Sir Andrew Cahn

The following blog is a transcript of an episode of #OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here

INTRODUCTION: Hello and Welcome to our Birkbeck Podcast. #OurBirkbeck is exciting year-long initiative to share and showcase the impact of members of the Birkbeck Community are having around the world. In this podcast series, you’ll hear from our alumni, students, staff and friends, whether they are making difference in their community, bringing about change in their industry, or shaping the lives those around them. We celebrate their stories. To find more about our Birkbeck Initiatives, please visit

In this episode of the #OurBirkbeck Podcast, Helen Shaw from Birkbeck’s Development and Alumni team interviews Birkbeck’s Chair of Governors, Sir Andrew Cahn.

Helen Shaw: Hi, I am Helen Shaw, welcome to this edition of the #OurBirkbeck podcast. I’m joined today by Birkbeck’s Chair of Governors, Sir Andrew Cahn. Thank you so much Andrew for joining us today and I’ll turn it over to you to give us a brief introduction about yourself.

SIR ANDREW CAHN: Thank you very much Helen, well I’m delighted to participate in this podcast about #OurBirkbeck. I’m very proud to be associated with Birkbeck. It was an opportunity which came out of blue, but the more I found out about Birkbeck, the more impressed I was in the year and half I’ve spent here. I was more and more impressed by the history and traditions of Birkbeck, all of the academic staff, administrative staff, people who make the organisation work and by the students. They are remarkable and unique and a very different group of people from any other educational institution I’ve worked for. Just a word about myself, I was civil servant for most of my life. I joined the Ministry of Agricultural, Fisheries and food which ended in 1973. Most of my career was spent dealing with the European Community, and then the European Union. I have actually worked in Brussels three times. I was twice a diplomat, but also worked twice as a European Civil Servant.  I think what I am most proud of in my career is that I was part of small team that created the European Single Market. Leaving aside all the controversy about Brexit or no Brexit I think almost everybody accepts that  the single market has been a force for good, force of prosperity and force of unity. Whether or not Britain wants to be part of it, it’s a good thing.

I certainly feel that and I am very proud to have part of the team that created that led that. I left the Civil Service in 2000, having been the Chief of Staff of Neil Kinnock former Labour leader, when he was European Commissioner, which was great fun. When I left the civil service I joined British Airways and worked with them for six years, which was very interesting, becoming a business person, after having been a public servant, but I was then headhunted back into running a government department of UK Trade and Investment. This is the body which promotes exports and attracting investment, it’s largely the equivalent to what is now the Department of International Trade with about 4000 staff, all around the world in embassies and home and an annual budget of about 300 hundred million pounds, and I had a wonderful six years doing that, travelling to over 80 countries at that time, and, and overseeing a huge increase in investment into this country.

And then I left, I’ve had 10 years as a non-executive director at a variety of companies. I turned myself into a city person by being a non-executive director of Nomura. A Japanese ban and Lloyd’s of London, the oldest insurance organisation in this country.

I was also and I still am a non-executive director of Huawei, the rather controversial Chinese company. I am a firm believer in them as the part of China we should be doing business with rather than them being the part of China we shouldn’t be doing business with. And then for six years, I was a chair of WWF, Worldwide Fund for Nature, or World Wildlife Fund, as you might think of it, which was a huge privilege and very exciting. And I’m still on the global board of WWF as a trustee.

I’ve also been a trustee for 26 years of the Gatsby Charitable Foundation – which most people will have not heard of. Helen you’ll have heard of it. It was the second largest charity in the country in terms of the money we disperse. We give away so much, almost 2 billion pounds so far. And we’ve still got about a billion to go. It’s David Sainsbury’s personal charity and that’s been a wonderful thing to be involved with. I’ve been a trustee of about four or five other charities as well. So that’s what I’ve done with my career.

Helen Shaw: That’s amazing. It’s fascinating to kind of hear you talk about the breadth of your career, you’ve had some highly distinguished roles. It sounds like it’s spanned so much from kind of public servant into the private sector and these trustee roles and non-executive places that you’ve held. It’s so much work. You touched on some of the highlights there around the European single market and some of the fantastic organisations you’ve been involved in. It all seems to have an international angle, has that been something that’s kind of motivated you or you’ve been passionate about, or is it a consequence of circumstance?

SIR ANDREW CAHN: I think in most people’s lives and careers, luck, and happenstance plays a big role. I wouldn’t say I set out to have an international career. But I think I always had an international perspective. My father was a German Jewish refugee from Hitler, and turned himself into an Englishman, but he was an Englishman who always spoke with a rather heavy German accent.  I always felt like an international person, did a lot of travelling in my time, and I got on in perhaps an idealistic way. I really do believe that if mankind is to confront the challenges of today, of which climate change and the loss of biodiversity are probably two of the biggest, far bigger than this passing pandemic is, we can’t get on the basis of a nation state, we have to do it on a on an international and global basis. So, a certain amount of internationalist ideology or passion has underpinned my career. But as I say, never underestimate the impact of blind fate and luck on the way your way your life develops.

Helen Shaw: That’s amazing and I leads quite nicely. I mean, is that another thing that’s guided you? Is there something in particular that has been a guiding principle or passion that led you through such a career that seems so many different institutions and positions?

SIR ANDREW CAHN: I think, a number of different principles or visions or ideals of government, and it changes over time. I think in my early career, I just wanted to be a good public servant. I was always motivated by the idea that you have the ideology of private being good and public being bad. I was completely wrong and I was somewhat out of sympathy with the regulate, that seemed to say, the private sector is always better at doing anything than the public Sector. The private sector is often very good at doing things. I’ve worked in the private sector, and I have great admiration for business and commercial people. I think that there are all sorts of things which the public sector should do and does better and indeed can only do. I’m a great believer that a successful society and effective community needs to have really effective public sector workers and that goes all the way up from the parish council, through to the United Nations and every level in between. So I began being motivated by public service. I hope that doesn’t sound wishy washy, but I do believe in the public service. Over the last few years, I suppose the thing which has driven me most of all, is the experience I had as chair of WWF. Coming to realise just how threatened humanity is. In the way we run ourselves currently everyone mentions climate change as an existential threat but I think that the loss of nature, the loss of biodiversity, the loss of natural habitats and ecosystems is in some ways an even bigger challenge. They’re both enormous and if you ask me, what am I proudest of over the last year or what I’ve done, it’s probably the fact that David Attenborough made a film called ‘The Life On Our Planet’, which came out a few months ago. That film wouldn’t have been made owithout me. I mean, I had nothing to do with the content of the film, which was all David and a wonderful person called Colin Buckfield from WWF. However, I made the money available, and if I hadn’t done so, and been a rather naughty chair, and said, I don’t care what the Finance Director says, we are going to fund this, it wouldn’t have happened. So I’m proud because his personal testimony is so compelling. For those of you who had seen it, you’ll recall that he begins by showing how nature can re-create itself and come back rapidly. For me, it’s a wakeup call to say mankind is a passing transient element on this planet, nature will survive, it will re-create itself after whatever damage we do.

But humanity is has the capacity through self-knowledge, consciousness, intelligence and technological wizardry to not destroy our planet and not to destroy ourselves. That’s what he argued. One last thing I’d say is in the last year or so, I’m very pleased to have taken over Birkbeck. And the fact that my father was a university professor and the founder of a discipline, a science discipline. My mother was a schoolteacher and so for me education has always been at the forefront of what I think is important in any society. When the chance came to become Chair of Birkbeck, I seized the chance because I don’t think frankly the Chair of Governors makes a huge amount of difference. The people who make the difference are artists, teachers and the students but we can make a bit of a difference and it’s a great pleasure to be able to do so.

Helen Shaw: As you’re talking about your work and especially your work as a trustee, both at WWF, but also here at Birkbeck, you can just feel your passion and how much you really care about it. I know there will be people who are sat there thinking trustee jobs are an opportunity to make a difference, they are an opportunity to do more. What would your advice be to those who want to explore those rules, who want to start getting into it and what should they expect?

SIR ANDREW CAHN: Well, first, my first bit of advice is if you want to stay not only alive but alert and energetic, to do things in your 60s or 70s, don’t just stop. Being a trustee and a non-executive is a way of doing that. There does come a moment when you can’t be an effective executive anymore. You don’t have the energy, you don’t have the concentration. However, you can be a trustee, you can contribute in a pro bono way. You don’t need to be paid for it because you’ve got your pensions and you can still be actively engaged. I’d say start early. I mentioned earlier that I been a trustee of the Gatsby foundation for 26 years, I was in government, my old school and I worked with some small charities locally. I think that gave me the experience of what it’s like to be a non-executive, as opposed to an executive, it’s very different to being a non-executive. You need a different mindset and great discipline. When you are an executive, there’s a shift from being an executive to a non-executive. All day you’re being an executive, you’ve been tasked with this project, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got this problem that needs sorting out. In the evening, you go off for your parish council, your church, Council, your local school, governance body or whatever and you’re a non-executive, it’s not your job is to take the decisions, it’s not your job to do it. It’s your job to say to the head teacher, or the chief executive, are you sure that’s right? Have you thought about this aspect? And if things get really bad, saying you can’t do that, because there’s a fiduciary, there’s a financial reason you’re not allowed to do that and we’re legally not allowed to do that, or you’ll create so much political problem if you can’t do it. You have a very different perspective as a non-executive, and it’s a good one to have. So I would encourage anybody in early sort of middle age, to start doing non-executive stuff, perhaps even earlier. Gradually you shift the balance, and in my 60s, half of it was earning money and half of it was doing pro bono stuff. Now, I’m just about to be 70, almost all of what I do is pro bono and I just have one paid non-executive director job. I’m completely comfortable with that and it’s been a glide path if you like. The glide path has been on the less importantly, earning less and less. This is learning a little bit, and much more importantly, in life while doing less and less. I don’t do 59 Ks like I used to and I don’t do eight-hour days like I used to and if I want to go off and play around with golf or climb a mountain or read a book, I do it. But I still have things which really preoccupy me which I can be passionate about, which I can be excited about. And from time to time I have a crisis which engulfs my time and that keeps you feeling alive and engaged.

HELEN SHAW: It sounds almost, as you said that you’ve transitioned through where you put your time in your 60s. And it almost reminds me of some of our Birkbeck students who come back, and it is his career 2.0 when they take their next step at Birkbeck, or who come back purely for the love of learning. So it feels to resonate really nicely in terms of that continuing to expand skill set and knowledge.

SIR ANDREW CAHN: I’m so impressed with those of our students who have almost full-time other lives, jobs, caring responsibilities, and other obligations. And yet, find the time, the energy, the concentration, the willpower to come to the six o’clock lecture seminar. Having written something, having prepared something and go away and write some more.  
That is very impressive. I’m a great believer in having a number of compartments to your life, and doing a variety of different things. That’s what Birkbeck students do, often with great difficulty but they do it and it’s very impressive. I think you should plan rest of your life, like that. Everybody does it because you have your job and you have your home life, your parents, your carer or somebody at home but there should be more, there should be other elements so that you have hobbies. You need to have the elements of other organisations, other components of society which you are contributing to, which you are helping to invigorate and make them achieve something. Birkbeck students should be even more capable of doing that than others because they run this marvellous, multi obligation life while being students.

HELEN SHAW: Brilliant and you mentioned at the beginning taking up the role of Birkbeck in 2019 and being really inspired by the history and tradition. As a chair of governors what do you see Birkbeck’s role as in the future? What does a Birkbeck in 200 years’ time look like ?

SIR ANDREW CAHN: Well, it won’t look the same I mean, one of the things that you realise when you dig into the history of Birkbeck is that Birkbeck reinvented itself quite a lot. And of course, 200 years ago, we weren’t even Birkbeck, we were the London Mechanics Institute. We have changed ourselves repeatedly. We’ve changed ourselves quite a lot, actually in the last 20 years, and I’m sure we’ll have to change ourselves again. Clearly coming out in a pandemic, we’re going to find the nature of teaching change, not just for Birkbeck, but for all higher education institutions. How much is done online future and how much is done face to face? How do you blend the two together? I don’t know what the answer is going to be. There’s no going back to the status quo and you’re not going to get back to what life was like before, we are going to have to change. Government policy and future administrations will force us to change but I’m very confident that Birkbeck has a large role to play. Partly because I think people are leading much more diverse lives now and that trend will continue. I think the move towards deciding that your higher education is something that’s going to happen in the evening rather than full time during the day, that can only increase. I think the idealism underpinning Birkbeck, which is always underpinned is that we specifically want to provide for quite a lot of people who it hasn’t been easy to get into higher education or they’ve missed out; and they would like to get in now, but it isn’t easy for them to get there or just don’t have the standard qualifications but do have the motivation drive and capability. All of that is underpinned by an idealism, about who in society, everybody in society should have an opportunity to have higher education if they can benefit from it and that will continue. So, I think Birkbeck will change. Frankly, I don’t know. I don’t know how it’ll change in the future, but I’m very excited. I think it’s one of things that I’m looking forward to over the next few years, is trying to ensure that as we reinvent ourselves coming out to the pandemic we do so in a sustainable way and make our business model work, but also contribute to the ideals which underpin Birkbeck over 200 years or 198 years.

Helen Shaw: It’s brilliant, it sounds exactly as you say the opportunities for Birkbeck to do more of what we have always done which is to continue, as you say to provide opportunities for everyone who has the drive and the passion to succeed and to go back out and contribute to those around them. This is exactly what the #OurBirkbeck initiative is really highlighting at the moment which is the incredible ways in which Birkbeck alumni, friends and supporters are in their communities making a difference and it’s fantastic to hear that that’s going to be amplified, potentially even more when Birkbeck has a role to play.

SIR ANDREW CAHN: Once you join the Birkbeck community, suddenly everybody you talk to turns out to have a Birkbeck connection which has delighted me and surprised me. All sorts of people, that you have no idea said ‘oh yeah, I did a Master’s at Birkbeck’. Birkbeck isn’t absolutely top of mind, when people think about universities, but it is essential in what we do, what we represent and what we signify. I think it’s absolutely best of British higher education.

Helen Shaw: Brilliant, thank you so much Andrew. That feels like a perfect moment to thank you for joining us today and taking the time to be part of the podcast series, to talk to us a little bit more about your career and what led you to Birkbeck. So, thank you so much and we look forward speaking to again soon.

SIR ANDREW CAHN: Thank you so much Helen

And that’s end of this episode. We hope you enjoy hearing from Andrew and Helen. If you interest in finding more about our Birkbeck, please visit to read more about the impact our community having around the world. Thanks for listening and until next time.  

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