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Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz became Vice-Chancellor of the University three years ago this October. In this interview he outlined his vision for research, funding, the recruitment and retention of staff, and how the University can make its mark on...

We need cohesion between individual investigators and groups of scientists to provide multidisciplinary teams to take on global challenges.

Sir Leszek Borysiewicz

Vice-Chancellor, what do you consider to be the main challenges facing Cambridge?

The first thing to stress is that Cambridge is an incredibly successful institution. We are the best University academically in Europe. We are well managed financially and have a reasonable endowment that has been built up with a lot of hard work. We are therefore very well placed to withstand the challenges that are going to hit us.

The real challenges we are going to face are academic: ensuring that we continue to attract the best and brightest students and academics for the future; and that we continue to build an infrastructure that will attract them, while, at the same time, tackling the kinds of financial problems the whole sector will face. We are in a good position to achieve these things thanks to our reputation and the fact that we start from a very strong position, one that is globally envied.

Can you explain your vision for research at Cambridge?

There are two important aspects to research. The first is that, when we attract academics, we ensure that they have the capacity to pursue their own interests. This is commonly called the bottom-up mode of research, where you have a good idea, apply for resources and pursue that idea. It is vital we sustain that because that is where new, innovative ideas come from. Cambridge has got to go for transformative research if it is to stay successful. This is not an institution that should pursue ‘me too’ research.

There is also a change going on among research funders, who are looking increasingly to support large-scale, global projects. That means we need cohesion between individual investigators and groups of academics – whatever their domain – to provide multidisciplinary teams to take on these global challenges and make sure that we’re not left out. Cambridge is already working very hard in this area, but we are going to have to build on that for the future.

How do we continue to recruit and retain the very best staff?

By continuing to be the leading university in the world. What do our staff need? They need time, space and opportunities to pursue educational goals and research. That also means we have to continue building the infrastructure we need. There’s a simplistic view, often expressed, that you just cut capital in difficult times – but that’s the time to make sure the academic and physical infrastructure is enhanced. People are then attracted to Cambridge because they see it as a ‘go-forward’ institution.

What opportunities are there for Cambridge to operate on the global stage?

This is a personal passion. There are two main reasons why you collaborate globally, particularly in the research domain. Number one: you are a strong investigator, you want to work with the best people and they happen to be overseas. Cambridge benefits from those direct collaborations. The second is that collaboration opens up new opportunities. In some research domains – particularly in health in developing countries – that doesn’t happen unless you are working in large-scale teams.

So what am I looking for? We already have strong links with China and India, and we have to build on those to ensure that, as those countries’ research bases strengthen, we remain engaged with the brightest and best in those countries. We obviously have a strong set of interactions with the United States and North America, and it is fundamental that we continue with them. For me there are two big opportunities. First, greater engagement in Europe. We are Europe’s leading university and Europe is changing. Those who follow the European agenda will know that the European Research Area has been created, Framework Programme 8 is under discussion and budgets for science in Europe are coming under review. So we should ensure that what is being created in Europe is something that Cambridge can take advantage of.

The second area of opportunity is the developing world. This is a different type of opportunity, and not something that is funded in those countries. Indeed, it isn’t a way of raising funds; it is an academic opportunity to engage with real world problems. How do you deliver proper water supplies? How do you improve agriculture in major parts of sub-Saharan Africa? I strongly believe the developing sciences agenda is a real opportunity. Good work is already going on here, but it is something that could be built on.

How should Cambridge respond to the challenges posed by student funding?

It is vital that costs are covered appropriately. At the moment there is an average deficit of £9,000 for every undergraduate and that’s unsustainable. We offset some of that with other activities that the University undertakes but, if you take student funding as a whole, we only have four sources of funding: the government; the student fee; charities and other research funders who give project money and also support some of our infrastructure; and our endowment. There is no other magic pot of money. So we should look to cover the cost of education.

In addition to this it is vital that Cambridge decides its own agenda. It follows that we need the resource coupled to the student, not some sort of national pot.
The money should be for the benefit of the student while he or she is here. If the University has to wait a long time downstream for that resource to become available, the student is not seeing the benefit of the fees they are paying during the time they are being educated, and that is a disconnect with which I feel uncomfortable.

What are the main strengths of the collegiate system?

The Colleges are a fantastic, integral part of the Cambridge experience. The exciting thing for me is how well the University and Colleges work together. The best example of this on a practical level is last year’s 800th anniversary fundraising campaign. I believe the University and the Colleges are indivisible because the supervisory system is an integral part of being at Cambridge, and it is something I genuinely look forward to engaging with. It is something we offer that other places don’t.

What do you remember of your own time at Cambridge?

I came from the Royal Postgraduate Medical School at the time Keith Peters came to Cambridge as Regius Professor of Physic, so I was very much involved in that first wave of change on the Addenbrooke’s campus. It was a formative time for me. My research was beginning to take off and my subsequent change of direction from research into herpes viruses to papillomaviruses happened through discussions here with colleagues in virology and immunology.

The other thing I remember very clearly was my time at Wolfson College, where I was lucky enough to have a fellowship. It was there that I was introduced to the wider educational aspects of Cambridge. Wolfson at that time had a large number of mature students in medicine, veterinary science and dentistry. I remember how bright they were, how driven they were by the academic opportunities that Cambridge was providing. And I remember what a great city this is to live in. When I moved on to south Wales I wished I could have packaged it up and taken it with me.

How would you like to build on the success of Cambridge’s 800th anniversary year?

The 800th anniversary was a fantastic success. It developed a sense of unity, purpose and camaraderie across the collegiate University. Yes it was there before, but it was given a public visibility through the 800th anniversary year. The key thing is to take that forward. We are facing difficult times, but that kind of cohesion will be helpful.

What are your plans for alumni relations?

Our alumni, staff and students together are the University. Alumni have an important role to play. They value what the University gave to them, and we are proud of their achievements, engaging with them so they have a sense of belonging to an institution that is going forward. Our alumni are our best ambassadors worldwide, and they have an important role to play in helping us achieve international prominence. They will help us attract the best students and staff to the University and make sure the name of Cambridge is spread as widely as possible.

How would you like your Vice-Chancellorship to be viewed in seven years’ time? What, for you, would success look like?

I will have built on the foundations that Alison Richard has laid at Cambridge, and we will have some of the best research groups in the world, conducting research in large-scale, multidisciplinary groups that are engaged in the humanities, the arts and the sciences. We will have maintained the ‘bottom-up’ approach to research despite the threats it is often placed under, and be an internationally leading university. That’s quite a challenge because the universities in the Far East in particular are catching up fast. But we have to be in that internationally leading group, because that is where the future of global universities is going to reside. All of this will not be without challenges in the short term, but boy are we going to achieve it.


31 January 2013


Sir Leszek Borysiewicz