The annual address of the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, 1 October 2013


Andrew Perne served as Vice-Chancellor of the University five times between 1551 and 1580, a lively period in England’s history which saw the Protestant Edward VI succeeded by Mary, who reunited the English Church with Rome, and then by Elizabeth, who cut it loose again. To be an academic leader in Cambridge in those days was to be a religious leader too, and it was a hazardous time. Andrew Perne, though, survived and the University thrived, although his strategy earned him some ridicule. Protestant under Edward, Catholic under Mary, and Anglican under Elizabeth, Perne has been wryly described by modern writers as exhibiting ‘ambidexterity’ and ‘ecumenical latitude’1. Certain of his contemporaries more pointedly dubbed him ‘Old Andrew Turncoat’.

By such a strategy, Perne acquired advantages for himself – but he was also one of the fiercest promoters and defenders of his University. It was Perne, together with John Whitgift, who wrote new Statutes for the University, restoring much-needed discipline, and who built up the University Library; it was Perne who secured the financial position of the Colleges of Cambridge and Oxford at a time of rampant price inflation, by promoting an Act of Parliament to come to their aid; and it was Perne who devised a plan to bring fresh water into the centre of Cambridge from Trumpington – the plan executed some decades later as what we now call Hobson’s Conduit. Although it was Whitgift who rose to be Archbishop of Canterbury and whose portrait looks over my left shoulder as I work, it is arguably Andrew Perne to whom Cambridge now has more reason to be thankful.

In our own time, UK universities have been through a difficult few years, and I am grateful for the efforts of all who have steered us through. Cambridge serves society at large, and society rightly takes an interest in what we do. But it is the members of the University – its staff, students and alumni – who breathe life into this astonishing place, and you can be proud beyond measure of your part in keeping us successful. Meanwhile Andrew Perne reminds us, and reassures us, that however difficult the present environment may seem, Cambridge has come through much worse!

We are fortunate to live in more stable times than Perne: our choices are not about life and death – we do not need to worry literally about saving our own necks. But we still need to make choices, both as individuals and as an institution. And these choices will have a bearing on the long-term future and wellbeing of our University.

My address this morning therefore is about our choices, and about our responsibilities in exercising them – our responsibilities to society, to each other, and to the University that supports us.

I shall speak about the sources of our freedom to exercise choice; the uses which we make of it; and the choices that lie before us.

Sources of our freedom to choose

That we have the power of choice at all cannot be taken for granted.

We in this University enjoy, after all, more freedom over our own destiny than almost any other university in the world, and it’s worth asking why that should be so. It is natural to look to our history. We are a self-governing community of scholars. We write our own Ordinances, and, subject only to the agreement of the Privy Council, we write our own Statutes too, and have exercised these powers since our foundation. 

Thanks to this historical framework, and our diligence in the constant activity of tending to our structure and processes of governance, we are a well-run institution. The members of the University Council, both internal and external, share a vision for Cambridge’s success; the Regent House takes seriously its responsibility to deliberate, to hold to account those it elects or appoints to represent it, and to vote on important questions; postdocs, students and staff of every department and faculty contribute their ideas and energies. It is a structure, founded on a strong culture of participation, that works: the choices that we collectively make tend to stand the test of time.

However the strength of our historical and contemporary governance processes would count for nothing without resources: freedom but not the means to use it is no freedom at all, like a torch without batteries. The second source of our autonomy then is financial: resources in sufficient quantity and – critically – in sufficient variety that we are not beholden to any one stakeholder, whether government, charities, industry, or indeed students.

Thirdly, we guarantee our freedom by ensuring that we engage positively with society through an honest dialogue, and communicate our strengths and our successes in so doing. As a result, we are trusted.

Our institutional autonomy – sustained by governance, the prudent use of resources, and by a productive relationship with society – serves to underpin our intellectual freedom, which is the real prize.

Uses of our freedom

The results for which we are renowned stem directly from these freedoms, which to us are not ends: they are means. It is the freedom with which we pursue education, learning and research at the highest international level of excellence that enables us to achieve the end of contributing to society, as encapsulated in our mission statement.

Universities are complex institutions. No single motivational force governs their members. Some will focus on doing good in the world, and see their academic endeavours as a means to that end – Cambridge is full of such people. Others will focus on making brilliant research discoveries, on teaching a course compellingly, or on understanding complex scholarly material, and thereby adding to the richness of academic ideas, out of which societal benefit will spring. Cambridge is full of that sort of motivation too. The important point is that society, to whose benefit all this activity contributes, gives us the freedom to make those choices.

Long experience has taught us that when we make our own choices, the education and research we produce are at their best. Excellence and quality in our contributions to society are the only reasons why freedom of action and thought are important.

Nor, by affirming our autonomy, are we resisting accountability. Although the nation’s and our University’s academics may now be wearied by the Research Excellence Framework, preparations for which have dominated the last months, we accept that it provides necessary accountability for the valuable funding that helps sustain the independence of our research. Accountability within a sensible framework protects autonomy, rather than weakens it.

So to what purpose do we put our valued freedoms of organisation and of thought? The answer is simple: it is these twin freedoms that allow us to take the long view. Universities, indeed, are almost the only institutions whose purpose requires a long-term perspective. Very few commercial enterprises have both the will and the ability to look decades into the future; governments may take a long-term view as part of their responsibility as stewards of the nation’s interest but this is always tempered by shorter-term political cycles. Universities have a responsibility to look further ahead.

One important example of how we take the long view is evident in our approach to research. We invest in individuals, giving them the freedom to pursue their personal research objectives, while simultaneously enabling the opportunity to work in larger teams addressing major global challenges. Such an approach recognises that we cannot predict where and how the next great discovery will come. We believe that allowing our world-class individual investigators the choice to pursue their interests ensures that the University is best placed to promote major game-changing discoveries.

And we take the long view too in the choices we make about our own organisation. Our careful stewardship of resources and our willingness to take our time have had a profound effect on the shape and structure of our present-day University. Twenty years ago, throughout the UK, the future of university departments of plant sciences, education and veterinary medicine was under threat. At Cambridge we had the resources, the freedom, and the long-term perspective not to follow the trend but to invest in those subjects. As a result we are leaders addressing emerging global challenges of food security, communicable diseases, and educational development.

Our capacity ‘not to follow the herd’ means that in part our service to society often comes from being uncomfortable with the status quo, from questioning, from probing, examining, and cross-examining what is taken for granted. Our long-term view means we are sometimes at odds with the immediate concerns of society – the condition of a scholar is precisely one of restlessness and challenge – and so this special position we occupy requires society’s confidence. We are continually thankful that this confidence is placed in us.

The choices before us

We are not, then, a fragile craft tossed by the waves and battered by gales; our course is not dictated by the direction of the winds of fashion. We can steer our own course and decide how quickly we want to get there, under our own power.

We have used that capability wisely in the past, and we are stronger as a result.

Let me give you a single example: during the latter half of the 19th century, prompted by the emerging need to teach students by demonstration of what was still called ‘natural philosophy’, Cambridge led the way in investing in science laboratories – an astonishingly prescient choice given how recently the chief purpose of the universities had been to educate the clergy and court. The old Cavendish Laboratory on Free School Lane – the first university physics laboratory in the country – stands as testament to the wisdom of that decision.

Our track record, full of pivotal moments and sound choices, means we have a lot to live up to as we face today’s big decisions.

Armed with this remarkable capacity to set our own course, what now are the choices before us? What do we want our University to look like in 10 or 20 years’ time? The possible alternative futures are countless: today I offer three questions which we must address in the coming years, and which I urge the members of this community to consider.


Arguably the biggest decision before us is about growth – to choose the size and shape of our future institution.

The decision to proceed with the construction of North West Cambridge is already taken, but other developments proceed apace. In the south of the city, the Biomedical Campus around Addenbrooke’s Hospital has been a festival of construction for the past decade. The big announcement of the past year has not been ours, but that of AstraZeneca, who are moving their global headquarters here. The projected move of Papworth Hospital to the same site will give the south of the city a gravitational pull to equal the concentration in West Cambridge and a combined investment with AstraZeneca’s of half a billion pounds.

These independent developments are a validation of our success, and of the global importance of the University’s active engagement with the Cambridge cluster of high-tech industry. This mutual support is essential for the wellbeing of both the University and the Cambridge Phenomenon, but it also ensures that through partnerships the University directly serves society with economic development and jobs as well the conversion of discoveries into products. We continue to develop West Cambridge, with a new £22 million Sports Centre, and a new £41 million home for the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, the latter to be opened by the Chancellor this week.

The central sites are also being redeveloped – I would especially single out the exciting new Cambridge Conservation Campus on the New Museums site.

This growth is good, and is a vote of confidence in Cambridge. And yet we prize, rightly, Cambridge’s human scale – the unplanned conversations, the coming together of a rich diversity of knowledge and experience, the spark that comes from a collision of ideas from different sorts of mind. The first choice facing us, then, is this: how to preserve that distinctiveness – and I promise you, it is distinctive and quite special – as we grow?

The provision of education and research

This growth and development of our estate is motivated in order to grow the Cambridge community. Since we are proud of the quality of our education and we care about extending access to it, growth in student numbers has been the pattern of past decades. Two years ago, the Collegiate University chose to increase graduate student numbers by 2% per annum while maintaining our undergraduate student numbers at current levels. With that choice comes responsibility: we must consider what increased graduate student numbers implies, ensuring a balance in the provision of courses at each level. Each new graduate course we create must provide the international excellence that is the hallmark of our undergraduate provision. The Colleges and University will work seamlessly together in delivering this, but together we need to respond to the pressing question of how to meet the future social, academic, and pastoral needs of our growing graduate (and postdoctoral) communities.

Yet while we are embarking on these exciting developments, the way education is delivered at university level is changing. I remain convinced that our unique system based around the individual student both in departments and through the Colleges is ideally suited to take advantage of developments such as new technologies. Yet I look forward to the choices we will have to make to allow our unique approach to evolve for the benefit of our students.

I have already referred to the University’s commitment to support individual investigator-led research but, just as with education, significant choices will need to be made in how we build on our strengths. This is especially so where significant investment in infrastructure (both physical and human!) will be needed to ensure our continued ability to conduct research to ‘the highest standards of international excellence’.

There have been considerable successes already: as an example, take our eight strategic research initiatives and seven strategic research networks, initiated and developed by the academic community, working across schools, building research capacity and partnerships. These initiatives have been recognised, nationally and internationally. So far we have obtained major funding for a number of areas, including Obesity and Metabolic Disorders, Stem Cell Research and Graphene-related research, and also support towards the new Cavendish Laboratory.

However, all of us know that research themes will change and evolve – new ones arriving as others fall away, underlining the need to be open to new ideas. The challenges change, as do our strengths, and we need to make timely choices when they do. Not just about what we create, but who we work with – our partnerships with research funders (both domestic and international), industry and philanthropists.


And that leads me to the third question I invite you to consider: how we build our partnership with our benefactors.

Philanthropy is important to us because it contributes both to sufficiency of resource and to diversity.

Simply put, without philanthropy our resources are insufficient. The money we earn for research does not cover the full cost – partly because a growing number of funders will not do so. Overall, we earn only 90 pence for every pound we spend on research, giving us a funding gap of around £50 million per year. If we choose to continue to grow our research programme, then this deficit will increase.

Therefore, funding for research and education from our conventional sources must be complemented. Our endowment has been exceptionally successful and well managed by our investment office and our board members – but is in itself insufficient to help us realise the high ambitions we all have for our Collegiate University. The only way to bridge a growing gap while maintaining our institutional and academic freedoms is through attracting benefaction. What we do is inspirational and has already motivated many donors who share our vision and faith in Cambridge. You all know, and thus I do not need to reiterate, the extraordinary success of our 800th Anniversary Campaign. What is less well known is that since that Campaign closed, development teams working in the University Development Office and in the Colleges have continued to bring in more than £215 million in support of the Collegiate University. To put that in perspective – it is more than £2 million per week!

When it comes to creating long-lasting infrastructure for research and teaching alike, the partnership between academic leaders, donors, and the Development Office – newly reconfigured for the growing challenge – will create an exceptional opportunity. We must seek to work with benefactors in partnership, so that they feel an integral part of the family of Collegiate Cambridge. As our need for further support will often be in specific academic areas, it is essential that all in the University engage with this activity. Therefore, I encourage both current academic leaders, and those who see themselves as such in future, to work with the Development Office, as well as supporting their Colleges to engage and enthuse our supporters so that together we realise the unique and permanent benefits of philanthropy. When we receive funds from a donor, freely given, we are benefiting from a partnership which we have helped to shape.

In the coming years we will need such funding for purposes great and small – the Cavendish Laboratory itself, a landmark in the history of its discipline funded by philanthropy in 1874, once more needs a new home; opportunities to support students, particularly through the Colleges, are countless, and critical to achieving student growth in every sense. We will be setting a compelling new agenda in fundraising, shaped by those who are in the front line of research and teaching.

Once more it comes to choices of which priorities to pursue that are academically led but supported by professionals who will advise on opportunities. So again, all in the Collegiate University will need to engage in the development of these ideas as we go forward together. Ultimately, it may be the biggest choice: how do we work together – colleagues, alumni, and partners in philanthropy – in pursuit of this shared agenda? How does this relate to a shared vision for the future, and how do we work together to achieve this?

Conclusion: the challenges

These questions – how we grow without losing our distinctiveness; how we educate increasing numbers of students, especially graduate students; how we develop the research environment of the University and how we engage with those who choose to support us – will face us squarely in the next few years. The answers we choose will shape what the University looks and feels like in 20 years’ time.

Therefore I end with a challenge to the Collegiate University and with thanks to the society that sustains us. To our community, I ask that you contribute to these debates. These choices are critical; our responsibility is great. Maintaining our freedom is hard and needs watchfulness. The right to choose has been hard earned – let us embrace it.

And to wider society, I say thank you, for trusting us to choose how best we contribute to the world. Such trust requires a measure of courage, but our record in making good decisions, and the carefulness with which we approach them, are evidence of reliability. Our libraries show how Cambridge contributed to national life through the turbulent reigns of Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, and emerged strong and with the nation’s confidence. Cambridge continues to show leadership in national and international society by the active and bold and constant exercise of choice. It is a responsibility we welcome.

1 Patrick Collinson (1929–2011), Regius Professor of Modern History 1988–96 and a specialist in Elizabethan history, wrote Perne's entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, which also relates that Perne 'was dedicated to building up the university library, and was a predatory observer of the book market and a cultivator of potential donors'. Back to top.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page.