Postgraduate focus is likely future for Cambridge

Scholar predicts change as university history prompts reflection. Melanie Newman reports

November 19, 2009

The University of Cambridge will shift its focus from undergraduate to postgraduate students as it evolves over the coming decades, an academic has predicted.

Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge and a member of its governing council, said the university is likely to move from having two undergraduates for every postgraduate to having two or more postgraduates for every undergraduate.

Such a change would bring Cambridge into line with some of the US' most prestigious universities.

According to a report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute on 19 November (see box below), 69 per cent of Cambridge students are undergraduates, compared with 34 per cent at Harvard University.

Noting that Cambridge has doubled in size every 40 years or so, Professor Anderson warned that more growth and the changing complexion of the student body would have serious implications for the university's self-governance.

"Will we double again twice by 2100, or once, or not at all?" he asked. "We've got the physical space to get bigger, but I anticipate strains on governance. I don't know what self-governance would look like in a university of 50,000 researchers."

Professor Anderson's predictions were made in the week that a book reviewing Cambridge's 800-year history was published. The University of Cambridge: A New History, by Gillian Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at Cambridge, is being released on 19 November.

Despite Professor Anderson's fears for the future, the system of self-governance seems to be functioning well.

Next week, a dons' debate is due to consider controversial proposals to change disciplinary and dismissal procedures. Other issues currently being discussed by academics range from the fundamentals of academic freedom to plans to install a lift in a medieval building.

Professor Evans told Times Higher Education that it was essential to Cambridge's future success that challenges to its decision-making continue. "Keeping that lively democracy alive" would preserve the "freedom for academics to do their jobs", she said.

Academics at other institutions joined Professor Anderson in pondering the university's next 100 years. For Robert Cuthbert, professor of higher education management at the University of the West of England, the key question is "whether Cambridge is willing to accept a social responsibility that goes beyond vice-chancellor Alison Richard's narrow statement of its responsibilities as doing excellent teaching and research".

He asked: "Can Cambridge protect academic and intellectual elitism without shoring up social elitism and historic inequalities at the same time?"

But Michael Shattock, professor of higher education at the Institute of Education, University of London, said Cambridge was facing the same challenges as all other British universities.

Not least of these, he said, was how it could "maintain its global attractiveness to international scholars if Britain faces serious economic or political decline".

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