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Vice-Chancellor's Office

 

Colleagues, students, alumni and friends – 

Introduction

Over the past few days, many colleagues have started working in reopened University buildings, and it has been good to regain a sense of partial normality – even though we know that things are far from normal

To remark that the past year has been unusual is an understatement.

We have grown accustomed to hearing – and to saying – how extraordinary, how unprecedented, how strange the last few months have been.

Yet long before most of us had even heard about COVID-19, the academic year already felt momentous – punctuated by great joy and by unspeakable grief.

Only a week after I last stood here a year ago, the Nobel Committee awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize for Physics to three scientists including our very own Didier Queloz, for the discovery of the first known planet outside our solar system orbiting another sun-like star.

The day before, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine had been awarded to a Cambridge alum, Peter Ratcliffe.

How we rejoiced at the news. How we still rejoice.

But the first term of the academic year, which began with such promise, came to a close shrouded in shock and sorrow following the fatal attack at an event in London hosted by the University’s Learning Together Programme.

Let us remember today Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt, who left an indelible mark through their involvement with Learning Together.

Let us remember today those colleagues who experienced those terrible moments, and whom we are fortunate to have with us still.

Let us remember today the many selfless acts of courage and kindness that took place amid the horror, and in its aftermath.

Some light and hope came with the release, in January, of Peter Biar Ajak, a doctoral student from Trinity who had been arrested in South Sudan and imprisoned for a year and a half without trial.

Today we can celebrate the news that, only days ago, Peter submitted his final PhD thesis, and he has now been approved for his degree.

A message of thanks

In my Address today,  I wish to deliver three simple messages

  • A message of thanks to our community;
  • A message of tremendous pride in our community;
  • And finally, a message of aspiration for the year ahead.

The world has experienced a disruption unlike any of us have ever known in our lifetimes.

Things that seemed unimaginable when I delivered this Address a year ago – the clear and present risk to public health, the shutting down of our institutions, the cutting off of our social contacts – were, quite suddenly, the new pattern of our lives.

The pandemic has affected us in ways we are only beginning to understand. We are confronted with deep uncertainty.

We grieve for friends, for relatives and for colleagues who have been taken from us.

We stand in solidarity with those who have become ill, or found themselves isolated, or who must care for others.

And like people the world over, we dare to dream of better days.

But it fills me with gratitude to remember how, at the moment of greatest challenge, our collegiate community rallied and rose to the occasion.

I wish to express my profound thanks to all of you – students, staff, alumni and friends of the University – for your efforts over the past seven months.

From the earliest days of the pandemic, the University’s Advisory Group on Communicable Disease, and our Occupational Health and Safety Teams, have been an indispensable source of advice – and a key point of contact with public health authorities.

Various dedicated COVID teams and taskforces have brought together University and college officers to advise on policies and protocols, and to agree on communications.

College colleagues – from Heads of House, Senior Tutors and Bursars to college nurses, domestic staff, catering managers and porters – were swift in responding when our students were asked to return to their homes – and made huge efforts to care for those who stayed behind.

At a time of national crisis, there were offers from our Colleges and from our Institute of Continuing Education to house key health workers.

Working with a national charity, one of our colleges – St Catharine’s – provided temporary accommodation for victims of domestic abuse in need of a safe space.

When it was in critically short supply, University departments collected spare personal protection equipment for frontline health workers, while our alumni made generous donations for further purchases.

In response to the urgent need for diagnostic testing, and in partnership with Astra Zeneca and GSK, a brilliant team scrambled to assemble a University-based testing facility in record time, a vital – and never has that word been used more purposefully – a vital contribution to the national effort to hold the disease at bay.

Facilities managers, heads of institution and departmental administrators were extraordinarily effective in closing down more than 300 buildings safely and securely – and later, in managing the fraught process of reopening most of them.

Colleagues in Faculties, Departments and Colleges worked tirelessly to modify the ways in which teaching was delivered to our students.

Within weeks, the University’s Education Services and University Information Services had managed to move methods of assessment online – so successfully, in fact, that many University departments have said they’d like to continue to try new methods rather than revert to paper-based examinations.

All of us, across the collegiate University, adapted almost overnight to new ways of working.

The University’s Information Services helped University staff to quickly move online, and enabled new (and now common) forms of interaction.

And it was colleagues in our Human Resources division who produced the guidance for these new ways of working, and developed new systems to ensure business-critical activities could continue.

The University Counselling Service, under the pressure of increased demand, moved quickly to offer remote support.

Cambridge University Press responded to the global lockdown by making much of its academic and educational content freely available.

With families across the world having to support and supplement their children’s education, the University’s mathematical outreach resources were getting up to 1.25 million views globally every week.

There was no end to the creativity shown by our community in its efforts to see us through the critical period.

It was a joy to see our libraries, our museums and our Botanical Garden offering online resources at a time when we were all thirsty for beauty and for a sense of connection.

Our Postdoctoral and Entrepreneurial Societies created digital well-being and support channels for the wider community.

Our Sports Division found new ways to engage staff and students even when facilities were closed.

Our students turned the disappointing cancellation of May Week into a rallying call for support to local charities.

More recently, when the COVID-related disruption of national exams caused disarray for university admissions systems, our Admissions teams pulled off the extraordinary feat of ensuring that all students who made their offer, in whatever way, were admitted for 2020 if they still wanted to come.

As a result, and thanks to the flexibility of Faculties, Departments and Colleges, we are today welcoming a record number of new undergraduates – and more international students than ever before.

It is now clear that widespread testing will be essential to ensuring that Cambridge – the University and the City – is as safe an environment as possible.

So over the summer, scores of colleagues have been involved in setting up and managing the University’s sites for testing of symptomatic staff and students.

Thanks to those colleagues, the University will now be able to offer a unique programme of asymptomatic pooled testing for students in College accommodation, one that we hope can be a source of needed innovation across the country.

Good communications are essential in any crisis, and our Office of External Affairs and Communications has been unstinting in its efforts to keep our community informed and engaged throughout.

It has played a particularly critical role in the design and implementation of our public health campaign, Stay Safe Cambridge Uni, on which we have worked closely with student and trade union representatives.

We all owe all of them – all of you – a huge debt of gratitude. The gardeners, the groundskeepers, the security guards, the lecturers, the lab technicians and librarians. 

Thousands whose commitment has seen us through the past few months.

This has truly been a collective effort

If, as a collegiate community, we have managed to achieve the position we are in today, it is because of your dedication and your generosity.

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you – one and all.

A message of pride

My gratitude is matched only by my tremendous pride in the University’s accomplishments over the past year.

It has been a thrill to witness, over and over again, our community’s creativity, resilience and resourcefulness.

I do not wish to dwell only on the pandemic, but let me start by mentioning briefly some of the COVID-related achievements.

We know how long it can take in a University like ours to get even the best ideas off the ground.

And yet, faced with a global health emergency, our researchers jumped into action.

One of our Departments, the Cambridge Institute for Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease, pivoted almost the entirety of its research towards understanding and treating COVID-19.

Dozens of new research projects on COVID’s nature and transmission have been launched, as well as on therapeutics and vaccine research.

There are live research projects on the impact of COVID on mental health and social behaviour.

There are research projects on NHS capacity, on PPE, and on the logistics and supply chains for frontline resources.

And there is a large number of new research projects on post-COVID recovery, including studies on the economic impact of the pandemic on social and educational equality, and crucially, on how we can prevent future pandemics.

Cambridge epidemiologists, pathologists, immunologists, mathematicians and veterinary scientists are helping the government – and the public – better understand the disease.

The University is leading a major alliance of UK research institutions using Cambridge’s world-leading expertise in genomics to map the spread of COVID-19. This has already helped the NHS manage outbreaks of the disease and prevent hospital-acquired infections.

A team from the Department of Engineering’s Whittle Laboratory, working with colleagues from the Institute for Manufacturing and in collaboration with a manufacturer in South Africa, designed an award-winning low-cost open source ventilator for use in low income countries.

Just recently, the University joined a Trinity College-sponsored coalition of some of the world’s leading businesses and academic and technology institutions to launch The Trinity Challenge – a global competition offering a £10m prize fund for breakthrough solutions to ensure the world is better protected against future health emergencies.

We often remark on the University of Cambridge’s mission: to contribute to society through education, learning and research.

I cannot think of a more powerful contribution to society than our University’s response to this pandemic.

But let’s not forget that, in this unusual year, there have been many more examples of exceptional achievement – and I don’t just mean the superb wins by both the men’s and women’s rugby teams at the 2019 Varsity match, or the Light Blues’ victory in the rescheduled cricket match that took place earlier this month.

Last year I emphasised our commitment to making Cambridge a place that is open and accessible to the most talented students, no matter where they are from. 

Our outreach efforts have intensified, notably through the Get-In Cambridge campaign, which – alongside the open spirited generosity of Stormzy – has seen us admit Black students in record numbers.

The work of widening access is never done, but I am hugely encouraged to see that we are taking strides in the right direction.

We have the highest ever proportion of state school students arriving this year – 70% of our freshers – as well as greater numbers from areas of low participation. In fact we have surpassed all our annual widening access targets.

Across the University, work has continued at pace to prepare our Foundation Year, aiming to address educational disadvantage and further expand our applicant pool.

We will be welcoming the first cohort of students in October 2022.

We are committed to widening participation among postgraduate students, too, and have now appointed a dedicated officer with this responsibility – to my knowledge the first such post in the country.

We are expanding access to education in other ways.

I was delighted to see Cambridge launching its first ever fully-online programme – a MicroMasters programme in Writing for Performance and the Entertainment Industry.

The result of a partnership between online platform edX and our Institute for Continuing Education, this is the first of many such online courses that Cambridge intends to offer to learners of all ages across the world.

It is a taste of things to come, and a key part of what I hope will be a dramatic expansion of our online education offering.

Of course the more conspicuous use of online communication has given us some extraordinary chances to engage more widely with our alumni community.

Our five COVID-related webinars, called Cambridge Conversations, plus the two digital Global Cambridge events, attracted over 9,000 alumni and friends.

1,200 of our alumni signed up to our first virtual Book Club.

As the world went into lockdown, over 4,000 alumni across the globe accessed home schooling resources from Cambridge.

At the recent Alumni Festival, over 7,000 alumni generated close to 30,000 event bookings for over 100 different events.

All in all, a magnificent leap in participation from the University’s alumni community.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is how profoundly, how intricately connected we are with the rest of the world.

It has also brought home the fact that we simply cannot face global threats alone.

Strong and equitable partnerships with like-minded institutions around the world are more important than ever.

Earlier this year our Council endorsed the University’s International Strategy, which will guide the way we develop and nurture our relationships with overseas universities, international organisations, and foreign governments or companies.

And even as we all found ourselves grounded, we discovered new ways to strengthen our long-distance relationships, and to work remotely but effectively with our international partners.

In the past few days alone I’ve spoken, remotely, at events organised by the University of Cape Town and by the Nanjing Municipal Government.

Despite the distance, in many ways it has felt like we are working together better than ever.

One noteworthy international initiative is our partnership with UNICEF and Microsoft to give vulnerable children in refugee and displaced person camps around the world access to better education.

Called Learning Passport, it is the result of joint work by Cambridge Assessment, Cambridge University Press and our Faculty of Education.

Learning Passport aims to help close the learning poverty gap by offering high-quality, flexible learning to help vulnerable children attain proficiency in maths, science and literacy.

Elsewhere, a new Crop Science Centre launched in Cambridge, established jointly with the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, will be a hub for collaboration with scientists from countries including India, Ethiopia and The Gambia.  

Over the past year, Cambridge colleagues have continued to win European Research Council grants – a sign of how highly Cambridge talent is valued in Europe.

Questions remain, of course, over Britain’s exit from the EU.

This is the third annual address in which I raise this as an unresolved prospect, hanging heavily over our heads.

All I will say today is that we continue to plan for the eventualities of a disruptive departure – to quote Maya Angelou, “Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst… and unsurprised by anything in between.”

Despite the COVID disruption, we have charged ahead with important initiatives.

Cambridge is a partner in the new Productivity Institute, announced in August by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

The new Institute will bring together researchers from across the country to tackle job creation, sustainability and wellbeing, as the UK looks to a post-pandemic future full of technological and environmental upheaval.

The University’s Bennet Institute for Public Policy and our Faculty of Education will both play a key role in this project, underwritten by the largest single investment ever made by the British Government in economic and social research.

A milestone of the past year – and a thrilling moment for me – was the launch of Cambridge Zero, the University’s response to the challenge of climate change.

For centuries, Cambridge scholars have produced some of the boldest and most daringly original ideas and technologies.

Cambridge Zero is harnessing that boldness of thought to understand and mitigate the effects of climate change.

It is helping us to understand how society can move as rapidly as possible to a zero carbon future.

It is allowing us to provide the robust evidence needed by policymakers.

It is assisting us in deploying the collegiate University’s formidable convening power to effect meaningful and sustainable change.

Cambridge Zero is at the heart of the academic networks involved in advising the host British government in the run-up to the UN’s COP26 Climate Conference in 2021.

Cambridge Zero is also leading the University’s involvement with the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate, a group of 13 universities whose shared mission is to advance climate change solutions through research, education and public outreach – only a few days ago, in fact, Cambridge Zero hosted this group’s first high-level workshop.

Sustainability is also at the heart of the new National Centre for Propulsion and Power, based at the Whittle Laboratory, which got planning permission earlier this year.

Due to open in 2022, this new national facility will be a hub for partnerships with government and with industry.

It will help Cambridge lead the push towards massively reducing the carbon emissions of the aviation industry, while creating jobs and economic opportunities in our region and across the country.

And of course, as we think about the University’s contribution to a more sustainable future, we are also examining our own practices.

In a landmark decision, our Committee on Benefactions, External and Legal Affairs has established guidelines to ensure that, where we receive philanthropic and research funding, those sources align with our commitment to combatting climate change.

The University Council commissioned a report on the benefits and disadvantages of divesting the University endowment from companies that trade in fossil fuels.

The report was delivered to the Council at its meeting last week, and warmly welcomed.

I am announcing today that the University Council has now endorsed a set of proposals, articulated by the University’s Investment Office, which will have far reaching consequences for our investment portfolio.

These proposals will underpin the University’s efforts to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2038 – more than a decade before the target date set by the UK government.

This goal is unique amongst leading universities with significant endowments.

Central to our carbon cutting efforts will be our aim to divest from all direct and indirect investments in fossil fuels by 2030, as our Endowment Fund ramps up its investments in renewable energy.

In endorsing the proposals, our Council has set a strategy to position Cambridge as a national and global leader in research into practical climate solutions.

As an investor pressing for sustainable long-term portfolio management.

And as an adviser to industry and government on climate policy.

We will continue to deploy the University’s resources – under the leadership of our Cambridge Zero initiative – to support the global response to climate change, and the wider United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

With these decisions, the University is responding comprehensively to a pressing environmental and moral need for action with a historic announcement that demonstrates our determination to seek solutions to the climate crisis.

We will approach with renewed confidence and commitment our collaborations with government, industry and research partners around the world as we work together for a sustainable future.

A message of aspiration

Colleagues, friends – 

When a year ago I said that “Change is certainly something we must actively address as a Collegiate University”… our current situation was not what I had in mind.

One hopes that institutional change can come from within.

But sometimes change is thrust upon us.

Now is such a time.

And it is difficult not to be filled with the unnerving sense that, to use the words of Seamus Heaney, “Anything can happen… Ground gives… nothing resettles right”.

The world has changed, and so must we.

It is likely we must live with COVID for the foreseeable future, and as a community we must learn to manage it.

And while we cannot eliminate all risk – that is impossible – we are doing everything in our power to minimise it.

 For now, we must look to keep our eyes fixed firmly on the future, forging ahead with the necessary work to make the University an even better place to study, to work, and to engage in the creation, curation and communication of knowledge.

That has been the challenge for colleagues involved in the drafting of the University’s Recovery Plan, which will not only offer a roadmap to lead us out of the immediate crisis, but will also help us rethink and re-envision our future Cambridge.

Just as our Science Festival and Festival of Ideas have been reinvented, and will return in the spring as a bigger, better and bolder single event for our community, we must all look at how we evolve to help lead a changing world.

This is the time to lay stronger foundations for a more resilient University.

We must learn from – and continue to act upon – the recent staff survey, in which colleagues reported that there are significant advantages to new ways of working – for instance, a greater sense of peer support, or greater flexibility and control over working patterns – alongside serious shortcomings – including social isolation, and difficulties with motivation.

We will redouble our work with students and staff to ensure that Cambridge is a place where people of all colours, of all backgrounds, of all sexual orientations, feel welcomed, respected, represented, seen and really heard.

We cannot slacken the pace in the continuing process of reforming University finances to allow us to operate more effectively, and to achieve maximum academic potential and impact.

This is a tremendous endeavour, and will require the cooperation of colleagues across the University to ensure that the Cambridge of the future is financially robust so that we can continue to invest in our academic mission.

The importance of digital education has been dramatically demonstrated over the past few months, and here Cambridge must grasp the opportunity to advance further and faster the work that had already begun.

Our Centre for Teaching and Learning is leading our transition to blended learning, building on our tradition of small group teaching by adding online provision and allowing the in-person experience to be even richer and more intellectually challenging.

Cambridge University Press and Cambridge Assessment are joining forces with the academic University to create what we are for now calling Cambridge Online Education – pooling our very considerable technological and scholarly resources to help deliver the highest quality of teaching and learning that a University can offer to alumni and the wider world.

Now is the time to re-imagine Cambridge for a post-pandemic world.

he past year has offered proof that, in the face of adversity, collegiate Cambridge – including our alumni community – can come together in new and unexpected ways.

Like all of you, I’m sure, over the past few months I have occasionally felt isolated – but never alone.

And through moments of joy, of tragedy and crisis, I have felt we are building an ever-stronger community.

I treasure that feeling, and I ask all of you to hold onto it too.

We will need that cohesion and collective purpose to see us through the choppy waters ahead.

I look to the coming year with some trepidation, I admit – but also a huge sense of possibility.

I trust that all of us, together, will continue to show creativity, resilience and empathy to make this academic year a success – no matter what the world throws at us.

Thank you, and stay safe.