Cambridge University’s future strategies must be created in partnership with Cambridge town and surrounding villages

Cambridge University’s Strategic Framework hardly mentions the interests of the city which both hosts, and gives the name to the University. Looking out for the people of Cambridge is something that former Vice Chancellor Sir Ivor Jennings QC said the Dons should never forget. (Image from the Cambridgeshire Collection – an investigation by the FT on the future of our city, from 1974)

Headline reads "Vice chancellor opens university plan exhibition - our duty is to improve city"

Above – Sir Ivor Jennings QC (in robes) with Mr Waide of the old, smaller Cambridgeshire County Council. From the Cambridge Daily News, 01 June 1962 in the Cambridgeshire Collection.

How this contrasts with the approach from the University of Cambridge in more recent times, where their own documents indicate a very different set of values.

Much as I’m not a fan of the brutalist architecture of the 1960s & 1970s, Sir Ivor, along with Cambridge City Council’s chief town planner and principal architect Mr Gordon Logie, were visionaries. And they came very close to delivering that vision for a new town centre for Cambridge.

“Sir Ivor continued: “This brings me to the future of the Lion Yard. Not only the correct use of this important area in the heart of the old city, but the scale and character of the new building in it, are matters of the greatest concern.”

“In the Exhibition you will see our suggestions for its use mainly as an extension of the civic area, and I would stress the point that the University has already offered to meet half the cost of a new public hall in the Lion Yard for joint City and University Use. Such a hall would, I believe make a great contribution to the life of Cambridge”

Sir Ivor Jennings, Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, quoted in the Cambridge Daily News 01 June 1962. See the context in Cambridge Town Owl 05 Oct 2021 here.

Which is one of the reasons I’m interested in fulfilling that joint town-gown vision of Sir Ivor and Mr Logie regarding a new, large concert hall for Cambridge.

Cambridge University’s strategy documents

You can read them all here. As you can see, many of these are now out of date and urgently need updating. That or the web page does. The annual reports of the Cambridge University Estate’s Department here also make for interesting reading. Amongst other things they indicate progress against their agreed actions.

Business plans and annual reports – and the meetings that go with them all too often can feel like dry, boring subjects. But they are essential in holding large organisations to account. There’s something in educating the new annual intakes of students that move to Cambridge on how to hold their colleges and universities to account. Something that is essential not just for town and gown, but also the careers that graduates go into given how we’ve seen the implosion of morals and ethics of so many professions that they go into in the world of work. And I’m not just talking about the banking crisis. There has been massive failures in the accountancy and auditing sector, in the professional consulting sector, and a host of other sectors that are now coming under scrutiny for services provided to the so-called oligarchs.

Cambridge – a city with a global brand that is governed like a large market town

A line some of you are more than familiar with. Yet this point was underlined in a speech by Cllr Sam Davies MBE (Independent – Queen Edith’s) on the Cambridge City Council Corporate Strategy report to the Full Council meeting on 03 March 2022, which you can listen to below.

Above – Full Council 03 March 2022

You can read the Cambridge City Council Corporate Strategy 2022-27 in the Full Council meeting papers – item 5d.

As Cllr Davies states, and as you are all aware of, there is very little that a disempowered city council with powers not much greater than the average large market town can do in the face of the huge forces that impact on our city.

And I’m bored about moaning about them. If you’re reading this, feel free to drop an email to your local councillors or MPs and ask them whether their political party is going to commit to an overhaul of local government (ruled out by the Conservatives) should they join / lead a future government.

“Cambridge has [an annual] population turnover of 20%, and 42% of residents live in private, rented accommodation. We are also rapidly heading of a crisis of belonging, and a crisis in our social fabric.”

Paraphrasing Cllr Sam Davies MBE to Cambridge City Council’s full council, 03 March 2022

One of the biggest drivers of the changes we’ve seen in Cambridge in recent decades inevitably has been the University of Cambridge. The problem is that successive governments have failed to come up with suitable improvements to the governance structures of the city that hosts such a wealthy institution with a global brand.

Sir Ivor Jennings QC said that the University of Cambridge has a duty to improve the city. How is that reflected in the University’s corporate documents?

Sir Ivor may have died a long time ago, which could be a convenient excuse for today’s decision-makers at the University of Cambridge to say that his comments and commitments are meaningless. I disagree. For an institution that prides itself – and sells itself to the tourism market on its very history, it cannot then turn around and say that the words of past great figures spoke regarding the institution’s moral responsibilities to the town, and later city that hosts it, is of no value. Especially as one would almost cease to be without the other.

“What does ‘Cambridge University’s Strategic Framework’ document say?”

If you are an alumnus/former student of the University of Cambridge and still live in the city, this document is essential reading.

But first, I spotted the box in the screengrab below from the University’s annual report 2019-2020.

Above: “The University’s estates strategy is reshaping the City”.

…also noting the net assets of the University of Cambridge which the box above it shows as being over £5billion. Which is nice money if you can get it. (How much of that is tied up in listed buildings and what are effectively ‘stranded assets’ that the University and its colleges could not sell of and realise the cash value of, is a different matter).

The point is that here we have a very large institution with opaque systems of public accountability – whether to its own staff, students, and academics, or to the residents of our city, that is having a direct impact on it at the same time. Furthermore, the University is a recipient of large sums of public money (irrespective of how much public and social benefits it claims to provide). Given the Universities and Colleges Union – including the Cambridge Branch are currently on strike, all is not well – not just in Cambridge but in higher education generally.

“I don’t remember The University asking me about reshaping our city!”

Which reflects the centuries-long mindset of the University seeing townfolk as about as welcome as the bubonic plague. I don’t think they forgave us for smashing up their side of town back in 1381 – as Prof Helen Cam of Girton College, something of an under-appreciated town hero too, describes:

“Thus when the Peasants’ Revolt reached Cambridge, its peculiar local form was determined by the fact that University and colleges as well as landlords and government officials had run up a score of ill will, so deep as to explain why Cambridge was one of the six towns exempted by name from the general pardon of November 1381”

Prof Helen Cam for the Victoria County Histories Project

One of the men who tried to overhaul the town-gown relations was Charles Darwin’s youngest son – Sir Horace Darwin – who we made Mayor of Cambridge in 1896

Above – Lost Cambridge hero Mayor Horace Darwin, who was knighted in WWI. – photo from the book Horace Darwin’s Shop (by Cattermole & Wolfe, 1987 CRC Press)

Again, the University of Cambridge could learn a lot more from its past and present members who made and are still making the case for the people of our city.

The University acknowledged the housing crisis in the 2016 Strategic Management document:

The problem is that the residential developments they seem to be building feel rather exclusive rather than inclusive.

“I don’t think the university should be patting itself on the back until it has shown it is managing its own housing on the site in a way that creates a genuinely diverse and balanced community and not simply an exclusive university enclave in an already expensive area of Cambridge.”

Former Cllr Kevin Price, then Executive Councillor for Housing, 10 Aug 2017 to the Cambridge News.

This is exacerbated by approaching the problem alone rather than in partnership with other organisations and institutions facing similar problems.

“The market housing… [is] likely to be at such prices as to be inaccessible to the majority of University / college staff”

Cambridge University Strategic Framework 2016, para G5.4.

It’s not as if other large employers have similar issues – I wrote about Addenbrooke’s and Royal Papworth, along with the local councils in this blogpost. And yet our city’s governance structures don’t allow for the institutions to work together on what is a shared problem. Which is one of the reasons I liked several of the principles of the Local Area Agreements framework under the last Labour Government (a policy area I briefly worked on – see the 2006 White Paper here which could have paved the way for integrating primary health care with local council scrutiny processes) due to legal duties to co-operate.

“Now re-write this as if the whole of the city – town, gown, and villages – matter”

On creating communities, again it feels like the plan is to create communities exclusive of non-University members. Which is the opposite of what we need. As I asked in a recent blogpost: Whose Cambridge is it anyway? That is the question the University authorities need to be asking themselves.

Paragraph G5.7 above provides no indication of who they will work with, even though the University was represented on the Greater Cambridge Partnership (and still is) when the document was produced. Where is the statement saying that it will work with local councils, transport bodies, and social housing providers to ensure that they will build council, affordable, and keyworker housing with excellent transport infrastructure with regular & reliable services for residents to and from their places of work?

And finally…the large swimming pool and large concert hall…

I had a look through the Cambridge University Sports Service strategy and noted the £12m for a new large swimming pool.

Turns out the money has not been allocated/fundraised.

So I’ve emailed them and escalated it to the councillors and council officers responsible who I put public questions to on this in 2021. (See the public questions in the July 2021 Full Council here).

Students have been demanding not just climate justice, but housing justice for the people of the city of Cambridge too.

Above – Cambridge Defend Education protesters supporting the UCU Cambridge branch in 2018

The video above includes a demand for the University to do far more on housing justice and to open up its under-used spaces and facilities for joint town-gown community projects. It’s not just me that’s making the call – it’s coming from (and more importantly) the future generations. The present generation of decision-makers in positions of power and influence would do well to listen to them.

If we can achieve this, maybe, just maybe, we might have a chance of realising the huge potential our city has. But if we keep our structures as they are, then as Cllr Davies said, we risk continuing down the same road; one that has made our city the most unequal in the country. And that’s not something to be proud of.

Food for thought?

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