June 16, 2005
Some people here tonight may be aware that I was an undergraduate at another university but I am now going to say something deeply unfashionable about this important place of learning.
I believe that Cambridge University should unashamedly pursue excellence and elitism. It must maintain its commitment to the highest standards of research, the highest calibre of students and the highest quality of academics.
If it loses this commitment, or even compromises on this commitment, Cambridge will lose its place in the premier league of global players.
And the first step in showing this commitment must be to become operationally and financially independent from the State.
I was appalled by the short sightedness of the so-called national debate on university funding which took place early last year. And I also have to admit that the Conservative Party was as much to blame as anyone else.
You see, the most worrying conversation that I had last year was with the Warden, or headmaster of Dulwich College.
I had just survived a grilling by the school’s Politics Society and innocently asked how many of this year’s school leavers were going to Oxbridge.
Well, the Head was clearly far more proud of the half dozen pupils who were going to universities in the United States.
He also reckoned that this trickle would become a flood unless the UK’s top universities managed to halt their slide down international performance league tables.
Let’s face it ? in the face of American competition, Europe’s universities are in decline?and the main reason is their near total reliance upon the State.
Remember that MIT has the same number of students as Cambridge but achieves three times the turnover. Similarly Harvard raises roughly five times as much annually as Cambridge in endowment income. I accept the culture of giving by graduates in the US is of a different order, but we must act now to develop this.
So last year’s raising of domestic student fees from £1875 to £3000 is the worst of all worlds……nowhere near enough to balance the books, but too much of an increase to encourage even the more progressive institutions to break free from dependency on the public purse.
Unless that happens, we risk losing the brightest and best from these shores.
Some of our most talented Britons will wave goodbye to this country, never to study or work here again.
And they won’t be leaving in their late twenties or thirties as they seek their fortunes in more innovative, entrepreneurial and lower tax economies?..NO?.. they will be leaving while they are still teenagers, long before they have even entered the workplace.
We need to think now about the role that our top universities will play in promoting this country over the next 30 years.
Britain’s place in the world will depend upon our relationships with the USA and the two emerging economic superpowers, China and India.
The power of the English language should make this country the destination of choice for future generations of students from China, India and the next generation of developing nations.
Amongst an increasingly consumeristic group of international students, performance league tables are going to become ever more important.
It will be easier than ever before to find out about the relative strengths of university courses on offer worldwide.
For Cambridge to maintain its top flight global reputation, it needs to score highly across the board in all subject areas.
Many of you here tonight will achieve international success in your chosen fields. You will have global ambitions.
Your careers will depend on the networks that you develop around the places where you learn and work.
Whether we like it or not, this is already a world of super elites where a small number of institutions – universities, banks, law firms or international corporations – will continue to attract the best people, the best funding and the best clients.
If Cambridge cannot grasp these opportunities I fear its future will be bleak.
Cambridge can no longer rely on its centuries-old brand.
This new international perspective applies to students and parents alike.
Parents who make enormous financial sacrifices for their children are no longer willing to settle for second best.
If the nation’s universities are deemed inadequate, those same parents will simply send their children overseas.
All British universities need to wake up to this.
Too often in the UK we tend to see overseas students largely as an easy source of income from the developing world.
We have to remember that this is now a two way street.
I believe it is vital for the country’s cultural wellbeing ? and its economic success ? that opinion formers respect and use their own home universities.
Like the best international corporations, successful universities are those that are competitive, outward looking and responsive to change.
But I worry that too many of even our top tier educational establishments have become far too inward looking and bureaucratic.
In the meantime, they have allowed themselves to be trapped in a Faustian bargain? because with increasing dependence upon government funding, institutions like this university will increasingly cravenly obey government diktat on admissions policy.
As the product of a state school, I joke with my left-wing former tutor that nowadays I would be about the only one of his former students to get through Gordon Brown’s Access Regulator and make it into the Other Place.
It costs an average of £18,000 per year to teach an Oxbridge undergraduate, so even the current level of tuition fees is an exercise in fantasy economics by the Treasury.
In short, the taxpayer gives around £50,000 for free higher education to almost half the current school leaving population.
Is it any wonder that the steady rise in student numbers over the past two decades has been accompanied by a decline in spending per student?
Surely it must be right that undergraduates who benefit from lifelong prosperity enhancing education should pay a more realistic level of fees.
Higher education is essentially a private rather than a public investment.
Public money should be concentrated on giving access to poorer pupils rather than rigging the university admissions process to the benefit of poorer teenagers or at least those teenagers from poorest families who have not already, at 16, been forced to enter the workplace.
Let’s set this university free.
Arise, Cambridge, you have nothing to lose but your chains.