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Vice-Chancellor's Office


Turning priorities into a programme of action

October 2019

Professor Stephen J Toope

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

The University of Cambridge Mission Statement

Currently, in 2019, the University of Cambridge occupies a position of distinction amongst world universities, as it has for over eight centuries. No university has contributed more to the sum of human understanding, or to breakthrough ideas and discoveries that have changed the way we understand ourselves, our planet and even the universe around us. Yet the global and national contexts are filled with uncertainty and are fast-shifting. Drawing on the Priorities Framework elaborated after extensive consultation across the collegiate University, we must now agree a programme of action to ensure that the collegiate University thrives into the future, continuing to play an extraordinary role in education, research and contribution to local, national and global societies.


We must pause now and then, and take stock of the enormous impact Cambridge has on the world, and for us as members of the University community. We educate thousands of the most talented students in the world, and have done so for 800 years. In our Colleges and Departments, students explore intellectually and build extraordinary social capital. In our labs, libraries and research groups, we change the world on a daily basis. And the world notices, providing remarkable support. Over the last decade, our external research funding has doubled, now standing at more than £550m a year. Our first fundraising campaign produced over a billion pounds, then a record for a UK university. Our Dear World, Yours Cambridge Campaign has already reached £1.59 billion. Thousands of individual donors invest in us. David and Claudia Harding last year made the largest ever single gift by British citizens to any UK institution. The world wants us to succeed because the world knows that Cambridge creates. That Cambridge is insatiably curious. That Cambridge solves problems. The world needs Cambridge to succeed. Knowing that is one of the reasons it is so uniquely rewarding to work and study here.

However, many of us within the University, wrapped up in our work, feel near-constant external and internal pressure. Externally, Brexit uncertainty, growing government regulation, precarious economics that affect careers, and aggressive and often unfair media reporting can be draining. Nonetheless, we press ourselves to perform at very high levels of achievement, typically with resources that do not match those of other global universities. We can get caught up in bureaucratic tangles of our own making. At times, one can feel besieged from without and beleaguered from within.

Despite all the inevitable challenges and worries, though, with our heritage and widespread support in mind, we can and must move forward proudly and ambitiously.

What makes Cambridge so extraordinary?

Before setting out short- and medium-term goals and detailed actions, it is worth reflecting on what it is that makes Cambridge an extraordinary university. Of course, we struggle to ‘define’ such a complex organism as Cambridge. Its sources of strength are multiple. Its very diversity and distribution of decision-making are remarkable assets because they promote independence of spirit and allow for rich experimentation. Sometimes they also slow necessary action, and inhibit collaboration. We value rugged independence and shared purpose; deep exploration of narrow themes and broad collaborations; local (often idiosyncratic) traditions and deep engagement with the wide world; education for academic influence and for global leadership in every field of endeavour. What might draw us together to make the greatest potential contributions to our world?

More than 60 years ago, the Canadian media guru, Marshall McLuhan coined the term 'global village'. He meant it to describe a world that had shrunk through breath-taking advances in communications technology, especially the rise of ‘cool’ media like television. We at Cambridge can usefully borrow the term to describe a different phenomenon.

Cambridge is extraordinary because it is and aspires even more today to be open and inviting: a global village, almost uniquely so amongst great world universities. Its thirty-one colleges possess a human scale that enables a profound mixing of students with different interests, knowledge bases and world views. Interdisciplinary conversation is in the college DNA, and extends to fellows from all around the globe who are constantly prompted to cross intellectual boundaries. But the colleges are federated into a University that aggregates talent, and focuses and supports it to produce remarkable, wide-ranging insight. The Schools, Faculties and Departments build further communities adding to the rich cross-currents of Cambridge intellectual life, as do the cross-school institutions like the University Library, museums and the Botanic Garden. The Cambridge model, which bridges the human to the global scale, continues to be remarkably effective in valuing insatiable curiosity that produces daringly original work with profound impact in the wider world.

Building from a strong base

Today, our goal must be to celebrate, nurture and build upon our unique human scale, intellectual independence and rich interactions to produce new thinking and discovery that enables positive change at a global scale.

Over the last eighteen months of consultation and discussion, our community has enunciated four strategic objectives for the University of Cambridge: Reinforcing Academic Quality in Research and Education; Enhancing Societal Impact; Ensuring that We Are a Great Place to Work; and Strengthening the Financial Position of the University. In working to fulfil those objectives, we agreed that we would recommit to a series of existing strengths. These strengths also represent core values of the University.

I have been heartened by the broad understanding and embrace of these strategic objectives across the collegiate University. To turn them from words into reality, it is now incumbent upon colleagues across collegiate Cambridge to embed them in our day-to-day work. Already, local plans are beginning to reflect important actions identified in the Priorities Framework, and we are beginning the hard work of ensuring that resource allocation decisions reflect the most pressing needs. But more focus is required.

I believe that over the next three years, we should emphasise the programme of action set out below. Some of this work is already well advanced, while other areas are only beginning or require further development before they can start. This set of plans and actions will serve as a base to reinforce and push forward the strengths of Cambridge. In three years’ time, however, we will need to assess progress and establish a next horizon of initiatives, further building upon the Priorities Framework to advance goals for 2030 and beyond.

I am fully aware that this complex work must be undertaken as we also grapple with a deficit in our operating budget. The University Council is determined, by the end of 2019-20, to have a credible plan to turn this deficit into an operating surplus that will allow the investment we need to remain a world leading university. We will have to exercise financial restraint and look to find efficiencies across University operations. But the Council has also recognised the need to invest in programmes that can result in real revenue growth (with disciplined and realistic costings). As we consider specific initiatives therefore, we should focus first on actions that will deliver additional revenue and/or reduce costs, allowing needed investment in critical areas that will enable progress on fundamental goals. Such focus will mean that some much-desired projects will have to be moved further out on the planning horizon.

Not the biggest university, nor the richest, Cambridge’s unique environment allows it to contribute mightily and disproportionately to a worldwide effort with many partners seeking to improve our collective future. Both a village and a global engine room of ideas and innovation. Extraordinary Cambridge.

Programmes of Action for the next three years1

  1. To ensure that Cambridge continues to be recognized as an extraordinary university, charting its own course to shape and significantly advance many fields of research, and is seen to be a global leader in interdisciplinary discovery and innovation with wide social, cultural and economic impact:
    1. Substantially and rapidly improve our efforts to attract and retain the world’s most talented staff, post-docs and post-graduate students.
      1. *Within the constraints on our operating budget, provide additional benefits identified as top priorities in the 2019 Staff Survey to those staff that are under the largest pressure from the high costs of living in and around Cambridge. Some efforts will require collaboration with partner organizations across the city and region of Cambridge.
      2. Step up efforts to encourage government to enhance support for research, and to build international partnerships, especially in a post-Brexit context.
      3. Reach the £300m target for post-graduate studentships in the Student Support Initiative.
      4. Continue to improve the post-doc experience through funding packages that offer more career development opportunities, greater connectivity with colleges and better research- and soft-skills training.
    2. Provide continued support for Institutions to deliver the best possible REF funding results.
    3. Building on the existing strategic research initiatives and networks, but looking as well for new opportunities, support at scale, through appropriate incentive structures and robust external funding, a suite of interdisciplinary research programmes that come to be acknowledged as Cambridge core strengths.
    4. *Articulate an International Strategy, building upon existing relationships but further focussing our efforts, that supports a modest but high-impact suite of strategic research and education collaborations with leading universities, governments, civil society organizations and businesses, and identifies priorities for international student recruitment.
  2. To ensure that Cambridge continues to be known as an extraordinarily rigorous and educationally innovative university, increasingly open to talented students from all backgrounds:
    1. Implement a suite of initiatives to ensure the widest possible access to undergraduate and post-graduate programmes by people with the talent to thrive at Cambridge from across social, cultural and economic spectrums. All these efforts will require seamless collaboration amongst colleges, schools, faculties and departments, and the University leadership.
      1. Reconsider/reaffirm the principles underlying Cambridge admissions. Refine admissions processes and outreach schemes, both undergraduate and post-graduate, to be both effective and efficient.
      2. Ensure completion of fundraising for the student wellbeing, and post-graduate and undergraduate studentship and bursary components, of the Student Support Initiative.
      3. Design and launch an undergraduate transition year programme.
      4. Build out short, effective undergraduate bridging course offerings.
    2. *Deliver and adequately resource a student mental health and wellbeing strategy that fully coordinates college and University provision, focussed on resilience and prevention.
    3. Work to expand student mobility at both the undergraduate and post-graduate levels. Create more summer placement opportunities for undergraduates across all sectors, within the UK and internationally. Build out options for Cambridge PhD students to engage with researchers in strategic university partners globally, including joint supervision arrangements. Work also to create a wide range of placements for PhD students outside academia, in industry, government and civil society.
    4. Uphold and support the value of teaching in a research-rich environment, and enhance interdisciplinary teaching opportunities.
      1. Build upon existing small-scale examples to create more and larger-scale interdisciplinary Tripos.
    5. Establish partnerships with the best on-line educational platforms and/or build a digital platform to deliver enhanced learning opportunities to current students, and to allow Cambridge to position itself much more strongly in continuing education and professional development/career transitions learning.
  3. To ensure that Cambridge continues to contribute to society in extraordinary and globally recognized ways, work creatively to find philanthropic and external research support at large scale for a handful of interdisciplinary research, education and public engagement platforms addressing fundamental issues facing humanity. Current efforts include:
    1. *Cambridge Zero: The University of Cambridge Zero Carbon Future Initiative. Linking together researchers in science, social science and the arts who are concerned to reverse, reduce, mitigate and help humanity adapt to climate change, this initiative will also promote operational shifts within the University estate to move to carbon neutrality as quickly as feasible. Will participate actively in a newly established global university network on climate change (Tsinghua, Tokyo, LSE, Berkeley, etc.).
    2. The Cambridge Initiative on Mind, Brain and Body. Linking together a network of researchers, including those studying psychiatry, neuroscience, psychology, and genetics, integrate work addressing widespread conditions such as depression and addiction, neurodegenerative disease, and psychosis.
    3. The Cambridge Initiative on Democracy, Social Inequality and Technology. Linking together a network of researchers on the effects of economic and social inequality, existential risk, science and society interactions, and democracy, consider the effects of technological innovation on institutions of society, including the future of democracy, and on social inequality.
    4. …and/or…
  4. To fulfil our ambitions, Cambridge will have to accomplish three crucial enabling goals.
    1. Ensure that the University is in a sustainable financial position, and in particular:
      1. Return to a balanced operating budget as quickly as feasible without undermining the mission of the University.
      2. *Clarify the budget model to increase financial transparency and allow for informed, pragmatic decision-making at all levels of the University. Reduce complexity, and ensure that the budget model creates appropriate incentives to steward resources carefully and to seek out new sources of revenue to accomplish the University mission.
      3. Work to better align philanthropy to core needs of the University, underwriting key elements of the operating budget. Whenever possible seek philanthropy to support existing activity rather than creating new activity. When fundraising for new initiatives, ensure full costing and prior agreement through proper governance processes.
      4. Continue to strengthen our global alumni networks to build a broad group of ambassadors and financial supporters for the University.
    2. Strengthen an inclusive culture in which we work more collaboratively, and with more respect for each other as members of a shared community of purpose. In particular:
      1. Implement the “ourcambridge” programme, ensuring that we speed up and simplify our processes of decision making, better support our staff, and improve our ways of working, especially by investing in and better leveraging up-to-date technology.
      2. Recommit to and expand the scope of the ‘Breaking the Silence’ campaign to reduce the incidence of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and various forms of bullying behaviour.
      3. Improve career pathways for all staff categories, take further steps to enhance staff well-being, and affirm our commitment to eliminating undesirable behaviour.
    3. Promote work across the collegiate University to ensure better and more efficient use of resources – e.g. education space, shared research facilities and equipment, technical services, and administrative support.

In conclusion, it is my hope that this programme of action for the next three years will help all of us across the collegiate University to focus our energies, and with clear-eyed purpose to work together as stewards of Extraordinary Cambridge.


1 Specific initiatives marked with an asterisk (*) have been identified by the University Council as immediate priorities where an expansion of effort is required. They include substantive initiatives as well as those that are prerequisites to enable other goals to be achieved. Some areas that are not marked with an asterisk are also seen to be crucial, but with work well-in-hand.