About this speech

  • Title: Annual Address to the Regent House
  • Speaker: Professor Alison Richard, Vice-Chancellor
  • Date: 2 October 2006

Speech transcript


This morning, I want to talk about undergraduate education. Its place in the mission of research-intensive universities is at risk, and so too is the particular form of undergraduate education we offer here. This is cause for concern, and demands our attention.

The fact is that rankings, prestige and investments are strongly weighted toward our research endeavours. This carries over in some measure to the training of postgraduate students, but makes it ever harder for research-intensive universities to give serious attention to the education of undergraduates. The standing of individual academics, in their disciplines and universities, depends more and more on research accomplishments and less and less on their contributions as teachers. Investment from the public and private sectors reflects and reinforces this asymmetry.

Cambridge is at an advantage here, in that the collegiate system builds in a greater institutional emphasis on undergraduate education than exists at almost any of our peers. Our system is close to unique in other ways too, particularly in its focus on depth. But some argue that this concentration on deep knowledge comes at the expense of educational breadth; and, the argument goes on, it's breadth that really matters in today's world.

In my remarks this morning, I will consider the place of undergraduate education in research-intensive universities, and the particular challenges to this activity at Cambridge. Let me be clear from the start: I believe our response must be to reaffirm the importance of education, not reduce our research activity, and I will argue that we have an opportunity to lead change as well as to sustain the best of what we do.

The role of teaching in research-intensive universities

The idea of the university as a place where professors both advance knowledge and teach students goes back to the founding of the University of Berlin by Humboldt in 1810i. The idea has had a troubled history. As early as 1852, Newman was arguing against this duality of mission: 'To discover and to teach are distinct functions; they are also distinct gifts, and are not commonly found united in the same person'ii.

Today, research institutes flourish without undergraduates, and liberal arts colleges in the United States are renowned for the high quality of undergraduate education they provide. As research-intensive universities find a dual mission conceived two centuries ago increasingly difficult to sustain, the choices are stark: divide the two functions between a research staff and a teaching staff, abandon one or the other, or rise to the challenge of keeping them fully integrated. The difficulty and cost of effectively melding education and research mean that we need to be really certain of the value of this integration if we are to work to sustain it.

Cambridge is clear in its aspiration for undergraduates to be educated up to and beyond the frontiers of knowledge. Their learning focuses not only on what is already known but on scholarship and discovery, not only on acquiring knowledge but on developing their minds to be critical, analytic and inquiring. All this is best imparted by teachers who are themselves engaged in scholarship and research. Teachers benefit too, by having to go beyond the boundaries of their own work, and by responding to their students' questions and challenges. At its very best, teaching invigorates researchiii.

These are old arguments but their force holds, and there is a further argument too. The contribution of universities to society has never been greater. Their renewal is critically important, and it hinges on the presence of successive generations of researchers who are also teachers, people who inspire in students a similar passion for a life of learning, discovery — and teaching.

There is another view, of courseiv. Some agree with Newman's judgment that talents for teaching and research rarely go hand in hand in individuals, and may even not belong together in the same institution. My experience is otherwise. Not everyone is equally gifted or interested in teaching and research, but in the several generations I've encountered there are surely enough people, with sufficient talent for both, to sustain them together.

The real problem, I believe, is not a lack of talent or interest but that teaching makes diminishing professional or economic sense in the eyes of a growing number of academics. For now, that view is largely outweighed by a strong sense of commitment and obligation, and by the genuine love of teaching shared by many. But it reflects the heavy pressures weighted toward our research endeavours. Public and private sector investment in research is of crucial importance, make no mistake, but it has the effect of making undergraduate education a smaller and smaller piece of university budgets. It is a short step to education receiving a smaller and smaller piece of research-intensive universities' attention. In Britain, the dilemma is compounded by shortfalls in the funding of undergraduate education.

But the pressure is by no means only economic. Research is accorded higher status — by the rankings, and by academics themselves. At universities, particularly those with big research programmes, institutional arrangements and culture are not fully aligned with the importance we say we attach to teaching.

In short, the activity of teaching is threatened. At Cambridge, the focus of our teaching also faces challenges.

Breadth and choice: an education for life?

The purposes of undergraduate education are little discussed or disputed among the world's research-intensive universities. One fundamental purpose was articulated by Newman in the mid-nineteenth century — ironically, even as he was rejecting the dual mission to which we now subscribe. He said undergraduates should learn and acquire knowledge for its own sake, and develop the capacity to think for themselves. This is not to say that university learning must never produce anything useful or of consequence, but that it is not to be justified primarily on those grounds. Most universities still hold fast to this idea in principle although, in practice, the spectrum of learning we embrace today is broad and the dichotomy between “useful” and “not useful” is itself increasingly “not useful”5.

As the world's leading universities are alike in many ways, and as no one seems much interested in talking about how we diverge, the differences in how we educate receive scant attention. Foremost among them are our approaches to breadth and choice in undergraduate education.

These differences matter, if society is in need of more broadly educated leaders and citizens. The case for breadth centres on the proposition that the greatest challenges facing the world today are of huge complexity and global scope, best tackled by people whose education enables them to integrate different fields of knowledge and work across conventional academic boundaries. To cope with the modern world, moreover, all citizens need to be broadly knowledgeable, numerate and computationally skilled as well as literate. A broad, flexible curriculum makes it easier to give students more choice, and greater responsibility for their own education. Some argue that this, too, is desirablevi.

I agree that the spectre of accelerating technological, societal and global complexity presents a distinctively modern challenge for education. It certainly resonates in universities where curricula are being designed or revised, from China to Singapore to Britain, from the very new to the long-established. It echoes too through recent debates about the reform of secondary education in this country.

In sum, this is a time of changing perceptions as to what society needs from the graduates of higher education, the spread of broadly structured curricula among universities, and movement toward greater emphasis on breadth in secondary schools. Where does Cambridge stand in the face of these currents?

The distinctiveness of Cambridge

Undergraduate education at Cambridge is renowned for its depth, reflecting a strongly held belief in the formative and substantive importance of deep inquiry. It is a view rooted in the idea that discovery, innovation, and inquiry into new areas have educational and intellectual antecedents: exploring and understanding what is already known, developing disciplines of mind, and, perhaps, learning that simply to know can be hard work.

Through the supervision system, Cambridge places exceptional emphasis on individual learning and teaching, and on developing the capacity of students to reason effectively, in words, numbers and experiments. Because Tripos examinations are held only at the end of the academic year, students are challenged to retain and integrate what they have learned.

An expectation of academic coherence sits alongside the commitment to depth in shaping Cambridge's approach to breadth in education, and this expectation guides the choices open to students about what they learn. The avenues available to them vary according to discipline but, regardless of field or Tripos, considerations of coherence both permit and control the breadth of their formal studies.

This is the point, I think, at which I should confess to my own scepticism that most learning at universities with a talented student body actually takes place in a formal setting. Collegiate Cambridge embodies that scepticism. As a matter of philosophy, practice and considerable investment, collegiate Cambridge asserts that an undergraduate's education goes on importantly outside as well as within supervisions or classrooms. Students talk across academic boundaries all the time, learning from one another as well as from a multitude of extra-curricular activities. They live in hothouses for unstructured learning.

Contrast Cambridge with our peer universities in the United States. A US undergraduate education starts broadly because breadth is the product of high schools, and it stays broad and takes longer — from enrolling as an undergraduate to completion of a PhD takes 9 or 10 years, instead of 6 or 7 in Britain. Because the continuum of learning is broken up into modules or course-credits, breadth translates readily into choice. Undergraduates are required to take courses across the main fields of inquiry and in their major, but they freely pick as many as half their course-credits from a roster of hundreds or thousands being offered. A kind of free-form breadth is not just allowed but encouraged.

It is quite obvious that students at the world's best universities flourish, no matter what the particular system of education. They are talented and motivated. They learn in different ways and, in my experience, finesse our systems skilfully to find their own educational pathways. Their ingenuity notwithstanding, I continue to think it is advantageous for students to have different systems of education available to them.

From the universities' standpoint, I am certain it is good that we approach undergraduate education in different ways. We can be sources of insight for one another, spurring reflection, questions — and change7.

Inventing and reinventing traditions

I have argued that the activity of undergraduate teaching is in some peril at all leading universities, and that the focus of a Cambridge education faces challenges. What are we to do about this? Cambridge discards traditions from time to time, and rightly so, but it also excels in their invention and reinvention. I believe we have here an excellent opportunity for the latter.

Taking first the whole activity of undergraduate teaching, there are steps all research-intensive universities need to take. We must describe and explain more effectively the centrality of undergraduate education in our mission, and reaffirm for ourselves the teaching responsibilities of all staff. We must develop new policies or fully implement existing ones to ensure that teaching is properly recognized in staff remuneration and taken seriously during consideration for promotion. In this country, we must win public understanding and acceptance of the real costs of undergraduate education, and create the conditions of public support and institutional independence that are key to meeting those costs. And we must target investments to support teaching better. All these points are important, and we need to take them on, individually and collectively. But Cambridge has a particular opportunity for leadership as well, I believe, if we are willing to grasp it.

The collegiate system gives Cambridge the best chance of any research-intensive university to show that research and teaching can flourish together in the twenty-first century. Faculties and Colleges each appoint academics who are expected both to teach and do research. To the best of my knowledge, this dual expectation is universal, whereas expectations about the balance an individual strikes between the two differ in the Faculties and Colleges. This gives us collegiate Cambridge, with a unity of mission carried out by a deliberate mix of people. It is a brilliant, unplanned, emergent outcome of our long history — almost.

Collegiate Cambridge would surely be the poorer if a time came when staff were employed either to do research or to teach, but not both. That is not the case today, but our system of undergraduate education suffers from ambiguities and confusion about the roles and expectations of College-based staff and from the pressure on Faculty-based staff to excel in research. I have already alluded to the challenges we share with all research-intensive universities, but the ambiguities and confusion are ours alone. We must work hard to address them, in the Faculties and the Colleges, independently and together. If we can achieve this over the next few years, I am certain that not only will collegiate Cambridge flourish, but we will also help reassert the dual mission of universities more broadly.

Undergraduate education at Cambridge has been reinvented many times over the centuries. Change is nothing new here: it happens quietly all the time. Is there is a need today, however, for more, bigger change? By the measures we have, Cambridge undergraduates are not only very talented but also very well-educated. Our graduates are sought after, because they bring to their endeavours great discipline and qualities of mind, a depth of knowledge matched by few, and a certain coherent breadth of knowledge.

Still, I believe there is a question for us: should we do more to increase breadth and choice within undergraduate education, and could we accomplish this without sacrificing the exceptional depth for which Cambridge is justly renowned?

Perhaps there could be greater breadth of the kind that already exists without it being at the expense of depth. Perhaps more time is necessary to accommodate greater breadth. Perhaps it could simply be made easier to pursue the opportunities already available. There is a Natural Sciences Tripos, and so why not a Social Sciences Tripos, or a Humanities Tripos? Could permitted 'borrowings' from other Triposes be wider-ranging without losing their coherence? Do our courses follow conventional pathways at the expense of the less trodden? Should students have more opportunity to broaden their knowledge toward the end of their studies, when they understand better what more they might wish to learn? Questions like these, and there are many others, are best considered by those who teach, by the Faculties, supporting staff, and deliberative bodies. But consider them we must.


In contemplating change, it is important that we not compromise or lose sight of what we value most. We need to understand clearly what we are doing and why we are doing it, and explain forcefully the particular strengths of our system of education. At the same time, we must respond to what is going on around us, adapt, and evolve.

Three years ago I told you that I would do my best to make sure that we recognize the challenges we face and choose where to focus our energies and investments within the broad domains implied by our values. My observations this morning are part of a continuing effort to fulfil that responsibility.


i Walter Rüegg, 2004. 'Themes', in Universities in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries. Vol III in A History of the University in Europe, General Editor Walter Rüegg. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 1992- .

ii John Henry Newman. From the preface to The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated. Edited with introduction and notes by I.T. Ker. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976.

iii These arguments are explored much more thoroughly by Jaroslav Pelikan in Chapters 8 and 9 in The Idea of the University: A Reexamination. Yale University Press, 1992, and by David Ford in Chapter 9 (in prep) in Christian Wisdom, Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine, Cambridge University Press.

iv Discussed, but not espoused, by Jaroslav Pelikan in Chapters 8 and 9 ibid.

v Donald Stokes examines these ideas in Pasteur's Quadrant, Brookings Institution Press: Washington DC. 1997.

vi Gordon Graham rehearses these arguments in Universities: The Recovery of an Idea. Imprint Academic, 2002.

vii The Cambridge-MIT Exchange Programme is an excellent example.