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Interview: Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor, University of Cambridge

19 February 2021

‘Education builds resilience, enriches our inner lives, promotes good citizenship’

Right now, I seem to be on Zoom calls all day. Usually, my days are highly unpredictable, with shifts every half-hour or so. Meeting with colleagues to map out the future of the university; receiving high-level delegations from around the world; talking with people in government about research in the UK; helping to jump-start collaborations with other universities across the globe; meeting with alumni; meeting with potential and current donors; trouble-shooting on the mini- or maxi-crisis of the day or week. . .

In non-Covid times, I also travel a great deal,
to meet university, government, NGOs, and corporate leaders in various parts of the world, and to engage with alumni and donors.

I revel in the personal connection with students,
alumni, and the people around the world who support Cambridge and higher education generally. I love participating when I can in the intellectual and community life of the university. I attend, and often introduce, some lectures and workshops. I give a class here and there.

When I was approached for this job,
it was the idea that Cambridge is a treasure that contributes globally to the pursuit and communication of the widest range of knowledge that attracted me. Cambridge is one of the most long-lived and influential institutions of any sort in the world. You can really make a difference here.

My first ambition was to be a diplomat,
when I was ten or so, and starting to read newspapers and getting interested in the United Nations. Yes, there’s a large aspect of that in my role here, but also planning and managing day-to-day issues. It’s a good mix.

I loved every stage of my education.
After studying history and literature, I studied international law, still with the ambition of being a diplomat; but legal studies really grabbed me. The intellectual puzzles of law interact with problems in the world. It’s an eminently practical discipline, but also intellectually challenging.

I came to Cambridge to do a Ph.D. in international law,
and then got an academic appointment in Canada. Very early on, I was asked to be a dean of law, and the rest just happened.

I still work actively in law,
and not being able to travel has given me some time to re-engage with a book I’m writing. Part of that is preserving my own sanity, and I’m so interested in the practice of law that I never wanted to forget about how I got into it. I’ve always pursued my own writing, though it often means working very long days and weekends. It keeps me connected to the reason why I went in.

Some of the most rewarding moments have involved the promotion and protection of human rights:
finding “disappeared” people in two prisons in Nepal and reconnecting them with their families; working on minority-rights protections with constitutional drafters in Sri Lanka; and trying to articulate new legal approaches to property rights and dispute settlement with aboriginal communities in Canada.

Frankly, I don’t know what the result of the pandemic will be,
but I know what I hope: that we’ll never revert to thoughtless travel with huge environmental impact, but plan more carefully; that we will realise that “key workers” need better support; that university research is vital for addressing huge challenges, including pandemic disease, climate change, inequality, and the degradation of public discourse; and that online provision can open up possibilities for people, including education.

Education is not just a means to an end: a job.
Of course, creating exciting and fulfilling employment opportunities for graduates is critical, and education’s always been the most effective way to promote social mobility. But education also builds personal resilience, enriches our inner lives, promotes values of good citizenship, fosters social skills, and ensures the passing on of human culture.

We need varied education,
suited to the capacities and aspirations of different types of students. We need to value education focused on the hands and trades; we desperately need people with vocational skills, and we should honour their work. We need the community college and metropolitan university for students who aspire to remain close to home, building up local small- and medium-sized businesses and leading their communities. We need great world universities to educate supremely talented students and conduct research that will build our collective future. We’ll need online opportunities for working people who have to earn credentials or formal degrees, upgrade skills or shift careers, and for those who want to satisfy their curiosity.

Universities that provide tailored supervisions and tutorials for individuals and small groups are an expensive proposition.
Cambridge estimates it costs about £18,200 a year to educate each undergraduate. Graduate students cost more. Tuition fees for UK nationals has been frozen for a couple of years now at £9250. We make up the difference with diminishing government grants, income from other university operations, higher fees charged to international students, and generous philanthropy. That’s not a model that can be reproduced by all universities, so we’re really fortunate.

I don’t think that arbitrary targets for degrees are sensible.
The key is to provide a wide range of attractive and serious options for school-leavers. Quite a few successful countries, like Canada and South Korea, have a higher proportion of students going to university than the UK, but it’s diversity of provision that’s important. Not everyone wants to go to university or should; but I think a high proportion do, and get real benefit, as long as benefit isn’t tied into your first job.

Residential degree courses certainly can be a rich and rewarding experience.
I was privileged to experience that at Harvard and Cambridge, where I built lifetime friendships. They also introduced me to everyday “inter-disciplinarity” through conversations that expanded my horizons, and helped me forge intellectual connections that I wouldn’t have discovered on my own. But let’s not be romantic: it will never be open to everyone, and other forms of education can also help build insight, expertise, and opportunity.

I really get fed up with the fixation on what happens at two universities.
We get accused of elitism when we’re constantly singled out for disproportionate attention. It must drive my friends at places like Durham or Manchester or King’s College, London, to distraction. Class preoccupation seemed to me worse when I was a Ph.D. student at Cambridge in the 1980s; but it persists, and I find it wholly unhelpful to the country.

How do we get people to think of other people differently so we don’t just put them in established boxes?
One of the greatest challenge is to get able students to imagine that they could go to Cambridge. If a student wants to be a plumber, that’s great. If she is interested in mathematics and has the ability, she should have the choice to do it at a place like Cambridge. Schools need to be open and encouraging, too. We still hear stories of teachers who say: “Well, that’s not the sort of place that you’d fit in.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised,
but Covid has really brought out the best in so many. And it has been darned difficult. I’m amazed by the kindness of colleagues during the pandemic, and the incredible care so many people are taking to support student learning and well-being.

At home, I take time to read fiction and listen to music.
I try to stay intellectually alive through my own research and writing. I have a wonderful wife who is full of fun, and great children and grandchildren who I wish I could see more. Paula worked with young children as a speech therapist for many years. Now she coaches people seeking to improve their communication and presentation skills. We mostly meet at meals right now. Given that there is so little to do outside the home, we spend more time planning meals than usual.

We also use the marvel of FaceTime to talk with our children and grandchildren more than before the lockdown.
We go for walks and speculate when life will allow some form of more active engagement and entertaining again.

Zoom has permitted more conversations with old friends than I was managing before;
so that’s a blessing. But I look forward eagerly to the reopening of theatres, museums, and concert halls. Oh, how I miss the riches of our cultural life in the UK!

My sister and I were adopted as babies.
My dad was an Anglican priest, and my mother worked as a church secretary. They were simply wonderful: unwaveringly supportive. They did everything they could with very modest means to help me on my way.

I might be called an “aesthetic Anglican”.
My engagement with the divine and with the Church has always been rooted in music and architecture; so my first experience with God was as a boy soprano singing very late at night in a Christmas Eve service. I remember thinking that this actually mattered to me, that the beauty was overwhelming.

I sang for years in pretty good church choirs,
and helped to support my law studies as a paid soloist. I listen to choral music all the time, with a preference for medieval, Renaissance, and the contemporary; I skip over the Romantics. Choral music by Arvo Pärt is my favourite sound at the moment.

My engagement’s expanded over the years,
and I ended up chairing the Anglican Church of Canada’s international development fund. Then I helped the General Synod in Canada articulate a plan for the future of the national Church. I also served as a Canadian lay representative on the worldwide Anglican Consultative Council. Here in Cambridge, I use every opportunity (and there aren’t enough) to attend college chapels to delight in the extraordinary music. The Covid pause has been a real loss.

Selfish behaviour makes me angry.

Being with my family for a celebratory occasion are the happiest times.

The commitment of our students to redressing the failures of past generations (including my own) in honouring the natural world gives me hope. Until the Covid crisis, real progress was being made in reducing extreme poverty globally, and we need to reboot that effort. Also the great music, theatre, literature that is being created, and opening to more people who might not have managed to break into the worlds of public culture before.

I pray for help in being a person of integrity and an instrument of peace,
and for the protection of my family and friends.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Nelson Mandela.
I was a UN observer for the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa. I saw the risks of violence first hand, and how Mandela handled himself, his supporters, and his opponents. He exuded dignity, calm, and genuine forgiveness, at a time when the opposites would have been tempting and even justifiable. I have a Mandela election poster from that time hanging outside my office at Cambridge as a warning and an inspiration.

Professor Toope was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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