Michael O'Sullivan

Wolfson Fellow Michael O’Sullivan talks about his recent move from the Cambridge Commonwealth and Overseas Trusts to Cambridge International Examinations...

In 2008 I returned to Cambridge after a 23-year absence, to take up the position of Director at Cambridge Commonwealth and Overseas Trusts (www.cambridgetrusts.org ).  The Trusts, a charity associated with the University, are the largest provider of scholarships for international students at Cambridge. They have been in existence since 1982, and have grown every year.  Currently they are supporting over 1,000 students at all the Colleges. For Wolfson, as a College with a high proportion of international students, the Trusts are an important source of student support. 

I spent four and half enjoyable years as Director at the Trusts.  At a time of rising costs, growth in international student numbers and growing competition amongst universities to attract the best research students, my main task was to increase the funding available for student support, in particular at PhD level.  I am pleased that we were able to make progress on this front.  I travelled a lot and formed new funding partnerships with organisations we had not worked with before, including government organisations in Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Pakistan, Rwanda and South Africa; the Islamic Development Bank and several private foundations and donors.  I was pleased to secure our first support from a Chinese corporate donor, the Agricultural Bank of China, which from this year will support Chinese MPhil students from poor family backgrounds.

In Cambridge, I received strong support from the University and from Trinity College, which both increased their annual donations to the Trusts.  We also changed the Trusts’ selection processes, so that scholarships could be offered earlier. The fact is that many of Cambridge’s best candidates also apply to other good universities. A timely offer of funding is sometimes the deciding factor in choice of university.  I was impressed by how widely understood these forces of competition now are at Cambridge, and by the willingness of academic staff to volunteer for time-consuming assessment work in term time, so that deadlines could be met without sacrificing care and fairness in selection.

I miss the Trusts and my colleagues there, having moved in April to a new position as Chief Executive of Cambridge International Examinations. Part of the Cambridge Assessment Group, and owned by the University, Cambridge International Examinations offers qualifications and curricula to support the whole of primary and secondary education in over 9,000 schools in more than 160 countries.  We are a global leader in our field, known in particular for our International A Levels, IGCSEs, the new sixth-form level qualification Cambridge Pre-U, and our Professional Development Qualifications for teachers.

It is a wonderfully busy and enjoyable job, working with some 350 colleagues in Hills Road and around the world, and many thousands of examiners.  We are a fast-growing not-for-profit business and a significant financial contributor to the University’s general funds.  In some countries, such as Singapore and Mauritius, we work with government bodies to provide the state examination system in all schools.  In others we compete in the independent education sector to provide syllabuses and qualifications.  In several countries we accredit the national examination system to confirm the comparability of examination results with international benchmarks, for example in Botswana and Lesotho.  And in more recent times we have been engaged by governments, in Bahrain, Egypt, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, to support wide-ranging programmes of education reform.

While readers may consider our work somewhat different in focus from the higher education and research focus of the University, we are guided in our work, no less than other parts of the University, by the Cambridge mission of contributing to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence. And we have been doing this through providing school examinations around the world for 150 years!  You can find out more at www.cie.org.uk

Through this period of change in my work, the continuity of College life at Wolfson is welcome.  I am a member of the Wolfson College Governing Body, the Finance Committee and Wolfson Choir, and am grateful for the understanding I am always shown when business travel means I have to miss an occasional meeting or rehearsal.