The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, yesterday spoke powerfully about universities' role in overseas development.

Academics do not withdraw into universities to think deep thoughts: they deepen those thoughts by constant engagement with others and with the challenge of real-world problems such as poverty

The Vice-Chancellor

Delivering Monash University's annual Richard Larkins Oration to a distinguished audience at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, he argued that "universities' contribution to the alleviation of poverty, disease and malnutrition is seriously undervalued and misunderstood, including by universities themselves".

"I argue that the advancement of health, wealth and nutrition in low-income countries is, firstly, a wholly legitimate target as well as a major academic challenge for the world's top universities, and secondly that universities are in fact uniquely well placed to make a difference".

He cited universities' strength as "the last great integrators of knowledge" over disciplines from the humanities and social sciences to biomedical sciences, and the relevance of that breadth to the multi-faceted problem of poverty.  "The reason polio is not yet globally eradicated is not because we don't understand how the disease or the vaccine works - the biomedical solution exists... Addressing this problem requires every academic discipline from religious studies to supply chain dynamics and sociology to health services research".

Universities could also act as honest brokers, he said, working with governments, NGOs and the private sector: "universities can knock on doors that are not opened to governments".

Explaining the role of universities in developed countries in building research capacity in less-developed countries, he gave the example of the CAPREx programme, a partnership between Cambridge, Makerere University (Uganda) and the University of Ghana, to reinforce research excellence and resilience in the two African partner institutions: "shortage of PhD-level staff, research-active mentors and internationally competitive research groups is a serious limitation on training the next generation of African researchers", he said.

"Academics do not withdraw into universities to think deep thoughts: they deepen those thoughts by constant engagement with others and with the challenge of real-world problems such as poverty", he said.

Professor Borysiewicz ended by acknowledging that university researchers active in overseas development needed institutional support:  "our academics must believe that the University is itself committed, such that it recognises their activity as core to the mission."

The full text of the Oration is available here.

A video of the Oration is available here.


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