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Vice-Chancellor's Office

 

Speech delivered by Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz

Shared Values and Visions

Inaugural address to the University, 1 October 2010

Since my election by the Regent House as the 345th Vice-Chancellor in December last year, time has seemingly accelerated and as I stand here, I am excited by the challenges and yet awed by the responsibility of this position. I am indeed privileged to rejoin the Cambridge community from which I gained so much earlier in my career.

That Cambridge is a great, world-leading university will not be a surprise to any of you here today nor to any of our staff, students or alumni. This is in no small part due to the outstanding achievements of my predecessor, Professor Dame Alison Richard, who has indefatigably, but with charm and wisdom, led the University for the past seven years. This is evident to the external world by our high global ranking, academic and especially research performance, alongside the collective leadership shown by the University and Colleges. Yet in the competitive world of global academia, Cambridge's uniqueness bears repeating, to remind us of the challenges and opportunities that we face. We will be well served to remember and be guided by the principle enshrined in the University's mission statement:

'to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence'

This aspiration to excel and serve society has stood the University well, and must stand as a beacon for the future. The byword for all that we do now and will continue to do in the future is 'excellence' and that excellence has to be measured by international not national standards. Short-term vicissitudes must not deflect us from this goal. While we are entering a period of turbulence, it must not prevent us from re-iterating and developing the vision that will ensure that our future is secure.

In a few days, Lord Browne will deliver the report of the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, and the Government will announce the outcomes of the Comprehensive Spending Review. These events will define the growing debate about the shape and role of higher education in this country.

Cambridge has and will continue to contribute to this debate to ensure that its interests are heard and acted upon. Pressure for change within the sector and at individual universities will intensify with scarcer resources and greater competitive and international choice for the best students and staff. Cambridge must look forward with confidence beyond the stretch of rapids that we approach guided by the values we share across Collegiate Cambridge.

We start from an enviable position, but for all our strengths and achievements, reputations are hard won and easily lost. In a world that seeks increasingly to assess academic achievement by simplistic measures and league tables, it is as well to stand tall under that scrutiny - as we do. Yet we all know that real academic achievement is more complex, based as it is on the interplay of discovery, debate and individuals. Success is inherently about people, in our case the academic staff and students who by their scholarship have enriched this institution. They are supported by committed and professional staff whose contribution is no less important in serving the needs of scholarship. Yet our academic staff and students will remain the most precious asset that this University possesses. Throughout the 800-year history of Cambridge, we have been able to attract the very best staff and students, who in turn have ensured the enviable reputation we have today. Our task is to ensure that we can continue to do so while retaining the core values of academic freedom and the pursuit of excellence in all that we do.

I would now like to turn to consider the challenges that we face in the context of the Collegiate University: education, research and Cambridge as a global university.

The Collegiate University

Our community is reliant on the strengths of the Colleges which are integral to the success of the University. They help provide support for the development of our students through Cambridge's highly successful educational model, with its sporting, cultural and intellectual opportunities, and unparalleled emphasis on nurturing the individual.

The closeness of the interdependence between the University and the Colleges has nowhere been more evident than in the successful joint fundraising activity of the 800th Anniversary Campaign. When the 1 billion milestone was reached in June, Alison Richard made it clear that the Campaign had to continue. I agree wholeheartedly.

This success must mark the beginning of an era of sustained philanthropic support for the University, which is vital to the collegiate University's future. It is not the only answer to the financial challenges facing us but it will play a critical role in maintaining our 'edge of excellence', enabling us to take risks, to invest for the long term, to maintain the supervision system, and to provide exemplary levels of financial support for students who need it. Those who have contributed so much to this Campaign, alongside our academic staff and alumni, will be our strongest ambassadors and advocates as we emphasise our importance in the public realm and resist those who would force universities into a utilitarian straitjacket.

Education

Education is the bedrock of Cambridge. Yet the very nature of our undergraduate education will come under increased scrutiny and may be threatened by harsh economic conditions. We will need to work together and be prepared to think differently to ensure that the education of our students by the University through our Departments, Faculties and Schools, in partnership with the Colleges, remains of the highest quality. That education must be an excellent grounding that serves our students well in their immediate studies but also equips them for further study or as highly sought-after graduates. This will not be easy, as the financial imbalance of education costs is, and will be, a growing problem. In this context, I support the work embarked upon by the Colleges and the University to explore how the supervision model that distinguishes a Cambridge education can evolve to best serve the interests of our students in the future. We must retain and grow the current quality of provision, while protecting equality of opportunity across the collegiate University. The solution to this problem will require leadership nationally, as well as within the University and the Colleges. Fair access for the very best students, be they from the UK or from further afield is essential. Cambridge must raise the aspirations of potential candidates and continue to admit undergraduate students on the principle that intellectual potential is the sole criterion. Our intention must remain to provide the resources to ensure that no undergraduate student is deterred from studying at Cambridge because of financial need.

Postgraduate education is a growth area for all leading international universities and Cambridge is no exception. Courses addressing the learning needs of postgraduates at MPhil level should be developed as appropriate and we should be prepared to innovate and adapt. However, recruiting research students in all disciplines is vital. Recruitment and competition are global. The provision of infrastructure, financial support through globally competitive scholarships - like those provided by the extraordinary generosity of the Gates Foundation - and ensuring the very best academic supervision to attract these students is key. And when postgraduates arrive, addressing their needs is essential. I have watched the development of Graduate Schools within Cambridge and I believe that this provides the right environment and structure for our students and will ensure the highest quality supervision, completion rates and generic training.

These aspirations again underline the need to become as financially independent as possible if we are to remain truly competitive and in turn protect our academic independence.

Research

If education is the bedrock of Cambridge, then research excellence is the defining feature of our institutional landscape. It is integral to fulfilling the University's mission and thus plays a major part in establishing our international reputation. Our international reputation in turn attracts outstanding academics and postgraduate students to this centre of global research excellence.

A high level of research income is necessary in many academic disciplines but it is all too easy to believe that this alone can be a proxy for research excellence. We all recognise that research of the highest quality is often achieved with much lower levels of funding in some disciplines and in an internationally leading University this success must also be applauded and supported. However, the common factor for all disciplines is that there is no substitute for recruiting and retaining the very best staff if we are to enjoy continued success. Our academic staff must have the time, resources and infrastructure to develop their interests and to attract others to forge strong teams. It is only they who can foster the continued spirit of enquiry and thereby enhance education, as well as - yes - attract further competitive resources to ensure long-term sustainability.

This is a challenging 'bottom-up' model for a research-led university which we all recognise and subscribe to. However, it will be a considerable task to continue this approach across the whole spectrum of academic disciplines in Cambridge.

Furthermore, this model is being challenged in many spheres of research endeavour by 'top-down' or 'grand challenges' approaches increasingly favoured by national and international funders. I am very conscious of the leadership shown by many members of the University and their inherent instinct for collaboration that is promoting the development of large-scale initiatives of global importance to society and embracing researchers from all disciplines. To maintain its pre-eminence, the University will have to accommodate this trend, while retaining the 'investigator-led' approach. This requires us to continue to support academic diversity within the University, through the excellence of individuals, Departments, Faculties and Schools but simultaneously to enable and empower interdisciplinary support for large collaborative projects.

We have the freedom, based on our excellence and reputation, to seek large-scale funding when it fits with our strategic priorities and not to be forced into 'chasing resources' incompatible with these priorities. We must use that advantage to our benefit! When the opportunity is right, we need to co-ordinate even more effectively between disciplines and provide the leadership and organisation that is critical in attracting large and strategic awards. To be successful in these endeavours requires us to have a clear vision that we can communicate effectively to influence research funders and donors when they in turn are required to establish their funding priorities, which, as I am well aware, is a major challenge for them in this financial climate. Our research funders and philanthropic donors will not support a university that 'muddles through'. They will only place large-scale investment in a university when they see clarity of vision and strategic direction alongside an excellence in execution that will lead to transformative outcomes; transformation through education of the lives of our students and transformation of the world through the research and scholarship that we undertake.

I have been interested all my working life in how research can influence the well-being and development of societies and the individual. There is a vogue to seek to divide 'basic' or 'curiosity driven' research from 'translation and innovation'. This is a sterile debate, as this is in reality a continuum. Cambridge must nurture and protect fundamental research as the foundation of innovation, but, as our mission charges us, we must also look outwards to improve lives and opportunity in society. These goals are not in conflict. In a few days, I will be giving the keynote speech celebrating 50 years of the so-called 'Cambridge Phenomenon', a remarkable witness to Cambridge's leadership in enabling the interaction of ideas, enterprise and investment that has created a world-leading cluster of innovative firms in synergy with the University and our region.

We are privileged in having these opportunities. We have to seize them to pursue the vision and the mission of the University, and the values enshrined in our approach to education as well as the full spectrum of research endeavour, ensuring that it is available to the benefit of society.

Cambridge as a global university

Our hard-won reputation, as a premier international university, carries with it responsibility as well as opportunity. We are well placed to attract staff from around the world and are able to engage in exciting collaborative projects alongside the best international researchers. The University's international database records 2,758 collaborations in 142 countries encompassing most of our academic disciplines. We must continue to encourage such interactions at the project/investigator level, but we must also consider how we ensure that appropriate institutional linkages in support of this activity can be forged.

Much is already under way in this regard. Valuable interactions based on strategies developed in the past seven years with, for example, China, North America and India are thriving or being developed to new levels of engagement. This must continue but we must also ensure that where we enter into such agreements, we deliver what was promised and are perceived as strong and respected partners who can be trusted to grow such enterprises further.

There are new and future opportunities that we need to consider. From a personal perspective, Europe and the EU are often forgotten but developments such as Joint Programming, Framework Programme 8 and the European Research Area will need to be explored. As Europe's leading university, it behoves us not to let any such opportunity pass us by. Similarly, as a clinician and investigator, I have been engaged with the needs of resource-poor countries, which may themselves not have the financial resources to support research endeavours but can provide a richness of academic opportunity be it in capacity building or addressing very practical problems on a large, multidisciplinary scale.

Our global pre-eminence will be challenged both internationally and domestically; standing still is not an option and we must continue to adapt and develop. A continued focus for the University on external relations is necessary to maintain our leading role. Since my appointment in December, I have come to realise how important it will be to communicate clearly and effectively in the public arena our values, our contribution, and the reality of what it takes to be a university in the top rank. This is a role of leadership and one I share with all of you. Too many, otherwise well-informed people, consider Cambridge to be rich and that its success in fundraising through the current Campaign was simply unnecessary icing on a well-egged cake. Whereas I know that the opposite is true: without sustained philanthropy and a capacity to attract funding now and in the future, we simply won't be able to compete with far better funded peers both in the United States and increasingly in the East.

Therefore the challenge to the new Vice-Chancellor is clear. It is to lead the University in a competitive and difficult economic environment, to secure our financial base despite short-term fluctuations, develop an infrastructure commensurate with an internationally leading university, and ensure the best possible environment to recruit and retain academic staff and students of the highest quality. However, this cannot, and must not ever be, a one-man operation - because it inherently affects all of us who value and cherish what Cambridge has stood for in its 800 years.

For this reason, I know that I will be joining a community that is made up of outstanding individuals who are bound by the shared value of the pursuit of excellence. This shared value will drive us to continuous improvement in all aspects of our mission without compromise. Although the challenges are daunting, I am confident that together we will achieve the goals and vision of that mission.