think it is a sine qua non for being a Vice-Chancellor today. Though I’m not sure this was explicitly spelled out in the job description for my successor.

I wouldn’t have wanted to do the job I’ve done for the past five years if I didn’t believe in Cambridge’s mission.

I wouldn’t have wanted to do the job, day-in-and day-out, if I were not absolutely convinced that our Collegiate University is a force for good in this world.

All of us here know that what happens in Cambridge – the good and the not-so-good – does not stay in Cambridge.

The world is watching.

But at its best, Cambridge is a beacon. I am incredibly gratified by what we have achieved together as a Collegiate University despite testing external circumstances. We have answered the challenge of climate change with the creation and consolidation of Cambridge Zero. We have put in motion the establishment of University-wide initiatives bringing together Cambridge’s expertise on artificial intelligence, and on global humanities.

We are a more inclusive University, and have made unprecedented advances in widening access and participation through programmes like our Foundation Year.

Thanks to generous philanthropic gifts, we have been able to invest like never before in comprehensive student support.

We have made our budget processes, and our finances – including the University’s investments – more transparent. This enables both accountability and more effective decision-making.

We have established clearer professional pathways for academic and professional staff.

We brought together Cambridge’s publishing and assessment operations to create a single, world-leading organisation, helping teachers, learners and researchers, publishing academic content and setting examinations in over 180 countries.

As a Collegiate University community, working more closely than ever, we managed the countless challenges of a pandemic.

Our submission to the Research Excellence Framework told us that we are outstanding by global measures in almost all areas of research.

We have surpassed the ambitious £2bn target we set for the 'Dear World… Yours Cambridge' fundraising campaign.

While I do not pretend to be the author of much of this, I do take enormous pride in those accomplishments during my time in post. Cambridge’s success in these and other areas is, by necessity, a collective endeavour.

I reach, here, for some wise words by Kate Pretty, in whose honour we are gathered. 'Archaeology', she once wrote about her discipline, 'is, by its very nature, a joint enterprise. The bigger the excavation, the more you’re learning about what it means to lead or be part of a team… Archaeology lends itself to a collaborative style of leadership, so I don’t have a need to be out in front telling people what to do, or getting all the glory for a project. I take a lot of pleasure in others’ achievements and the success of the project as a whole.'

This is exactly the style of leadership that is suited to an organisation like the University of Cambridge.

It is the sort of leadership that I am sure my excellent interim successor, Dr Anthony Freeling, and those who follow him, will continue to exercise for the benefit of our extraordinary Cambridge.

So that it may continue to thrive.

So that it may continue to be a beacon.

So that it may continue to serve our societies – locally, nationally, and globally.

So that it may continue, quoting Dr Pretty one final time: 'the centuries old process: the transference of wonder into knowledge – and knowledge into wonder.'

Remembering at all times that our Collegiate University is always a work in progress – proud of its past, but honouring is future. Never perfect, but always susceptible to improvement. Never finished, but always open to evolution.

Because the world never stops changing. And as the world changes, so must Cambridge.

Thank you.