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Vice-Chancellor's Office


Your Excellency the Minister for Education, [Dr. Azzam bin Mohammed Al-Dakhil];
Fellow representatives and members of Higher Education institutions;
Ladies and gentlemen; friends and colleagues—

Let me begin by paying my respects to His late Majesty King Abdullah [bin Abdulaziz], who understood the importance of Higher Education to a nation’s wellbeing; and to His Majesty King Salman [bin Abdulaziz] for giving continuity and renewed energy to that vision.

I would like to thank His Excellency, [Dr. Azzam bin Mohammed Al-Dakhil,], and the Ministry of Education, for inviting me to address you all today.

I have been Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge since 2010. The more I learn from my work in that post –and the more I reflect on what I learn— the more strongly I feel about our institutions’ unique ability to contribute to the betterment of society. So I truly welcome this opportunity to share with you some of my thoughts on “The role of the 21st century university”.

It is, to be sure, a daunting subject. Immediately the question arises: What type of university are we talking about? The role of a university in the Middle East may be different from that of a university in Latin America. The challenges faced by higher education institutions in Africa are likely to be different from the ones faced by their counterparts in Europe, or in America. Confronted by such a topic, one can never be too prescriptive.

Even within a single country, universities are expected to fulfil various –and often conflicting—roles. Sources of skilled labour. Guardians and purveyors of knowledge. Creators of original ideas. Advisors to government. Cradles for new businesses. Seedbeds for leadership. Engines for economic growth. Very few institutions can successfully and simultaneously carry out all of these functions.

So I must begin by acknowledging that I can only reflect on my own experience of what constitutes good practice in 21st century higher education –and suggest what lessons might be relevant to others.

I must also acknowledge that the points I make have as much to do with aspiration as they have to do with experience.

The question of what a 21st century university is critical to Cambridge. We are over 800 years old, and so we are constantly faced with the question of how to balance the weight of tradition and the imperative of renewal.

Perhaps the easiest way for me to start is by sharing with you our University’s mission statement. It is a very simple one –the shortest I am aware of:

“The mission of the University of Cambridge is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence.”

Contained in this brief statement is a declaration of intent that I believe all higher education institutions should subscribe to –big or small, public or private, whether they are in Riyadh or in Rio de Janeiro.

Let’s try to unpick this…

Contributing to society

I hope we can agree that the main objective for all universities must be “to contribute to society”. But how does a 21st century university do this?

To put it simply: we educate, we create knowledge, and we innovate. Let me take each one of these in turn.

1. We educate.

In the narrowest of senses, we offer today’s youth the knowledge and the skills they will need to enter the workforce.

In societies with young burgeoning populations and expanding middle classes, the demand for access to higher education will only continue to grow.

So universities will have to negotiate the tension between increased access and sustained quality assurance. They will also be under greater pressure to ensure that the degrees and qualifications they offer are relevant to the societies they serve, and that their graduates are employable.

The question of what constitutes “relevance” in a university education will be answered differently in different places. I would warn, however, against any answer that is too short-sighted. After all, a university should not be training for the jobs that exist today, but educating for the challenges that will exist in the future.

We cannot possibly imagine today what problems an engineer or a clinician will be confronted with 20 or 30 years from now. But the education we offer should provide that engineer and that clinician with the intellectual tools they will need to tackle problems that they cannot yet foresee, as well as ensuring that they are capable of re-educating themselves as new opportunities arise.

Educating our youth, however, must go beyond these basic functions of training and ensuring employability. To be globally competitive, universities must also be incubators of global citizens, and generators of future leadership. We should aspire to inculcate a view of the world that is broad, multifaceted and interconnected. Put succinctly we should aspire to teach “how to think”, and not just “what to think”.

2. In what other way do universities contribute to their societies? We generate knowledge through research.

Alongside education, research can have a decisive impact on a university’s contribution to society.  Beyond its duty to impart knowledge, it is a university’s commitment to research that allows it to conceive solutions to global challenges.

The University of Cambridge is medieval in its origin, but its current guiding principles spring from the ideas of 19th century reformers like Wilhelm von Humboldt, in Germany, who advocated the integration of teaching and research. Today we are a research-intensive university that places a culture of research and freedom of inquiry at its very heart. 

Cambridge places a high value on its system of supervision and small-group teaching, and we undoubtedly have extraordinary lecturers.  Our students are taught and inspired by the same academics who are carrying out ground-breaking research. It is this seamless mix of world-class research and world-class teaching that underpins Cambridge’s global reputation. And that research is carried out in an environment forged through centuries of discovery. An environment that has produced no less than 90 Nobel prize laureates.  To use a metaphor that springs from one of our ground-breaking discoveries: the culture of research is an integral part of Cambridge’s DNA.

Let me emphasise here that I am making no distinction between what we might call basic research and applied research. This is a false dichotomy. I prefer the view taken by George Porter, former president of the Royal Society (the UK’s Academy of Sciences), who insisted that “there are two types of research: applied, and not-yet-applied”. I will come back to this further on…

I’d also like to stress the importance of interdisciplinary research –and in particular the crucial role that the arts, humanities and social sciences have in contextualising the new knowledge we create. The problems we face are human problems. The solutions may be technological, or science-based, but they can only be implemented in a human context.  Only our specialists in the arts, humanities and social sciences can help us do that.

But whether fundamental or applied, whether in the hard sciences or in the arts and humanities, what should drive a university is the thrill of discovery, and the certainty that it is making a difference to society –locally and globally.

3. There is another way in which the 21st century university can contribute to society –by innovating.

To be useful to society, a university must put its discoveries to work.

Science and technology are not only the tools for generating knowledge, but –in the right hands, under the right conditions—are also a means of powering a knowledge economy.

Partly by design, partly by serendipity and geography, the University of Cambridge is at the centre of a cluster of innovation. This Cambridge Cluster now houses over 1,500 technology-based firms, employs over 57,000 people and generates over 13 billion pounds in revenue. And it came about through the empowerment of academics as entrepreneurs.

Today, 26% of people in and around Cambridge work in a knowledge-intensive sector of the economy –unusually high compared to 12% nationally in the UK.

The central role of the University in what we call the “Cambridge phenomenon” is underlined by the fact that 1 in 6 recent Cambridge University leavers continue to work or study in the region. A single university department –Computer Science—has spun off over 200 firms, generating revenues of over 250 million pounds.

There are countless Cambridge examples of scientific discoveries that led to entrepreneurial success. Let me cite only 3 of the most notable ones:

  • In 1953, Cambridge scientists James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA. 35 years later, a Cambridge company –Solexa— devised a fast, low-cost process for gene sequencing, which was later sold for US$65 million.
  • Monoclonal antibodies were discovered by Cambridge scientists in the 1970s. Human monoclonal antibodies were discovered, also in Cambridge, in the 1980s. The scientists behind some of these discoveries created a company, Cambridge Antibody Technology, which in 2006 was sold to Astra Zeneca for US$1.3 billion.
  • Let me give you a more recent and slightly different example. A few years ago someone at Cambridge noticed that the number of highly qualified applicants to the Computer Science degree were dwindling. The reason, it seemed, was that today’s youngsters have become too used to tablets and other devices that do not allow them to experiment with coding in the way that older computers did. A small group of computer scientists decided to tackle the problem by creating a very simple computer that would allow school-aged children to unleash their creativity and learn essential coding skills. There was one condition: it had to be cheap. In 2012, these scientists launched Raspberry Pi, a computer board the size of a credit card, costing as little as $25 per unit. They hoped to sell a few thousand, at most. To date, over 5 million units of Raspberry Pi have been sold all over the world, making Raspberry Pi the fastest selling British personal computer ever . We expect this invention to revolutionise the way future generations learn about computing.

The University of Cambridge is not the only element of the “Cambridge phenomenon”, but it is fair to say that is has acted as the major enabler of innovation in the region.

Universities, with their convening power, and their natural capacity to work closely with policymakers, educators and industry leaders, are uniquely positioned to be outlets for innovation in the service of society. This, too, should be a key aspiration for the 21st century university.

But how...?

I have outlined what I think should be essential functions of a global, world-leading university in the 21st century. Easier said than done. The question remains: How do we achieve this? And when we achieve it, how do we make it sustainable?

I would like to argue –again without being too prescriptive—that there are at least four essential elements to the mix.

1. The first is the need to invest in human capital.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has certainly understood the importance of investing in Universities as a means to innovate, discover and contribute to the betterment of society.

The extraordinary percentage of Saudi’s budget invested in higher education makes it the world’s highest spender in the sector.

We know from experience, however, that being a truly impactful, world-leading research university requires more than investing in university campuses and state-of-the-art facilities. It is impossible to build high quality institutions without high quality people.

All of us –whether living in developed or emerging societies—are now faced with the imminent prospect of a slowdown in the economic growth driven by commodities. When that happens, the societies that have failed to invest in their men and women will fall behind.

A university must be committed to the full development of a nation’s talent. By this I mean a development of talent that is inclusive of sectors of the population that have not traditionally been represented in higher education, and to whom opportunities have not traditionally been afforded.

The role of women is a case in point. It is an area where the University of Cambridge has not always, I’m afraid to say, been at the vanguard.

Cambridge only began admitting women as full members of the University in 1948 –later than most universities in Europe and even in the United Kingdom. One of our colleges, Magdalene College, excluded female students until 1988. When it finally did admit women, it was against the will of many of its own fellows. It was not, I must say, our finest moment.

Things have moved on since then. But inequality of opportunity between men and women still persists in the university sector.

The gap is not only between the number of men and women who enter higher education in the Western world. There is a continuing disparity between the number of women who enter higher education, and those who go on to attain the highest levels of academic success. In UK universities there are four male professors for every female professor. In Cambridge, the ratio is of five males to every female professor.

I tell you this to make the point that, with regards to gender equality in the academic sphere, Cambridge is still a work in progress. With 800 years of history, Cambridge is both a beacon of continuity and a pioneer of change. But we still have much work to do to tackle some of our long-standing imbalances.

My challenge to Cambridge –and to my successors—is to keep setting higher standards of openness and inclusiveness. To keep challenging convention. To make Cambridge the best place to study for all individuals, whatever their gender or background.

A university’s diversity plays an important role in sustaining its academic excellence. World-class universities need the most talented men and the most talented women if they are to remain world-class. I certainly acknowledge and admire the important steps taken by the Saudi government to advance the education of women at institutions like the very impressive Princess Nora University, which I passed on the way from the airport. Or at places like KAUST, where men and women can study side by side.

2. The need for collaboration. 

In second place –if we agree that the generation of knowledge through research is an essential function of a successful modern university, then we must also agree on the need for collaboration.

Most of you in the audience will be well acquainted with the transformational flourishing of the arts and sciences that took place around the 8th and 9th centuries, known by historians as the Islamic Golden Age. In courts from Cairo to Córdoba and from Baghdad to Damascus, the period brought about a revolution in human knowledge. The advances in astronomy, physics and mathematics laid the foundations for some of the greatest leaps in human progress.

We now look back on that era wistfully. Not only because it was a period of great intellectual effervescence, but also because it was a time of great intellectual connectedness. Knowledge was the common currency between East and West; its advancement through freedom of inquiry was the common project of Muslims, Jews and Christians.
It is easy to romanticise this era in retrospect. But I would venture to say that never before (and rarely since) has the pursuit of knowledge brought peoples together so fruitfully.

Which brings me back to the question of what a 21st century University should be. Because, after all, bringing people together is one of the things that Universities can do best.

“No man is an island”, wrote one of our famous alumni, John Donne, in the 17th century. And what is true of men, is also true of Universities. Because universities are perhaps the only modern institutions with the means and the legitimacy to bridge the gaps between disciplines, between different sectors of society, and between cultures.

In the 21st century, collaboration between universities –within countries, and across borders—is no longer optional. It is not simply an added extra to our institutions’ daily work. No matter how good it is, no matter how high in the rankings, an individual university cannot attain excellence on its own.

A world-class university must harness the power of strategic partnerships –with other universities, with businesses, with civil society, with governments. As resources diminish, and as challenges increase, collaboration is essential. Today’s threats are global, and so must be our response.

World-class research today is a global project. It is in this spirit, and with excellence always in mind, that Cambridge has undertaken its collaborations with Saudi institutions [like KACST], and with Saudi corporations [like SABIC.]

3. Freedom of enquiry

Alongside the imperative to invest in talent and to collaborate, there is a third essential and non-negotiable requisite for a global, world-leading university: freedom of enquiry.
I said earlier that, to be useful to society, a university must put its discoveries to work. But universities must also foster an environment in which curiosity-driven research and invention are allowed to flourish.

A utilitarian view of the value of universities is regrettably becoming more prevalent. As the sources of funding dry up, universities too often find themselves on the defensive, trying to justify their outputs.

The buzzword in universities across the world is “impact”. In the UK, as much as 20% of government funding for universities now hinges on demonstrating impact. It is easy to show that your work has impact if you are pioneering a technique for building bridges. It is not quite as easy to show the impact of your work if you are a philosopher, or a linguist.

In the face of government policies that expect us to constantly demonstrate our University’s economic value, I still find myself having to defend our core principles of autonomy, freedom of enquiry and excellence. Indeed –as I often make the case to Ministers— the University can only have economic and societal impact because it is committed to autonomy, freedom of enquiry and excellence.

I believe that we must fiercely defend the right to carve out a space for intellectual enquiry that will not be obviously or immediately impactful. Universities need the autonomy and flexibility to make decisions for themselves. The truth is that we never know how today’s “blue skies” research will turn into tomorrow’s innovation. 

Research-intensive universities are a long-term enterprise. Crucial to their vitality is their ability to resist pressures to move their research in a more utilitarian direction, and forego the often serendipitous outcomes of investigator-led inquiry.

4. Taking the long view

The final essential ingredient is the ability to take the long view. Today’s leading universities have long and rich histories suggesting that they have a resilience that can deal with uncertainty. We pre-date and have survived many economic and political upheavals. Our timescales don’t fit in to short-term, purely government-backed or commercial priorities. We need to take the long view as it is often the cumulative effect of fundamental research that is the most important; in the life sciences, for example, getting a drug from lab to bedside takes 17 years. Investing in the long-term future of people is also paramount. Many of the people graduating from our universities will be the leaders of tomorrow. We must be able to operate in at least a 30-year timescale to enable the best research and the brightest minds to blossom.

To summarise:

The mission of any university that aspires to be world-leading is to educate, to generate knowledge and to innovate.

In order to do so, a university needs to invest in people; it needs to unleash the potential that comes from collaboration; it needs to defend its autonomy in order to pursue freedom of enquiry, and; to take the long view, with excellence always as its objective.

I believe these are some of the essential values to which any 21st century university that wishes to be world leading should adhere.

Closing remarks

Your Excellency, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I speak to you today as a guest who knows of –and is impressed by—the Saudi leadership’s efforts to make this kingdom’s higher education better and more accessible.

I also speak as someone who is under no illusion about the tremendous tasks that lie ahead for you –and indeed for all of us.

To successfully tackle these tasks, Saudi Arabia will need to extract and make use of every single drop of its most valuable asset: the talent of its men and women.

To meet the global challenges that confront us all, the Kingdom will have to rely not only on the scientists and the engineers, but on its experts in the humanities and social sciences, who can put the global challenges in a human perspective.

To face the dangers of a changing climate and increasing demand on the world’s resources, the Kingdom must look ahead and consider a future where knowledge –rather than oil—is the primary fuel for growth.

In the decades ahead, universities will be at the heart of the way in which our countries respond to these challenges, and satisfy our societies’ aspirations for equality, development and growth.

And while Universities may not always hold all the answers, we are certainly bound by our duty to society to articulate the right questions.