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William Pitt Seminar

On Friday 14th October the college held the 11th annual William Pitt seminar, with the theme of “A Higher Purpose: the role of universities in C21st Britain’

Below is a gallery of our Chair and speakers from the evening, followed by a brief description of the talks and discussion, and a selection of photos.  You can also view a Storify showing some of our social media coverage from throughout the talks if you missed it and want to know more about the subjects discussed.



The event was chaired by Bridget Kendall MBE, Master of Peterhouse, who also hosted us in Peterhouse Theatre.  Bridget Kendall has had a long and distinguished career as a BBC foreign correspondent and continues to be the main host of The Forum for BBC radio, a discussion programme exploring new ideas and research from around the world.  Among her awards are the James Cameron award for distinguished journalism and an MBE from Her Majesty the Queen in the 1994 New Year’s Honours List.




Following a welcome from Lord Christopher Smith, Master of Pembroke and Chair Bridget Kendall, the seminar began with the first speaker, Professor Helen Small (1987), a Julia Asbitt Fellow in English at Pembroke College, Oxford.   Professor Small has written extensively on 19th and 20th century literature on philosophy, and has recently published The Value of the Humanities (2013), a critical examination of the public value of the Humanities. She spoke about the value of higher education in allowing students to develop their ideas and build on the foundation that school education provides, enabling them to think critically and develop career-relevant skills.



Following on from this, Dr Tanya Goldhaber (2010), who recently completed a PhD as a Pembroke student in the Department of Engineering, spoke more directly to the need to support students’ future career development, drawing from her own experience as a Business Analysis and Planning Specialist for BT’s Global Services business.  Dr Goldhaber stressed the importance of practical and interpersonal skills in the workplace, such as teamwork, communication, and decision-making.  Previously educated at MIT, Dr Goldhaber was able to provide the American perspective, suggesting that the specialisation in the UK Higher Education system provides a deep education at the expense of intellectual curiosity.



The last of our three speakers, the Rt Hon. Lord David Willetts, is the Executive Chair of the Resolution Foundation, having served as MP for Havant (1992-2015), as Minister for Universities and Science (2010-2014) and has worked at HM Treasury and the Number 10 policy unit.  Currently Lord Willetts is a visiting Professor at King’s College London, Governor of the Ditchley Foundation, Chair of the British Science Association, and a member of the Council of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.  Lord Willetts began by emphasising the many benefits of universities – economic, non-economic, personal, and collective. Responding to previous points, Lord Willetts made the argument that extra-curricular activities such as societies and debating provide students with the practical skills needed in later careers, and that specialisation is largely the result of the selective admissions process, which puts pressure on schools to guide pupils toward the most relevant GCSEs and A-Levels. While Lord Willetts considered 16 too young to make difficult choices about further education, he cautioned that the number of autonomous players involved made change complex, and that any change would likely be uncomfortable for schools and universities.

Following a short break questions were welcomed from the audience.  Brexit was a recurring theme, in particular the mobility of students and the role of universities within their localities. Lord Willetts responded that universities made their argument for Remain in terms of money, whereas it is networks that are of more inarguable value, and that engagement with local communities and social problems is needed.  Dr Goldhaber further supported this, connecting with her earlier point that communication skills are vital, and suggesting that universities failed to communicate the benefits of the EU in a relatable way. Professor Small further emphasised the value of building strong, positive relationships with communities.

Of further interest were references to the future of universities in an increasingly digital world.  One member of the audience suggested that universities may be the next sector transformed by the same market processes that created Uber and AirBnB, perhaps inspiring a ‘Google university’.  Speakers were quick to point out, however, that the pastoral role played by academics in supporting young people through a transition to adulthood cannot be replaced by a virtual environment, nor can the benefits of moving to a physical location for one’s studies.

Following the seminar a drinks reception was held in the Old Library, with dinner in hall shortly after concluding an enjoyable evening of stimulating discussion.  As to how universities might evolve as the 21st century unfolds further, we may have to wait and see.

All photos were taken by Nigel Luckhurst

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