The Vice-Chancellor marked the start of the new academic year this morning by giving his annual address to the University in the Senate House.

When other institutions are perceived to be failing their societies, our University must step up

Vice-Chancellor Stephen J Toope

Professor Stephen J Toope set out a plan of action based on three overarching objectives.

The first is to see the University of Cambridge retain its reputation as a global leader in interdisciplinary discovery and innovation, the second is to ensure its rigorous education is increasingly open to talented students from all backgrounds and the third is to make extraordinary contributions that address the fundamental issues facing society.

As part of plans to act on these three objectives, the Vice-Chancellor said the University has the critical mass to establish a Cambridge Initiative on Mind, Brain and Body to help answer the growing challenges of mental health.

That initiative will link together a network of researchers – from neuroscience and neurology to genetics and physics; from psychology and psychiatry to computer science and anthropology – to address widespread conditions such as depression, addiction, psychosis and neurodegenerative disease.

He highlighted the Collegiate University’s determination to address barriers in education, widen access and help students make the most of their experience at Cambridge.

The Vice-Chancellor noted the success of the first year of Adjustment, which saw Colleges collectively recruit 67 students whose grades exceeded their expected performance.

Provisional admissions data showed that one in four students will be from under-represented and disadvantaged backgrounds in the 2019/20 intake, while over two-thirds of UK undergraduates will be from state schools. For the first time, more than 25% of admitted undergraduates are of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic background.

Professor Toope said the Transition Year he spoke about a year ago will be ready to launch in 2021. A course director has been appointed and the first intake of students will begin in October 2022.

Harding Challenge

The Vice-Chancellor was also very pleased to share news of the creation of the Harding Challenge – a dedicated fund which makes it possible for the University to do more for undergraduate students in the greatest financial need. Through this fund, new donors who give to Cambridge’s student support initiative will see their impact doubled – yet another of the many things the extraordinary £100 million gift earlier this year from David and Claudia Harding has enabled.

Toope said the initiatives showed that the University is already making great strides in fulfilling the commitments it has made as part of its Access and Participation Plan recently accepted by the Office for Students.

Addressing fundamental issues facing society

On tackling the fundamental global challenges, the Vice-Chancellor announced that, later this term, the University will formally launch Cambridge Zero – the University's effort to support the global transition to a carbon neutral future.

Under the direction of Dr Emily Shuckburgh, Cambridge Zero will harness the full breadth of the University’s research and teaching capabilities to respond to climate change and support the transition to a zero-carbon future.

The initiative will develop a bold programme of education, research, demonstration projects and knowledge exchange to address holistically the challenge of climate change; to help think about what a sustainable future looks like; and to ensure that policy decisions are based on the best available evidence.

Through Cambridge Zero, Cambridge will engage in active collaboration with other universities and research institutes in the UK and beyond, including the newly established Global Universities Alliance on Climate.

Digital learning

The Vice-Chancellor said it was a landmark year for Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Assessment, the Faculty of Education and the Department of Psychology, who last autumn joined forces with UNICEF and Microsoft to develop a programme that will enable refugees and displaced children to keep learning, and to receive the appropriate certification.

He was excited to share that, working with CUP and Cambridge Assessment, the University is partnering with edX, the digital learning platform founded by Harvard and MIT, and now home to more than 20 million learners.

"Through this partnership, we will be reaping the benefits of digital learning here in Cambridge whilst also reducing the barriers to high-quality, Cambridge-made content for learners around the world," Toope said.


On Brexit, Professor Toope said conditions under which it may happen remain uncertain, but the University continues to plan for the contingency of a disorderly and disruptive exit.

He thanked those across the University who have been working tirelessly to plan and prepare for Brexit in whatever form it may take and said the University continued to make representations to government about the effect a no-deal Brexit would have on the movement of talented people that the UK needs, and on the country’s future participation in EU research programmes.

"We are no more certain now about the conditions under which it may happen, but we have continued to plan for the contingency of a disorderly and disruptive exit," Toope said.

The Vice-Chancellor welcomed the government’s statement about the change in immigration rules designed to attract more international scientists to the UK and said he was enthusiastic about the recent government proposal to reintroduce a two-year post-study work visa for international students – something that Cambridge and other universities have long campaigned for.

He expressed the University's continuing concern for and determination to support staff and students affected by Brexit.

The University will also continue its efforts to look for collaborations across the planet, reaching out to its partners around the world – from Munich to Nanjing, from Paris to Delhi – to show through our actions, not only our words, that we are a global university open to global collaboration.

Professor Toope said that as the UK struggles to define its role in what may be a post-Brexit world, it was his sincerest hope that Cambridge will help articulate some of the answers.

"When other institutions are perceived to be failing their societies, our University must step up," Toope said. "It is our duty as a public institution."

Read the full speech


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