Master’s Email – Michaelmas 2016

They always say that it’s the second album or novel that’s the most difficult. What about a Master’s second year?
Lord Chris Smith
The start of your first year at College is a time of great promise: new opportunities, new people and new experiences that you never imagined you would be doing. By the second year, you’re pretty sure you’ve seen it all, experienced a fair amount yourself and feel ready to pass on your wisdom to the new intake.

My first year as Master was in some ways similar to my first year as a Pembroke undergraduate, getting to grips with the internal institutional challenges of the role, the cycle of College life, new vernacular, new and obscure unwritten rules, which I think I have (mostly) managed to grasp!

Highlights last year were plentiful, but academically, Pembroke’s return to second in the Tompkins Tables (again, behind Trinity and their cohort of mathematicians), was the perfect coda to Mark Wormald’s time as Senior Tutor. Mark has now embarked on his sabbatical year and has been succeeded in post by Dan Tucker, Fellow and Lecturer in Preclinical Medicine and Veterinary Medicine.

What particularly struck me last year was the sheer breadth of college life in which our students participate, a flavour of which can be observed by reading the clubs and societies section of the Gazette. There have been talks arranged by the Stokes Society, the Pembroke Players putting on performances in Japan and at the Edinburgh Festival, the choir’s tour to Croatia, foreign correspondent Lindsey Hilsum talking about the Syrian conflict at Pembroke Politics, late night concerts organised by PCMS in Chapel, PCBC boats charging through Bumps or the fundraising activities undertaken by the Graduate Parlour to raise money in support of refugees and others affected by the Syrian conflict. This is not to mention the other activities that take place in College, arranged by Fellows and departments – the Arthur Bliss Song Series; access initiatives; Master’s seminars on subjects ranging from the rainbow ceiling in business, to civil liberties, to the history of rock and roll; lectures in Islamic Art; the William Pitt Seminar; the unveiling of Emma Johnson’s portrait. Pembroke truly is a place where people come to be enriched academically, but also by their experience.

Another particular high point was announcing the £35 million pledge from the estate and family of Dr Ray Dolby (1957) to help build a new court on the Mill Lane site. This is an extraordinarily generous and visionary gift and I and the rest of College are looking forward to working with the Dolby family on this exciting and transformational project (of which, more below).

With its short, intense terms, Pembroke can sometimes seem like a self-contained and somewhat hyperactive community. However, the so-called real world intruded in far too brutal a way in June, with the shattering news of the murder of MP and Pembroke alumna, Jo Cox (1992). After close consultation with Jo’s friends and family, the College will be creating a PhD studentship in Jo’s memory, for research in the field of migration and refugee studies, a subject about which Jo felt so strongly.

While much of the focus of my first year as Master was internal, this year will also bring external issues more to the fore. The result of the EU referendum earlier this year, and the tightening of immigration targets more generally, will lead to real uncertainty in the next few years at both a strategic and a personal level. Around a third of college staff and nearly half the Fellowship originally come from outside the UK. These people work incredibly hard for the College and they remain an integral part of the Pembroke family.

The reputation of the University of Cambridge as one of the world’s great research universities may be its best insulation from the effects of the process of withdrawal from the EU, but it is inevitable that a number of academic projects and grants here will be affected and some academics may understandably opt to work elsewhere.

There is also likely to be a knock-on effect on the willingness of EU students, predominantly graduate students, to come and study at Pembroke.

Wherever this process leads us, I am determined that Pembroke will continue to seek the best academics for our Fellowship, accept the most promising graduate students from around the world, and aim always for the best undergraduate applicants, from whatever background they may come. Pembroke is cosmopolitan by nature and the shared experiences of people from the UK and across the world enrich it and everyone in the College, something we would all be loath to lose.

Another change to the wider academic landscape has been the phasing out of AS levels. The College is of the opinion that data about an applicant’s AS level results provide a very helpful indicator of their potential and performance as a possible Pembroke student, especially when combined with further tests and their interviews. Pembroke is blessed to be one of the most popular undergraduate colleges for applications, but this also means that we attract a large number of very suitable applicants, which can make selection incredibly hard for our interviewers and Admissions team. With diminished information, that challenge becomes all the harder.

This year has also seen the end of maintenance grants in England to students from families with incomes of less than £25,000; the grant has been replaced with a loan. The College regularly reviews the support it is able to offer its students, both graduate and undergraduate, to ensure that it is both effective and fair. We already give more than £1 million every year in support for our students, and making sure we can have the very best impact with those funds is something we will continue to work hard to achieve.

The greatest challenge and indeed opportunity for the next few years of my Mastership is the Mill Lane project. The College has shaken hands with the University over the agreement for much of the land, and we are now in the final stages of making the formal agreement. Last month we appointed Haworth Tompkins as the architects for this exciting project. The College owes its thanks to the dedication and persistence of the Bursar, Andrew Cates, who has taken upon himself the often onerous role with the various different interested parties involved in such delicate negotiations. Above all, the College is grateful for Ray Dolby’s generous gift, which gives us an extraordinary platform to proceed with our plans and complete the still significant financial objectives. We still need to raise roughly the same amount again, and we will be formally launching a fundraising campaign in March 2017; so please keep an eye out for more information in the coming months.

26 December 2016 marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of the poet Thomas Gray. A Peterhouse undergraduate and then Fellow, Gray fled (after an unhappy prank had been played on him) to take up a Fellowship at Pembroke instead. We are holding a Master’s seminar on Gray this November, and Peterhouse and Pembroke are jointly organising an exhibition about Gray for the early part of 2017.

Last year I had the great pleasure of meeting Pembroke Members from across the UK, North America and East Asia. Their continued affection for Pembroke was striking and gratifying and I am looking forward to meeting Members in these areas again and in Australia too in the coming months.

I am honoured to be one of the guardians of this remarkable and precious institution and I look forward to meeting many more Members in the coming year, to share news about the present and hopes for the future of our College.

With very best wishes,
Chris Smith

(Rt Hon Lord Smith of Finsbury, Master)