New vice-chancellor says shortage of funds is jeopardising Cambridge's reputation

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The Independent Online

Cambridge University has to do more to dispel its élitist image and help poorer students before it can consider introducing top-up fees, its new vice-chancellor has warned.

But the university had been underfunded for many years and could lose its world-class reputation unless it raised money from benefactors or by charging higher fees, Alison Richard said yesterday. "This is urgent. We must put our shoulder to the wheel. I think we must come up with proposals in months not years."

When Professor Richard is inaugurated as the university's 344th vice-chancellor this morning, she will become the first woman "chief executive" in its 800-year history. The internationally respected anthropologist, an expert on the Madagascan lemur, is taking on what is arguably one of the most difficult challenges in higher education.

"Undeniably Cambridge is underfunded," she said. "It's not simply a matter of the budget deficit [about £10m], it's that there has been a steady erosion of overall funding coming into higher education. The truth of the matter is that Cambridge makes a lot less money go a lot further than other institutions. It is quite remarkable that Cambridge can compete with the best in the world - most of which are in the US - from a smaller financial base."

The post of Cambridge vice-chancellor has previously been held by one woman ? Rosemary Murray in the 1970s ? when the role was largely as a figurehead rather than a management post.

Professor Richard takes over amid the debate on top-up fees and university underfunding. The university is regularly lambasted for being élitist and Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, recently called for both Oxford and Cambridge to shed their "Brideshead Revisited image" and present a more modern face to school leavers.

Over the next few months Professor Richard and her team will begin to develop a "more comprehensive and more navigable bursary system" before considering whether fees can be increased, and if so to what level. Cambridge has the biggest bursary scheme of all UK universities and gave £4m to disadvantaged students last year. But the important thing was for all applicants to be aware that this support was available, she said.

"My own view on this is that the first thing I want to take on when I roll up my sleeves on Thursday morning is to join my colleagues here who are working to develop a more comprehensive bursary system. Unless and until we are confident we can put together a well co-ordinated bursary system which is easily navigable I do not feel we can consider the levels of fees."

Plans to reform the university's management were vetoed by Regent House, Cambridge's governing body of academics, in January. This led to the university being singled out for criticism in the interim report of a review ordered by Gordon Brown into relations between universities and the business world.

The report by Richard Lambert, a senior financial journalist and member of the Bank of England's monetary policy committee, asked whether the university was capable of sorting out its affairs quickly enough to remain a world-class institution.

The rejected overhaul would have turned the post of vice-chancellor into a true chief executive role able to make decisions on university finances and policies. Professor Richard had enjoyed these powers in her previous job as provost of Yale, where she was highly regarded.