Speech by Professor Stephen Toope, Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, at an event marking UCA-Cambridge Trust Partnership

Date: 26 February 2020

Professor Stephen Toope, Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge

Aga Khan Centre, London
26 February 2020

Speech by Professor Stephen Toope, Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, in London on February 26th, marking the signing of an agreement between UCA and the Cambridge Trust. He presented on "Internationalisation of Higher Education and its role in Development."

Princess Zahra Aga Khan, Your Excellencies, distinguished colleagues and friends.
Thank you for the opportunity to address you today, and thank you, Dr Kassim-Lakha, for that kind introduction.
It is wonderful to be in this extraordinary building, an oasis of calm and beauty in the middle of a hectic city – at what feels like a very hectic time.
London is privileged to house this Aga Khan Centre.
It epitomises the high level of thought and imagination, of design and craftsmanship that we have come to associate with projects of the Aga Khan Development Network.
It truly lifts the soul.
And I feel very fortunate to be here today.
Internationalisation of Higher Education
I have been asked to share some thoughts on the topic of the internationalisation of Higher Education, and in particular its role in Development.
Some years ago, “internationalisation” was a big buzz-word for universities.
All universities wanted to internationalise, but “internationalisation” meant different things to different institutions.
Was it about recruiting international students?
Or perhaps making arrangements for our own students to travel abroad as part of their education?
Did it mean establishing academic collaborations with international partners?
Or was internationalisation about establishing hubs of teaching and research overseas?
For most universities – certainly for a University like Cambridge – it was a mix of all of the above.
In many ways, Higher Education has always been international: international in its outlook, international in its priorities, and international in its people.
The spirit of free enquiry that underpins any Higher Education institution does not flourish behind closed doors.
Some of the greatest leaps in our knowledge occur when boundaries are crossed – disciplinary boundaries, and geographical boundaries.
Universities need an international outlook to answer most effectively the questions that they are asking.
In all fields – the arts, the social sciences and humanities, biomedical and physical sciences, technology – Higher Education is engaged with global challenges.
Those challenges, and their solutions, lie outside the scope of a single institution or country.
And the people working on those challenges are some of the most internationally well connected that I have ever encountered.
Good academics instinctively find their peers elsewhere, and they naturally want to work together.
The creation of global knowledge is largely dependent on the mobility and circulation of talent.
Students are the most mobile of all.
We are lucky in Cambridge to have a student population of whom over 40% come from outside the UK.
And that number rises closer to 60% if we look at the cohort of Masters and doctoral students.
That not only gives the University a genuinely international atmosphere, but it translates into a network of international contacts that is invaluable in furthering the mission of the University.
Internationalisation in Higher Education is of course well exemplified by the Aga Khan Development Network, and its education agencies in Central Asia, Pakistan and East Africa.
The fact that the Network operates in no fewer than 30 countries around the world creates a strong and interactive network that benefits all of its component parts.
I like to say that collaboration is not optional.
No matter how ancient and distinguished its history – or how new and well-resourced its campus – or how brilliant its people – no individual research organisation can attain excellence on its own.
Globally influential universities must harness the power of strategic partnerships — with other universities, with businesses, with civil society, with NGOs and with governments.
Above all else, global universities must seek connection, communication and collaboration.
I am at risk, here, of presenting international collaboration and international mobility through rose-tinted glasses.
But let us not underestimate the challenges presented by international collaboration.
As with any other relationship, they need effort and commitment.
Building productive partnerships takes care, time, and constant scrutiny.
Care - in identifying a partner that shares one’s values and objectives.
Time - to develop an open dialogue and a good understanding of the other party.
Constant scrutiny – to examine and re-examine how the partnership is developing, whether the original objectives are being met, and whether the expected outcomes are materialising.
Equitable partnerships are based on trust, on clear understanding of each partner’s current situation and its ambitions, and on joint delivery of stated goals.
I remember here the words of one of Cambridge’s most renowned alumni, the poet John Donne: “No man is an island”.
And what is true of men is also true of universities.
I am glad to acknowledge that if my university, the University of Cambridge, has achieved great things in the past, it is because it has always been open to the wider world.
If it is a global university today, it is because it has reached out to strategic partners – both in the UK and overseas – to find the urgent answers to pressing questions.
To acknowledge that we need others as much as others might need us is a realistic assessment of the challenges faced by higher education, as well as the expression of a desire for wider and more substantial engagement.
To accept that partnerships are essential to our work requires both humility and vision.
It was a great pleasure for me yesterday to sign, with Dr Kassim-Lakha, a partnership agreement between the University of Central Asia and the University of Cambridge.
I know that this will form the foundation of a growing and lasting association between our two institutions, and between Cambridge and the wider Aga Khan Development Network.
Higher Educations Role in Development
But let me turn for a moment to the role of Higher Education in Development.
We recognise that Development is an enabling process.
It gives people the power and the skills to improve their lives.
And it is all-encompassing, touching upon every aspect of people’s lives.
His Highness the Aga Khan has written and spoken of this – I quote:
‘Development initiatives cannot be contemplated exclusively in terms of economics, but rather as an integrated programme that encompasses variables such as education and skills training, health and public services, conservation of cultural heritage, infrastructure development, urban planning and rehabilitation, water and energy management, environmental control, and even policy and legislative development.’
As creators, curators and communicators of knowledge, universities have an indispensable role in tackling multiple aspects of that integrated programme.
Universities are places where students and scholars are given the time and space to think.
To think hard about what is wrong in our world, and to think hard about how to make it better.
Universities are places where we come together from diverse backgrounds, where we read widely, where we talk – and where the talk sparks ideas.
At their best, universities nurture rich ecosystems of discovery, research and innovation.
They can be the petri dishes and test beds for solutions to some of the planet’s most pressing challenges – from the consequences of climate change to the scourge of infectious disease, from the impact of mass migration to the effect of urban and rural poverty.
Universities are among the few institutions to have survived since the medieval era.
For centuries, universities have proven crucial to social, economic, and cultural evolution.
It is because of the power of ideas to challenge the status quo, to refuse to accept what governments, vested interests, and even society accept as the norm.
Crucially, universities are places where we not only have ideas – we test them.
And often we find them to lack the strength we thought they had.
But sometimes we find that they are more potent than we could ever imagine.
When Einstein pioneered his work on lasers, could he have imagined that they would one day be used to perform life-saving keyhole surgery?
When scientists built the first computer, filling an entire room, did they anticipate that almost all of us would one day carry something far more powerful in our pockets?
Scientific discoveries of this sort have led to extraordinary technological innovations, which in turn have fuelled social and economic change.
But it is not only technological innovations that transform societies.
Think about the radical ideas, which are incubated in the safety of a university common room or lecture hall or library, but which are shared with colleagues worldwide, and then spread further out into society.
I have just returned from India, where I have seen the genuine and positive impact that internationalised Higher Education can have.
I heard about women farmers who can access finance to buy seed from local cooperatives, seed that will thrive in their local conditions, and result in produce that can be sold in fair and local markets.
This came about because academics in the UK worked with Indian colleagues from research institutes and NGOs, both in the field and in the seminar room.
I heard about low-cost solar technology that is being embedded in rural buildings, to create complete and sustainable energy systems, in fully off-grid villages.
This came about because engineers, designers and entrepreneurs in research institutes in the UK, India and elsewhere worked hand-in-hand with industrial partners, to solve not only India’s energy crisis, but potentially the worlds’.
These are just two examples of developmental impact that has been made possible by thoughtful and rigorous research carried out jointly by academics in India and in the UK.
Our colleagues here from the University of Central Asia demonstrate another aspect of the interrelation of Higher Education and Development.
“Education” said Nelson Mandela, speaking about social change, “is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
And he was right.
But – and this is recognised by both our institutions - the education a student receives at university is about so much more than lectures and tutorials, essays and exams.
It’s about understanding the importance of learning across a career and a life.
It’s about learning to understand others – to articulate one’s point of view – to listen and debate without rancour.
It’s about building connections and friendships, locally, nationally and internationally – developing networks of support.
It’s about growing into the kind of leaders we need in the world.
And again, I don’t just mean prime ministers and presidents, vice-chancellors and CEOs.
I mean citizens of integrity who have strong personal ethics, but who will hear the opinions of others with respect.
Global citizens, who understand that every one of this planet’s 7.5 billion unique human beings has a place in the world.
Something that I fear is sometimes missed by our political leaders and by the 4th Estate, is that good education raises up not only its direct recipients, but also the wider society from which they come.
The inspirational choice of mountain regions for the three campuses of the University of Central Asia, and the generous financial support given to students who could not otherwise afford a university education, mean that the University is contributing significantly to the intellectual and economic development of the relevant regions.
That aspect of Development - the financial support of talented young people in educational contexts that might otherwise be beyond their reach - is of course the raison d’être of my colleagues here today from the Cambridge Trust.
They and others in Cambridge work with international partners such as the University of Central Asia to open up the best of higher education to a global field.
But there is another aspect of Development that I would like to explore.
I think we used to use the term Development to refer to other people and other places.
It was something we worked on in the hope of enabling other people and other places to become more fully developed.
But – as is natural in this time of global uncertainty and shifting perspectives – we are beginning to learn that development begins at home.
I don’t mean that in any parochial or self-serving way, of developing our own people and places before others.
But rather that we are beginning to recognise the need to develop ourselves in relation to others, to develop our ways of thinking in relation to other ways of thinking, to develop our practices and norms in relation to those of others.
Without that recognition of the interconnected nature of the world, we cannot hope to make the improvements that are so badly needed.
This requires humility in relation to others, and curiosity about others, and full acknowledgement of others, and of the ways in which their own ideas impinge on and shape ours.
I am proud of, and intrigued by, a new initiative in Cambridge – Global Humanities: connecting the world through culture.
It is at a very early and exploratory stage, but it aims to develop new approaches to the study of art, literature, film, the digital world, music, history and language.
It recognises that our students are no longer well-served, or well-prepared for life, by curricula and research that privilege European or ‘Northern’ agendas.
And it will address that by generating deep and sustainable linkages across a network of global partners, linkages that will affect what we teach, what we do, and what we think.
This promises to be Development of ourselves and our own mind-sets, that will in turn promote the global Development to which we all aspire.
Friends, some of you may know the advice of Franklin D Roosevelt to any public speaker: be sincere, be brief, and be seated.
I hope you will believe the sincerity of my remarks.
I have already disregarded his advice on being brief, so let me finish and then be seated.
I have explored here today some aspects of Higher Education, the ways in which it has genuine societal impact, and its global role in development.
It is nearly 18 months since I last addressed an audience invited by the Aga Khan Centre.
And what a lot has happened in that 18 months.
The catastrophic impact of climate change has been demonstrated by fire, flood, drought, and even the proverbial swarm of locusts.
Leaders and governments have risen and fallen, and politicians – with a few, occasional exceptions - have continued to disappoint their people.
Global health issues continue – and we are watching a very serious crisis unfold even as we speak.
And, as is always the way, the people who suffer most from these issues are the poorest and most disadvantaged of society.
Let us never forget, then, how uniquely placed universities like ours are to tackle these issues.
Let us never forget how our universities’ missions and our universities’ pools of talent allow us, perhaps more than any other type of institution on this planet, to create, curate and communicate the knowledge that can help to improve the world.
The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating.
Let us continue, then, to work together to let our institutions show just how much they can contribute to improving our complex, troubled world.
Thank you.
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