We mark the passing of 800 years, and that is indeed a remarkable span for any institution. But history is never an even-flowing stream, and the most remarkable thing about modern Cambridge has been its enormous growth over the past half century. Since I came up as an undergraduate in 1961 the student population has more than doubled. More students have meant more teachers, and, even more significantly, more scholars devoted solely to research: every category has more than doubled in numbers. This huge increase has been partly absorbed by an expansion of the colleges: they all have more students and more Fellows than they did 50 years ago; and, since 1954, no fewer than 11 of the 31 colleges are either brand new foundations, or have been conjured up as new creations from existing but quite different bodies. From being a university primarily driven by undergraduate education, Cambridge's reputation is now overwhelmingly tied to its research achievements, which can be simply represented by the fact that more than three-quarters of its current annual income is devoted to research. This has brought not just new laboratories but new buildings to house whole faculties and departments: in the mid-20th century few faculties had a physical manifestation beyond, perhaps, a library and a couple of administrative offices.
Cambridge attracts the best students and academics because they find the University and the colleges stimulating and enjoyable places in which to live and work. The students are thrown in with similarly able minds, learning as much from each other as from their teachers; the good senior academics know better than to be too hierarchical or to cut themselves off from intellectual criticism and debate.
One generation dismisses another: not even Erasmus or Newton, Darwin or Keynes stand unscathed by the passage of time; nor can we be but humbled, especially in our day when so much information is so easily accessible, by the vast store of knowledge which we can approach but never really control. Our library and museum collections bring us into contact with many lives lived in the past. They serve as symbols of the continuity of learning, or the diversity of views, of an obligation to wrestle with fact and argument, to come to our own conclusions, and in turn to be accountable for our findings. The real quest is not for knowledge, but for understanding.