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The annual address of the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Alison Richard, 1 October 2009

Introduction

We celebrate Cambridge University's historic contributions in this 800th year and we also look to the future. This morning, my eyes are on the future.

Cambridge occupies a distinctive and distinguished place among universities, but our future health and that of UK higher education as a wholei are interdependent. Between us, we offer splendidly varied and high-quality opportunities for learning and research, to the enormous benefit of UK students and society. We serve for one another as important pools of talent, postgraduate students as well as staff. Even as we become increasingly active overseas, we benefit greatly from collaboration and competition at home. Cambridge's international standing is enhanced by virtue of belonging to one of the best university systems in the world and, in turn, Cambridge adds lustre to the reputation of that system.

The importance of this interdependence led me to speak about the British university system in my address to vice-chancellors gathered here from around the UK last autumn.ii I spoke then about the opportunities and challenges we face, singly and together, and I have chosen to focus my remarks on this issue again today.iii

Cambridge has its own clear interest in the outcome of current national debates about the future of higher education, which will be carried forward by publication of the Government's Higher Education Framework this autumn. Difficult economic times add urgency to the task of formulating and holding to a long-term view.

Here in Cambridge, we must be clear about our purposes. In the public arena, we must speak up for the enduring value of the academic excellence embodied in this institution. For most of its history, Cambridge had little need to do so. The world had few universities, there was not much competition, and the remit of universities in society was narrow. All this has changed. The inspired opportunism which helped make Cambridge a great university will surely be important in the future too. But inspired opportunism will not be enough, as we chart the course ahead.

My goal is for Cambridge to remain an internationally acclaimed university, recognized among the best in the world, a magnet for the world's finest minds, a transformational force for good. But just as Cambridge's global reputation is a significant asset for many universities in this country, so we depend for our success on the university system to which we belong. That conviction is the point of departure for my remarks this morning.

I will first consider the system's present success, for therein lie clues to a successful future. But a significant dilemma must be resolved if the current high quality of our universities is not to drift downwards. I will explore the nature of this dilemma, and suggest ways to help resolve it and thereby sustain and enhance what already exists.

The nature of success

The UK university system is second only to the vastly bigger US system in its number of internationally top-ranked universities, and in the percentage of overseas students it attracts each year. These are significant achievements, too often overlooked. They were not quickly or easily won. In an increasingly competitive world, they can be quickly and permanently lost.

Within the UK, universities deliver huge benefits, particularly well documented in science, technology and medicine, the greatest of which may be the flow of graduates into the workforce. The most remarked-upon, however, is the rapid expansion of our role as innovators with a significant economic impact, fuelled by an outstanding record of scientific discovery.iv In recent years, high-technology and biotechnology clusters have sprung up around a number of research-intensive universities, following Cambridge's pioneering lead.

Focusing only on what is most easily measured or on immediate economic impact is to miss the deeper point, of course. Through the arts, humanities and social sciences, this country's universities contribute broadly to society, adding greatly to human well-being. v Although universities are offering their best help in the economic downturn, as institutions we are above all for, and about, the long term, the students of today who will be the workforce, citizens and leaders of tomorrow; the discoveries that will transform the future; the scholarly insights that will change the way the world thinks and acts.

What has made the UK system so successful? Considering this question at the Universities UK conference last year, I pointed to the quality of what we provide, the talent we attract, and the diversity of strengths that, between us, we offer. The diversity of UK universities is partially reflected in the 'mission groups' with which many of the UK's 169 universities loosely align themselves – the Russell Group, Million +, 1994 Group and others. It is most vividly evident, however, in our differences in age, size, history, governance, in the makeup of our student bodies, course offerings, the kinds of research we do, the combination of teaching and research, and the balance of academic and professional or pre-professional training. Add to this the 376 colleges of further education, and the opportunities for post-secondary education and training in this country are spectacularly broad.

The historic autonomy of this country's universities, embodied in our arm's-length relationship with government, has surely been critical to our success and distinctiveness. It has underpinned creativity and experimentation for institutions, and freedom of enquiry for individual academics. All this has helped make universities attractive places for talented people to work, study and live.

For close to a hundred years, alongside vigorously defended institutional autonomy there have been clear but shifting national policy objectives for higher education. These drove investment in a great expansion of universities, and also helped bring about the diversity we see today. Tension is inevitable between autonomy and accountability for public funds, between unfettered exploration and responsiveness to the priorities of government and society. As public interest and investment in universities increase, so too does the public demand for accountability. Responding to that demand is not a simple matter. As Harvard President Drew Faust pointed out in her inaugural address, universities are required to report an ever-growing array of statistics, many of them important to know, 'but our purposes are far more ambitious and our accountability thus far more difficult to explain'.vi

Upholding our autonomy and establishing appropriate accountability are essential for the future, but the day is over for another element that helped build the stature of universities here: the British Empire. For 250 years, the reputation of UK universities was deeply intertwined with the dominance and authority of Britain in world affairs, and university education played an important role shaping and sustaining that pre-eminence. Today, Commonwealth connections promote cooperation between universities, and that is welcome. But the only basis on which the universities of this small land will continue to flourish is a reputation for being of the very highest quality.

A significant dilemma

I said at the outset that the future high quality and diversity of universities are threatened by an unresolved dilemma. Let me now explore this proposition.

Most people would agree that diversity amongst institutions is not an inherent form of unfairness but, rather, a real strength for students, society and universities themselves. Yet public policy neither acknowledges this nor encourages it explicitly in national strategy. Why not? I suggest that two concerns stand in the way.

One is that diversity 'by design' would reduce universities' autonomy and limit institutional ambition and innovation. It is a concern we must all share. But the funding arrangements in place today encourage homogeneity. Universities are financially rewarded for high-quality research wherever it is found, without a comparable arrangement allowing for recognition of high-quality teaching. This is a prescription for convergence on a single, research-dominated institutional strategy. In a homogenous world, the depressed average will be the norm and the UK economy and society will suffer as a result. Moreover, teaching excellence – not to be confused with uniformity – is vital in all parts of the system, for students and for society.

A second concern, focusing on undergraduate admissions, is that policies encouraging institutional diversity would map on to, and perpetuate, distinctions between students of differing social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds. Again, it is a concern for us all, but universities' admissions objectives run squarely counter to it. At Cambridge our goal, fervently espoused, is to admit the most talented students and ensure that neither family income, nor misplaced ideas about not fitting in, nor poor advice from schools, discourage such students from applying or stand in the way of their admission. Social mobility, gender balance and ethnic mix are not driving forces in the process – they are not our primary purpose – although they are surely important outcomes for society, and for Cambridge.

In sum, the idea of diversity 'by design' raises legitimate concerns. Yet the current diversity of universities, appreciated as a strength by many, is at risk for want of mechanisms to sustain it. Is there a way out of the conundrum?

The case of California

Looking for ideas, it is helpful to consider higher education in California, even though its future is now threatened by major budgetary problems. The California Master Plan for Higher Education became law in 1960,vii negotiated not by government but by the leaders of California's colleges and universities. Its founding principles were that affordable post-secondary education and training should be available to all residents of the State; qualified individuals should be able to extend their education by transferring between institutions within the system; and research activities should be concentrated in order to achieve international excellence and impact.

The tripartite design of the system limited the ambitions and opportunities of individual institutions while encouraging them to create their own distinctive excellence within their particular set of responsibilities. The three segments were differentiated as to forms of governance, levels of instruction, standards for admission, transfer of students from one segment to another, and funding. The two-year community colleges were to be open to all school leavers and others who could benefit from remedial work, technical and vocational training, or an Associate of Arts degree. Campuses of the California State University were to draw students from the academic top third of school leavers, and qualified students transferring from the community colleges. Bachelor and masters degrees would be offered, but not doctorates. The University of California was enjoined to educate academically outstanding school leavers and high-achieving students transferring from the State University and community colleges; it was also to build excellence in fundamental research and, uniquely among the three segments, to offer PhD programmes.

Alongside this tripartite system sat private universities and two- and four-year colleges without sponsorship from the State of California.

Over the years, the design features of the system have encouraged collaboration as well as competition. In particular, collaborations between the State University and the University of California have developed, both in research and the offering of joint-doctorates. As a whole, the system has proved resilient and, by and large, successful in achieving its objectives. It has also demonstrated that productive coexistence is possible between those universities offering state-subsidized undergraduate education and those entirely privately supported. The system may yet fall victim to failed tax policies and lack of political will in California, but not to flaws in its design.

Deliberate diversity

I believe there is a middle ground between the Californian system and the current course in the UK which is set to erode existing strengths. That middle ground would allow and indeed encourage institutional diversity and experiment, without attempting to preserve or impose a particular design. I call this middle ground 'deliberate diversity'. It is in the overwhelming interest of this country to find it.

Success will depend on broad societal acceptance of four propositions: (i) students have a wide range of talents, needs and ambitions, and should have a wide range of institutions available when considering further study, without barriers of socioeconomic background, gender or ethnicity standing in their way; (ii) post-secondary education and training are a public and private good and must be strongly supported by multiple income streams; (iii) although the purposes of research are varied, fundamental research is of pre-eminent, long-term importance, and concentrated, sustained investment is essential to maintain the highest levels of international research competitiveness and the transformational contributions to society that flow from it; and (iv) universities must remain free to innovate, to shape their individual missions, and to excel in a variety of ways.

These propositions need to be developed in the UK – in policy and in practice. The distinction is important: a sound policy framework can enable and encourage, but universities and their academic staff must remain free to take decisions and act creatively within that framework. Three policy directions in keeping with the spirit of these propositions could, I believe, enhance the high quality of the UK system today, amplifying its diversity without falling prey to the perceived perils of 'design'.

First, the strategic framework of higher education needs to do more to enable qualified students to pursue their ambitions across as well as within institutions, including colleges of further education. It would benefit students and, with widening participation activities and admissions procedures already in place across the university system, it would also help address concerns about institutional diversity perpetuating distinctions within society.

Pursuing this initiative will not be easy, as the uneven experience of student transfer in California has made clear.viii The distinctive nature of higher education in this country makes it difficult to envisage simply importing a US model. Credit transfer mechanisms are still under development here,ix and risk unleashing calls for standardization that undermine autonomy and the very idea of institutional diversity. Nevertheless, an approach tailored to the UK could enhance the development of students' talents and ambitions, while simultaneously reaffirming the distinctive roles of the institutions at which they study.

Second, investment in research infrastructure – distinct from but linked to competitive research funding – must continue to allow the concentration of funding necessary for international competitiveness, as it has done successfully for much of the last decade. Scale and breadth are as important to research training as to research, and funding for PhD programmes should have more exacting criteria for the creation or continuation of programmes, under the leadership of the research councils. As a corollary step, collaboration should be encouraged between research programmes with formal degree-granting authority and those that could contribute to students' training while not meeting degree-granting criteria.

Third, both public and private investment in higher education must continue to grow over the coming years. Universities themselves must have greater freedom to diversify and develop sources of income to support not only research but their educational activities as well. It is not a good time to call for increased investment, but the need is urgent nonetheless. Let us remember that Britain still spends less on higher education than most other OECD countries in terms of GDP, expenditure per student, and as a percentage of total expenditure on education. This under-investment extends not only to the public purse but also to the private sector, including students and their families.

Conclusion

I did not start out six years ago with the conviction that is at the heart of my address this morning. But I have become convinced that Cambridge's standing in the world sustains and is rooted in the widely recognized strength of this country's university system as a whole. Change is needed if the system is to continue to flourish. Recognizing the success of our complex interdependence and the sources of that success are a first step, and evolutionary changes must follow.

For Cambridge, the most significant feature of the propositions and directions I have outlined is less their potential financial consequences, vital as they are, than the assurance they would give. Cambridge has no entitlement to high levels of concentrated investments, public or private: holding fast to our values and ambitions, we must continue to merit those investments. Yet the assurance that the excellence of this University is valued by others and will be supported by government and society is essential to our future.

My goal in discussing these issues is to promote the kind of informal discussion through which Cambridge does much of its best institutional thinking, and to mobilize more broadly our energies and leadership in the national debate. As champions of the enduring value of academic excellence, we need to make clear that pride in our own achievements and our own ambitions for the future are deeply tied to the pride and ambitions of higher education as a whole in this country. I have argued that higher education policy must run with the grain of institutional diversity, not against it. Vision, determination and support from within the university community will be required to achieve this. Let us do our best to help.


Footnotes

i Universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland diverge in certain areas of policy, funding, and educational philosophy which is an interesting subject in its own right, but in the context of this address my use of 'UK higher education system' is inclusive.

ii Quality, Talent and Diversity in the UK University System. Opening speech at the Universities UK Annual Conference, 10 September 2008 (www.admin.cam.ac.uk/offices/v-c/speeches/20080910.html).

iii I am very grateful to Cambridge colleagues, and US alumni and friends of the University, for their ideas and comments on drafts of this address.

iv This is well documented in The Race to the Top by Lord Sainsbury of Turville, 2007, and in several publications by Universities-UK. This University's contributions have been described in The Impact of the University of Cambridge on the UK Economy and Society, Library House Report, 2005.  

v That Full Complement of Riches: the Contributions of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences to the Nation's Wealth, Report of the British Academy, January 2004. Leading the World: the Economic Impact of UK Arts and Humanities Research, Report of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, June 2009.

vi From President Faust's Inaugural Address, 12 October 2007. 7 Clark Kerr, then President of the University of California, was the Master Plan's architect, and his writings about the system and its evolution over the next 40 years are assembled in The Uses of the University 5 th edition, Harvard University Press, 2001.  

viiClark Kerr, then President of the University of California, was the Master Plan's architect, and his writings about the system and its evolution over the next 40 years are assembled in The Uses of the University 5th edition, Harvard University Press, 2001.

viii See also Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities by W.G. Bowen, M.M. Chingos and M.S. McPherson, Princeton University Press, 2009.

ix The Burgess Report discusses this in depth.