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Winter 2018

The Head of School's Preface to the Annual Plan

As I have explained previously, the School prepares a strategic plan each autumn, drawing on the departments and guided by the University planning office.  An abridged version of the preface for the 2018 plan is reproduced below.  

This submission of this plan coincides with the change in the Head of the School.  It seems like a good time to reflect on the past five years and look forward to the future.

Multi-disciplinary teaching and research

The most positive thing about my time as head of the school has been the move towards an outward-looking multi-disciplinary perspective in all the departments of the School.  We had only modest engagement in the first round of University Strategic Research Initiatives.  Now, all the departments are actively participating in and leading this sort of activity.  We also did particularly well in the 2018 cross-disciplinary academic seed fund initiative.  The Engineering Department Lecturer in Synthetic Biology will start in early 2019 and we look forward to working with the new Plummer Chair elected into the Maths department.

Flexibility in staff appointments

One of the first things that was asked of me as a newly appointed Head of School was to speed up the process for creating lectureship posts.  Our system previously took two to three months and this was felt to be overly bureaucratic.  With constructive input from administrators at all levels, we came up with a way in which the paperwork to create a new lectureship could be completed in two to three days, in cases where this was necessary.  I little realised the academic impact of this simple change.  First, at Chemical Engineering & Biotechnology they were advertising for two posts, but the field was incredibly strong, and they wanted badly to appoint four.  Then a similar thing happened at the Computer Lab.  Most recently we had similar circumstances in civil engineering.  In each case we created new posts very quickly to enable the Department to hire outstanding young scholars with complementary abilities.  As a result, we have seen the creation of new areas of dynamic and creative research that build on our existing context without being bound by it.  It is much easier for four people to influence the direction of the departmental research super-tanker, than a single new person on their own.  This experience makes me believe that appointing groups of young staff in related areas should be our strategic objective, not just an activity we stumble into through the quality of the applicant-field. 

Buildings - and what they enable us to do

The last five years have seen the successful completion of significant building projects and the initiation of several new ones.  Thanks to diligent support from Estates Management, Chemical Engineering & Biotechnology have moved into their new building.  The Dyson Building and the Electrical Engineering Extension have been completed for Engineering.  Their new Civil Engineering Building is also on-track for handover in spring 2019.  The Judge Business School designed and built the new Simon Sainsbury Centre in partnership with the Monument Trust.  This is having a direct and significant impact on their elite courses and executive education.  Planning for the refurbishment of the Royal Cambridge Hotel to further enhance the amenities of the Business School is just beginning.  The Institute for Sustainability Leadership is working with Estates Management on plans for an innovative low-carbon refit of 1 Regent Street. 

Engineering have recently been offered a substantial investment by the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) and industry towards a new experimental facility and building. This is coupled with a major 5-year industrial research commitment.  Among many benefits, this will enable the development of significantly more efficient aircraft propulsion systems, which in turn will reduce carbon emissions across the globe.  Unfortunately, because of planning constraints relating to the location, we cannot have a basic functional building for this initiative. The future of the project, indeed the future of aerospace propulsion and power research in Cambridge is thus critically dependent on whether or not the University decides to support a building that will meet the planning constraints.  

The money that we make to support the rest of the University

Over the last five years, the School of Technology has delivered a surplus of £32m to the rest of the University, on top of the normal institutional transfer-charges for central services.  This relates to an income of £350m and hence represents a return of 9%.  We also lead in both research and teaching.  Using the THE (Times Higher Education) metric we were the top School in the University in the 2014 REF. Our undergraduate courses are two of the top three in terms of applicants-per-place.

The University is not in a good financial situation at present.  The School of Technology stands ready to play its part in a recovery.  As a basis for discussion, we have included in the plan a suggestion that we could substantially increase the number of students taking our MPhil in Machine Learning and Machine Intelligence.  This would only be possible if a new business model was introduced by the University that enabled more of the resulting fee income to be immediately available to the course.  This course is an extreme case: there are presently over 600 well qualified applicants chasing only 20 places.  But it is not alone.  If the University had a more responsive business model there would be other courses too that could scale up so as to deliver more high-quality education.

Finally, it gives me great pleasure to let you know that Prof John Dennis will take over from me as Head of the School on 1st December  2018.  I wish him every success and fulfilment in his new role.


Award for Dame Polly Courtice

It is with great pleasure that we share the good news that in June 2018 Polly Courtice, Director of the Institute for Sustainability Leadership, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Business Green. Please see the link below:


As we approach a possible Brexit ...

I would like to finish by reprinting some of the words I wrote about Brexit in October 2016.  What is perhaps remarkable is that so little of real substance has changed in the past two years.

It is still not clear exactly what is going to happen.  The centre of the University, Human Resources and the Research Office are addressing various aspects of the practical challenges that we may have to face.  As a School we will obviously play our part in the practical side.  But it is also important not to lose sight of our institutional values and the fact that we are a diverse, international and multi-cultural community. 

Probably the most wonderful thing about Cambridge is the way it provides a context in which people from all over the world come together to engage in research and education.  Our greatest strength stems from the people that work here.  That strength is critically dependent on the international breadth of our community.  We must continue to attract the greatest scholars from global academia in order to maintain our competitive position and survive.  Diversity is not an optional extra, it is the essence of what makes us great.  Furthermore, this international perspective permeates all roles in our organisation, whether they be academic or not. 

None of this changed on 23rd June 2016.  Cambridge has a scholarly culture that has the resilience to overcome and draw strength from external change.  If this were not the case the University would not have lasted 800 years.  And it is principally the diversity and excellence of our colleagues that will sustain us into the future. 


Richard Prager
Head of the School of Technology
November 2018