It is a privilege to have been invited to address you for this inaugural Kate Pretty Lecture.
As we know all too well from recent events, an inaugural address can set the tone of things to come –so I must be very careful in what I say today…
I am very pleased to join you at Homerton as it prepares to mark the 250th anniversary of its foundation next year.
This is an excellent opportunity to reflect on how far the College has come –from its establishment as Homerton Academy, in East London, to its move to Cambridge in the late 19th century, to gaining its status as the 31st College of the University of Cambridge in 2010.
Homerton’s accession to full membership was navigated by Sir David Harrison, Chair of the College’s Trustees, whom I am delighted to see here – and of course by the person in whose honour we are gathered here, and in whose name the College has created this new annual lecture.
So today we celebrate Kate Pretty’s contribution to collegiate Cambridge; her capacity for leadership; and her record as a builder of institutions.
Professor Ward, her successor as Principal, I know is energetically building on those foundations, and Homerton’s future as a successful and ambitious Cambridge College is assured.
Indeed, this is an excellent place in which to speak of “The Cambridge of Tomorrow”, and I am both grateful for –and daunted by—the invitation to address this topic.
Grateful, because these days people tend to ask me to reflect on the past few years as Vice-Chancellor –so I welcome the opportunity to look ahead instead.
But this is a daunting task because, as one economics forecaster famously put it: “He who lives by the crystal ball soon learns to eat broken glass.”
And who would be bold enough –or foolish—to say, in these unsettled times, what the future holds in store for us?
Perhaps the argument can be made that all of us –certainly all of us in positions of leadership—should be gazing intently into that crystal ball.
It is far too easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of current events.
It is far too easy to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the immediate, and lose sight of what is fundamental, and long-term.
So it is worth stepping out of the whirlwind for a moment and reminding ourselves what we are here for.
One advantage of heading an organisation that has been around for over 800 years is that it forces us to take a longer view of things.
Dr Pretty, being an archaeologist, would surely agree…
And so tonight I’d like to share some thoughts on what “The Cambridge of Tomorrow” looks like –or at least what I hope it will look like—from where I am standing.
I suppose it helps, first, to tell you where I think we are today.
In my inaugural address as Vice-Chancellor, I singled out the collegiate nature of the University as one of our greatest strengths.
Almost seven years later, the University and the 31 colleges work more closely than at any time I can remember.
There are things that can only be handled properly when done in concert.
Working closely with the colleges has allowed us to establish common practices to manage, in a consistent and joined-up way, matters requiring the attention of the full collegiate university.
We have seen the benefits of this following the launch of the most ambitious fundraising campaign in the University’s history.
And we also work together to widen participation.
We work together to implement safeguarding and welfare policies.
We work together to ensure better provision for our burgeoning postdoctoral community.
We work together to deal with difficult issues like sexual harassment.
We are bound by our history, and by a joint responsibility for our students and our staff.
And we are truly doing better together.
Another thing I spoke about during my inaugural address was the need to not only maintain (or even improve) the quality of our educational offer, but also to widen its availability to talented applicants, whatever their background.
Attracting students based on their abilities rather than their social or educational background is one of the ways in which we fulfil our mission.
And here, I am very gratified by some of the results:
The proportion of state sector-educated students admitted to the University has increased from 58.8% to 62.3% at present since 2011.
Our undergraduate student body is more diverse.
20% of acceptances to Cambridge in the 2015 admissions cycle came from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds –the highest it has ever been.
However, there is no room for complacency and we need to continue to inspire young students from minority groups, if they have the ability, to see
Cambridge as a natural destination.
Because we continue to face obstacles to widening participation, linked to deep-rooted and persistent educational and socio-economic challenges across the UK.
We have responded to those difficulties by enhancing our engagement with schools in areas of low participation.
There is much work still to be done, and the success of the Cambridge of tomorrow will depend on this work being carried out consistently and effectively.
Cambridge is today on a firm financial footing.
It is worth just pondering the sheer financial scale of our University –and even more so, of the Collegiate University.
Annual turnover is £1.6bn, and our endowment –including the Colleges—is the largest in Europe at over $6bn.
And the last financial year was the most successful year for fundraising ever:
The Campaign “Dear World …Yours Cambridge” raised £210m and the Colleges contributed £130m. This raises the campaign total to 810 million
Why do we need this financial security?
Of course we do not seek financial success for its own good, because we are not a business in the formal sense, nor do we seek primarily to make a profit.
Our real ‘profit’ is our ability to deliver to our students, undergraduate and postgraduate alongside our staff the best possible facilities and opportunities to develop such that they can help us fulfil the mission of the University – to serve society through teaching, learning and research at the highest international standards of excellence.
And financial stability offers the freedom and autonomy that, in turn, allows us to do more of what we do best, and allows us to defend the underlying values of academic freedom espoused by the Collegiate University
We continue to deliver excellent research.
Look at some of the science stories making headlines today –whether it is the electric properties of graphene, or the discovery of human’s oldest known ancestor, or how we can be inoculated against fake news—and you can be sure that Cambridge scientists have been involved (that is of course inoculating not creating false news or alternative facts!).
And because our reputation is built on that excellent research, we continue to invest in post-doctoral talent –the engine house of our research output.
There was one final issue I reflected on in that inaugural address –Cambridge’s role as a global university.
I spoke then of how “a continued focus… on external relations is necessary to maintain our leading role.”
You have only to consider the growth of our capacity-building initiatives in Africa, of our carbon reduction research in Singapore, of our collaborations in crop-science with India, or the forthcoming launch of a joint Max Planck centre, to see that the University is, today, more active in the world than ever.
Here I again pay tribute to Kate Pretty, who as the University’s first Pro-Vice-Chancellor for International Strategy recognised that in order to be truly engaged with the world it is not enough to let our academics establish individual links to partners overseas.
In doing so, Kate laid the foundation for much of the valuable internationalisation work the University has carried out during my tenure.
The real challenge of Brexit
So this, in the broadest of strokes, is where I think the University of Cambridge stands at the moment.
“But”, I hear you say, “we have come on this dark February Friday evening to listen to a lecture about ‘The Cambridge of tomorrow’…”
I am stalling –of course.
If pressed, one way for me to approach the subject might be to unpick two of the challenges that we are likely to face in the years ahead.
Beginning with the issue that is probably at the forefront of people’s minds…
Unless there is a big surprise –although these days anything can happen— in less than three weeks we will see the beginning of the formal process to exit the European Union.
The implications for the University’s ability to establish partnerships overseas, and to recruit the best staff and students, will be considerable –exactly how considerable, it will be difficult to say with any certainty until the process is complete.
I am heartened by the fact that, in its White Paper, the government has mentioned as one of its priorities ensuring that the UK remains one of the best places in the world for science and innovation.
I am also reassured by the government’s recognition of the importance of the UK’s extensive collaborations with EU states.
From my own conversations with government ministers, it is obvious that they understand the value of our University to the UK’s knowledge base, its value to economic growth, and its outstanding performance as a global leader and top European University.
The problem is that the fate of our settlement with the EU, in terms of science and research, will not, in the final instance, depend on the UK government’s desires –but on the collective interest of the other 27 EU members.
So Brexit will happen.
Whatever the Cambridge of tomorrow looks like, it will have to adapt to this post-Brexit landscape.
Our student intake, our ability to recruit and retain researchers, our capacity to access research funds –all will have to be, and are in fact being, recalculated, recalibrated and rebalanced.
Yes, it is a blow.
But let’s be clear –Cambridge has been through much worse.
This University has been around for 808 years, in which it has survived a Reformation, a civil war, two World Wars, and many a crisis.
All of which gives me confidence that the University has the resilience to face this particular obstacle.
On the subject of obstacles, we can learn much from Kate Pretty herself.
Speaking about her approach to problem-solving at the University of Cambridge, she once remarked: “My usual strategy is to approach obstacles like water going round rocks, rather than forging straight ahead.”
This is good advice, and teaches us that, in pursuit of the larger goals, the ability to adapt serves us better than the determination to remain set in our ways.
So yes, I am certain that Cambridge has the capacity to adapt –and thrive—in a post-Brexit scenario.
Which is not to suggest that we can be complacent.
It would be foolhardy not to learn lessons from the Referendum result.
We know that the City of Cambridge voted by an overwhelming majority for the UK to remain in the EU (74%) –with one of its wards, Market, returning 87.8% of votes in favour of staying.
The constituency of South Cambridgeshire, where we are all sitting now, voted to remain by 60%.
But let’s not forget that in some neighbouring constituencies the opposite was true.
Of the five areas in the UK with the highest proportion of votes for “Leave”, three are in the East of England –one is in Cambridgeshire itself, and only some 20 miles or so up the road from here.
We often make the case that what is good for the University of Cambridge, one of the area’s biggest employers, will also be good for the region.
I firmly believe this is true.
But it is obvious that, for a majority of people in the East of England, the values the University espouses are not values they find meaningful, or relevant.
This is worrying, because I take the view that there is an unwritten contract between society and higher education institutions.
Universities like ours are given license to operate, and the space to educate and generate knowledge, because what we do is for the benefit of society.
The public trust placed in us is directly linked to an understanding that what we do –through education, learning and research—is good for everyone.
One of the biggest risks to our legitimacy and reputation is the public feeling that universities’ goals and our societies’ goals are no longer shared –in other words, a breakdown of trust.
We take enormous pride in our contributions to the advancement of science: from Darwin to the discovery of DNA, from the invention of the jet-engine to the development of modern computers.
Yet when people in King’s Lynn or Chatteris ask themselves that classic question –“What has the University of Cambridge done for us?”—I suspect the answer they come up with is: “Not that much”.
It was particularly galling to listen to a recent piece of reporting on the BBC, contrasting Remainers in Cambridge with hard-line Brexiters elsewhere in Cambridgeshire, and portraying them as two tribes at war with each other.
We must not buy into this narrative.
I refuse to buy into this narrative.
But clearly there is a problem here.
If society at large does not believe that we have its interests at heart, then the failure is our own, because serving the interests of society is our only purpose.
If society at large does not believe that what we do is ultimately for the common good, we need to do a better job at engaging with it, and communicating the impact of our work.
If society at large cannot see that the research we carry out helps to save lives and to improve livelihoods, from East Anglia to East Africa, then it is on us to make sure it knows.
So how do we mitigate the risk of losing the public’s trust?
We do it by reaffirming (and demonstrating) that society’s aspirations are also our own.
We regain public trust by being open about what we do, about why we do it, and about how we do it.
We regain public trust by widening access and enhancing levels of participation.
In fact we are already doing this in collaboration with other local universities through an outreach network, which aims to double –by 2020— the proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who enter higher education.
We regain public trust by demonstrating how we contribute to local, regional and national development.
Here, too, we are working closely with regional universities and businesses to identify skill gaps and infrastructure needs.
So the real challenge of Brexit in years to come might not be how to adapt to a world in which our ties with Europe are diminished –those ties will remain strong, even if we lose some of the mechanisms that helped to nurture them…
No –the biggest challenge may be how to ensure that Cambridge is more widely acknowledged as an institution firmly rooted in our region, and actively seeking to benefit communities beyond its very own.
The University in a post-truth world
Which brings me to the next issue –one that, in my view, poses an even greater existential risk to universities.
It is connected to the point I made earlier about public trust in our university.
I was at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, recently.
While I was there, the communications company Edelman published the results of its annual Trust Barometer, revealing the largest-ever drop in public trust in the institutions of government, business, media and NGOs.
Trust in conventional institutions, the survey tells us, is at its lowest.
53% of respondents across the world believed “the system” had failed them.
59% of them claimed to have more trust in search engines than in human content editors when seeking information.
The survey tells us that people are now as likely to believe a “person like themselves” as they are to believe an academic expert.
It may come as no surprise that the trust gap between the informed and uninformed public is growing.
Or that the gap is at its widest in the US –followed by the UK.
What does it tell us that, by one estimation, 52% of statements made by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign were revealed –on close inspection—to be false?
And still he won!
What does it tell us that the top 20 fake stories doing the rounds during the US campaign outperformed the 20 top real stories?
Almost half of all respondents in the Trust Barometer believe that facts don’t matter.
A particular worry for many of us ahead of the UK’s June referendum was the rhetoric surrounding evidence-based arguments, infamously summarised in the phrase “the people of this country have had enough of experts”.
But… what is an expert?
Dictionary definition: “a person who is very knowledgeable about, or skilful in, a particular area.”
In what bizarre world has this word become a term of abuse?
The distrust of knowledge, and the people who produce it, has a long history in this country.
We might trace it back to at least the 18th century, and the writings of Edmund Burke, who praised the English character as being rooted in “common sense” and empiricism.
Writing on the history of anti-intellectualism in the United States, American historian Richard Hofstadter claimed that it was “a part of our English cultural inheritance”.
In this country, Leonard Woolf observed: “No people have ever despised and distrusted the intellect and intellectuals more than the British.”
Perhaps our former Secretary of State for Education was not being as original as he thought he was.
And in fact, a poll carried out by Ipsos Mori just before the referendum suggested that Academics were ranked third in trustworthiness as a source of information on EU issues –after friends and family, and small business owners.
(The same poll, incidentally, showed politicians and journalists bumping against the bottom of the trustworthiness table.)
Even the perception that a university like ours cannot be trusted to generate knowledge that is pertinent to most people’s lives can be profoundly damaging.
It is damaging to our reputation as an institution capable of effecting social change.
It is damaging to our reputation as an institution interested in improving lives not just at our doorstep, but wherever in the world that improvement is needed.
It is damaging to our reputation as an institution that should take a position of leadership on the most important issues of the day.
We must ask ourselves: what is the role of a university that prides itself on educating and recruiting experts?
What is our role, as purveyors of expertise, at a time when that very expertise is being dismissed as irrelevant?
This may be the right moment to be reminded of the University’s Latin motto:
“From this place, enlightenment and precious knowledge.”
Common sense is fine, but common sense alone does not help us cure cancer, or eradicate infectious disease.
Neither does common sense alone help us fight crop failure, or mitigate climate change.
Common sense in isolation does not help us make cities smarter and more efficient, or combat extremist ideologies, or interpret ancient civilisations and texts.
We need the experts to do that…and our University has many of them.
Although, I am sure that they would agree that there is a portion of common sense which goes into the ideas which underpin their expertise.
We are on the brink of a new technological leap that many people are calling the 4th Industrial Revolution.
Our understanding of the issues that will underpin this transformation –from artificial intelligence to cyber-security, online privacy, or the interface between the cyber and physical worlds—has been pioneered and championed at Cambridge.
So let’s be self-confident about our mission.
Let’s continue to achieve excellence in research and education –and alongside it, let’s achieve excellence in outreach and communication.
Let’s continue to innovate, and to challenge conventional wisdom –and while we do that, let’s strive to be more transparent, open and diverse.
Let’s continue to push the boundaries of knowledge –and work hard to demonstrate the many ways in which this knowledge touches lives everywhere.
We must reclaim the mantle of expertise, and make no apologies about it.
As long as we can show that we have society’s interest at our heart, we will have the legitimacy and the autonomy to keep on doing what we do best.
“The Cambridge of tomorrow”
To reflect on the Cambridge of tomorrow is, for me, much more than an abstract exercise.
In just over seven months, when I step down as Vice-Chancellor of the University, Cambridge will still be the place that my wife Gwen and I call home.
Seven years at the helm of this University might make some people want to run as far as possible –but not us!
I am deeply and very personally interested in what happens to the City, to its people and to the wider region.
The recent report by the Centre for Cities offers some encouraging information.
It tells us that Cambridge is the most innovative city in the UK –with 341 patent applications per 100,000 of population –almost three times more than the second place, Coventry.
It also tells us that Cambridge remains the UK city with the most highly qualified workforce
It is a measure of Cambridge’s success as a local hub that our unemployment is second lowest in the country, while we also have one of the fastest growing populations in the country –up almost 2% from last year’s figures.
We are the third fastest growing city in terms of housing stock.
The flipside is that, despite real wages having gone up 3.2% in the last year, and record levels of local house building, housing affordability remains third worst among UK cities.
Worryingly, Cambridge is the least equal city in the UK in terms of income distribution –followed by Oxford and London.
With plans for 14,000 new homes in the city by 2031, and an estimated population spike of 25% over the next twenty years in Cambridgeshire, the one thing we can be sure of is that the Cambridge of tomorrow will be more densely populated, its roads more congested, and its infrastructure under greater pressure than ever before.
The devolution agenda offers interesting opportunities.
There will soon be an elected Mayor for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.
This may lead to more of the decisions that affect the region being made locally.
For the University, all of this is essential. But it will mean having to operate in –and engaging with—a much wider regional ecosystem than it has done up to now.
Increasingly, this will be a region in competition with others for resources and talent.
How do we pool our local resources and expertise –that word again!—to ensure that the East of England becomes a powerhouse for research, innovation and business, rather than a London backwater?
The Cambridge of tomorrow will have to step up!
So what will success look like for the University, when an audience like this one gathers in this very same place for the 20th edition of the Kate Pretty Lecture—or the 30th, or the 50th?
First and foremost I predict that the University will still be true to its values established so long ago and following the Collegiate model that has stood the test of time. Indeed a University that is confident in itself and resilient, whatever the external pressures that it may encounter.
It will have grown along the city’s Northwest-Southeast axis, with a bustling biomedical campus and a busy northwest Cambridge, fully integrated with the University’s central sites.
I see a University able to sustain the recruitment of top students and staff from around the world.
I see a University that balances its tried and tested teaching methods with growing student demand for new approaches to learning.
A university that can pioneer new areas of study, and create true multi-disciplinarity.
A University supporting the region by contributing to identify and tackle skills shortages, and by contributing to local travel and transport needs.
A University in partnership with local schools and other local providers of higher education, and fully engaged with business.
It will continue to be at the heart of growth by ensuring that it remains the cornerstone of today’s very successful “Cambridge Cluster”.
I see a University more flexible in its processes, more limber in its capacity to rise to new challenges and to make the most of new opportunities.
I see a University that is more diverse, and uncompromising in its commitment to widening participation.
In 50 years’ time - or, let’s hope, sooner - we’ll have at least a 50-50 ratio of male to female professors –perhaps even more women, given current male performance in secondary school.
I see a University with greater gender balance across all subjects –whether it is computer science or veterinary medicine.
A University with greater representation of all minority ethnic groups, and a wider geographical spread –not through any form of social engineering, but because it encourages more of these students to apply, and is better at identifying their ability and potential.
So, yes, this means more black students –but it also means more white students from working class backgrounds.
I see a University that is successfully reaching out to its region, so that when people in King’s Lynn or Chatteris ask “What has the University done for us?” it is able to give a clear and compelling answer.
Or better yet, that the question doesn’t need to be asked.
I see a University that understands that it mustn’t make a choice between engaging locally and engaging globally –because it has to do both.
A University that acknowledges its uniqueness and traditions, but does not take for granted that its uniqueness and traditions will, in themselves, make it a top university in a very competitive environment.
Above all, the Cambridge of tomorrow must be a University that excels at creating, curating and communicating knowledge.
A University that leads the UK, and is confident in its place among the pantheon of global universities leading the way for a better future world.
We are unusual in that, as an autonomous and self-governing body of scholars, it is in our hands to be successful going forward.
So no pressure then!
This will demand much of my excellent successor, and of those that will come after him.
It will require the combined efforts of the colleagues and friends I have had the pleasure of working with over the past seven years, and of the generations that follow.
It will require much of all of us, gathered here today.
So I finish by referring back to our motto: “From this place, enlightenment and precious knowledge.”
“From this place, enlightenment and precious knowledge.”
My most heartfelt aspiration for the Cambridge of tomorrow is that this collection of scholars, students and staff, huddled together in this this damp corner of East Anglia, shall continue to shed light on the world.