About this speech

  • Title: Global universities in an age of anxiety
  • Speaker: Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor
  • Date: Wednesday 13 February 2019
  • Delivered at Ashoka University, India

Global universities in an age of anxiety

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for welcoming me, my wife Paula and my colleagues today. I am delighted to be at Ashoka University.

What a remarkable campus this is! It is a testament to the vision of your founders, and it is a testament to your dedication as the staff and students of this university.

How refreshing that, in a world where many minds appear to be closing, one can find here a new institution designed for the purpose of broadening thought.

Ashoka University is an institution designed to increase knowledge – an institution with a strong research culture, where students can expand their horizons and, in doing so, expand those of India itself. It is aspirational and it is inspirational.

I have been to India many times before, but this is only my second visit as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. One of the reasons my colleagues and I are here now is to refresh and reaffirm our ties of cooperation with Indian counterparts. Another is to meet new friends, and to explore and establish new partnerships.

On Monday, in Bangalore, my colleagues and I visited the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, with which we have a truly impressive collaboration on cancer research, led by Professor Ashok Venkitaraman.

Yesterday afternoon, in Delhi, I met with senior representatives of some key government ministries. We talked of their priorities, and of how our University and their associates can cooperate towards achieving them. I was heartened by the spirit of openness and the forward thinking that they brought to the discussions.

India, which will soon have the largest population in the world – where one quarter of the population is aged under 25 – is bursting with brilliant, determined young people. India – and indeed, the world – needs graduates whose eyes have been opened through education. And not just in STEM subjects. Although the solutions to many great challenges will be found through scientific discovery and technological innovation, the context is invariably human.

So we need graduates in the arts and humanities. We need their words to articulate the very questions we must answer. We need their ability to put a human perspective on the challenges we face.

The wonderful thing – in this world of diminishing resources — the wonderful thing is that knowledge is not a finite resource. Everyone can partake of knowledge and its benefits, and in doing so, far from depleting supplies, augment them for the future.

Through exploring and developing knowledge of the liberal arts, as students do at this university, we delve into the heart of humanity itself. Through the study of cultures, of our past, of our literature and of ourselves, we find new lenses through which to view our problems.

And that is crucial, because in the 21st century we must find new ways of seeing, new ways of sharing our ideas, and new ways of tackling some gargantuan challenges. We rely on people who can think critically, and on researchers capable of examining every aspect of a problem. That is one of the key roles of global universities.


But what do I mean when I use that term, 'global universities'? Does it mean that a university attempts to encompass the globe, with multiple campuses? Perhaps, that a university’s students and staff reflect the world’s diverse population? Should a university address global issues? Is it about building international partnerships? Or should a global university be at the forefront of international issues, demonstrating leadership?

One dictionary defines 'global' to mean: 'pertaining to the whole world; worldwide; universal'. The word 'university' comes from the same root as that last word: the Latin universitas – 'The whole.'

Global universities must be places where we are allowed to think freely, to collaborate with one another, and to share our findings and our ideas. Where the breakthroughs are made, and the innovations developed, that fuel our future. Where potential leaders – academic, entrepreneurial, political, artistic and civic – are nurtured.

They must be places where knowledge is created, collected, curated and communicated, unencumbered by imperatives of profit or policy. And where governments, international organisations, businesses, the non-profit sector and leading researchers and thinkers come together to find solutions to urgent global problems. And we have many.


We live in what I call, borrowing from WH Auden, an 'age of anxiety'. A time when the world faces challenges of unprecedented complexity. As the population expands to the point where the planet’s resources simply cannot cope, many regions of the world lack the basic necessities of life.

Just last year we saw Cape Town come perilously close to being the first major city in the world to run out of water. As you know all too well in India, Cape Town is far from the only place in the world with water problems – whether they are to do with its availability, distribution or quality.

You may be aware of the exhibition Pani, Pahar being displayed here at Ashoka University. This collaborative project explores the changing landscapes and escalating water crises of the Indian Himalayas, and charts the research of Cambridge’s Professor Bhaskar Vira and Dr Eszter Kovacs. Their work spans the fields of political economy, development and environmental studies, examining the social, economic and political dimensions of managing natural resources.

It is vital research, and research best done through interdisciplinary and international collaboration. Working together, and understanding and engaging with each other and our communities are absolutely crucial to achieving the preservation of our fragile ecologies.

In other parts of the world, January saw unprecedented extreme heat in Australia, while in the United States, temperatures plummeted to levels below those in Antarctica. Floods and droughts, fires and famines.

We are seeing war, hunger and financial disaster leading to mass migration of refugees on a scale unseen since World War Two. Mass migration that may begin to approach the scale of that which occurred here in India in 1947.

We will undoubtedly see a rise in the number of so-called 'environmental migrants', or, more accurately perhaps, 'climate refugees', as the world’s weather patterns become increasingly unstable and the sea-levels rise.

Migrants leave their homes in fear, and those in safer places fear migrants. Political extremism, religious fundamentalism and intolerance abound. Despite the world being more connected than ever before, ignorance, mistrust, and cultural isolation persist. The urgency is obvious to us all.


With global challenges of such a magnitude, we need global solutions. The threats posed by microbial resistance do not stop at international borders. Diabetes and Alzheimer’s diseases care not whether a sufferer’s skin is black or white. A city’s fog of air pollution won’t end where neighbouring farmland begins, nor do its effects discriminate between adults, children or livestock.

The plastic filling our oceans could equally be ingested by a turtle swimming in Polynesian waters or a seal in the Arctic. Our diminishing resources and the profoundly destructive impact humanity has had on our planet mean that energy efficiency and cleaning up our act are a priority for every one of us.

And none of us can do it alone. Collaboration is not optional.

No matter how ancient 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.


We all wish to see changes in the world – changes that will make it a better place for everyone. Cambridge is currently working together with Indian institutions on many projects with that very aim. Our academics are working with Indian researchers on large-scale research projects on crucial, life-saving projects tackling microbial resistant tuberculosis, inclusive education and sustainable agriculture.

I am particularly proud of the work we are doing in the fields of human biology, therapeutics and healthcare. These are key collaborations working towards effective, personalised medicine.

I was delighted to attend the launch last year of TIGR2ESS, an interdisciplinary, inter-university, international project based in India. It’s about how to attain sustainable crop production and resource use in different regions of India, with a particular emphasis on water use.

Although much of the project is scientific, it places research on crops and farming practices in the context of the widespread changes taking place in Indian society today.

The programme’s short-term vision is to improve Indian crop science and food security, but, ultimately TIGR2ESS will be about food security for the whole world. Solving this challenge – providing adequate nutritious food for the planet’s burgeoning population — requires the combined efforts of engineers, geographers and mathematicians. Together they must collaborate to develop tools to predict future demands for energy, land and water. Plant and veterinary scientists must collaborate with colleagues across the world to improve crop yields and livestock resilience to disease.

It doesn’t only require scientists.

Ensuring food security requires researchers in the humanities and social sciences to analyse the political economy of food supply, and to evaluate the role of political structures in the production and distribution of food. It demands greater understanding of the regulatory frameworks of land ownership, and the economics of changes in land-use. It needs public policy analysts to formulate methods of embedding new practices in communities and nations.

Experts from almost every discipline and every part of the world must work together to achieve the critical outcomes. The consequence of not doing so is that inequality will prevail, and societies will continue to be split between those who have, and those who have not.


Challenges on this scale, of this complexity, demand the kind of multi-disciplinary approach where global research universities can excel. They need institutions that are not seeking to profit, but to help, and which place their contribution to society firmly at their core. Institutions that recognise and embody the truth in the Sanskrit saying Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam: the entire world is one family.

The entire world. Universal. University.

The more we bring the different members of our global society together – the more we encourage everyone to understand our diverse viewpoints and to work towards our common goals – the more successful our endeavours will be.


I call it our global society. But we all know that, sadly, societies can be fractured and dysfunctional. There has always been division within and between nations. Within and between religions; within and between ethnic groups. This division is compounded when we do not take the time to understand each other. Self-interest leads those with power – or those who seek it – to emphasise our differences.

This is no longer the time for divisions. Nor is it the time for polemics and self-aggrandisement. Critical thinking helps us rise above confrontation and conflict. It helps us see through the fake news, through the soundbites and the ill-considered tweets.

More than ever, we require propositions based on fact, logic and evidence. We need the collaboration and the diversity of points of view that have led to the greatest developments of the past, and will lead to the innovations on which the future health of our planet will depend.

Throughout history, we have benefited from diversity and collaboration – often without knowing it. We have taken it for granted. Trade routes that wound their way around the world meant people from different cultures could trade, not only their produce, but their stories, their music, their medicines, and their inventions.

It could take years, decades, or even centuries for an idea from say, China, to wend its way to Morocco, and vice versa – and yet, to quote Galileo, they moved. Elements of culture shifted too, and were embraced without necessarily even being recognised for what they were.

And the greatest inventions – the ones that changed the world – didn’t happen in a vacuum. They were the result of years of thinking and ideas and inventions by others, filtering down.

Just as an example, the numerals we use today, which we call Hindu-Arabic numerals, originated in India, and, as a concept, traveled through the Middle East and North Africa, eventually reaching Europe, and then spreading around the world. Those numerals form the basis of maths, physics, chemistry, engineering, and in fact everything.

Collaboration across time – and across the world – has always happened. Now, we have the capacity to work together in ways we couldn’t have imagined just twenty years ago. We live in a world that is shrinking in terms of travel time, and where we can be connected in an instant to others all over the planet. This level of connection is unprecedented in the world’s history.

And it’s now easier than ever to share our ideas – to share our knowledge – and indeed, to collaborate together.

I know I’ve stressed anxiety, urgency and the need for action. I hope I haven’t discouraged you because this is also an incredibly exciting time. Researchers can share their findings in an instant. Through the use of advanced computer technology, they can analyse data on a scale unimaginable just five years ago. They can speak with each other at any time of day or night and demonstrate their discoveries without needing to be in the same room.

Our students can study in cross-disciplinary environments where their ideas aren’t constrained by faculty or discipline. Our diverse perspectives enable us to see a problem from multiple angles and to imagine and design solutions.

Diversity in outlook leads to diversity in ideas. It’s the reason we need academics and researchers from different disciplines to come together to tackle problems, but it’s also the reason we need academics and researchers from different cultural backgrounds, whose varied viewpoints could provide the crucial key to unlocking a deep conundrum.

It’s the reason we need our students and academics to learn from those all over the world. It’s the reason we, at Cambridge, need to collaborate with institutions in India – and why we are hoping to strengthen our partnerships with leading universities such as Ashoka.

Innovation will come from multicultural, international groups of researchers, working together without boundaries, communicating and sharing ideas.


Ladies and gentlemen,

Cambridge’s mission statement focuses on contributing to society, while Ashoka’s speaks of a 'commitment to public service'.

Universities, with our common thread of education, research, and global collaboration – have an extraordinary ability – and I believe an obligation – to direct our research towards ensuring the world becomes a better place.

We have the power to collaborate – in ways we haven’t even thought of yet – and we must use that power.

The possibilities are without limit.

And that’s the power of global universities – we see the possibilities, not for ourselves, but for knowledge – that infinite resource that we can share and share and share – and that we will keep on sharing, and, indeed, growing

The long-term and peaceful future of our planet must be our common purpose, no matter what our field or where we are based.

With deep respect for each other, we can collaborate from near or far, and use our knowledge and ideas and the amazing technology that is our inheritance to make the future better.

Through knowledge, through connection, though collaboration, we have the capacity to discover the new lenses through which we must see our future.

We have the capacity to find the paths through which we can lead each other out of this age of anxiety.