About this speech

  • Title: Global universities in an age of anxiety
  • Date: Sunday24 March 2019
  • Delivered at Peking University, China

Global universities in an age of anxiety

Distinguished Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for welcoming me and my Cambridge colleagues so warmly. My thanks, especially, to President Hao Ping, the staff and students of Peking University for your generous hospitality.

I am delighted to be back at PKU, having had the good fortune to celebrate PKU’s 120th anniversary with many of you last year.

What a beautiful campus this is, particularly in spring when the blossoms begin to bloom on the trees around Weiming Lake!

I am reminded of the 'glittering reflections' in Xu Zhimo’s nostalgic poem On Leaving Cambridge. These echoes across time and distance are also a reminder of how much we share as institutions: long histories, places of beauty and serenity, and most importantly a deep desire to contribute to society through education and research.

Peking University has been a leading institution of higher education in China since its establishment 121 years ago and has contributed greatly to the enlightenment of modern Chinese society.

At a time when many minds appear to be closing all around the world, it is reassuring to find here a formidable institution, which seeks an open world – open to ideas, open to the exchange of goods and people – a world in which no people great or small, will live in angry isolation. 

We at Cambridge recognise the familiar ambitions of an institution dedicated to increasing knowledge.


Cambridge has a long history of partnership with China.

We established the United Kingdom’s first professorship of Chinese.

Our alumni include author the best-selling author Louis Cha, athlete Deng Yaping, and of course, Xu Zhimo.

Cambridge academics are engaged in a broad range of collaborations with Chinese colleagues, in areas as diverse as food security, the epidemiology of autism, labour economics, and the origins of agriculture.

One of the reasons the Cambridge team is here today is to refresh and reaffirm these ties of cooperation with our Chinese counterparts.

Another is to meet new friends, and to explore and establish new paths to partnership.

I was thrilled to discover that the theme of this year’s China Development Forum to which I am a delegate is: Greater Opening up for Win-Win Cooperation.

The spirit of openness and the forward thinking in the CDF’s commitment to 'engaging with the world for common prosperity' matches the commitment our two universities are renewing here today.

To seek collaboration wherever it offers the promise of meeting the challenges that face humanity.

China’s universities are already pushing the boundaries of excellence.

They are home to brilliant and determined graduates, scientists, researchers and learned academics – many of them are right here today.

China – and indeed, the world – needs people determined to pursue truth and excellence, cultivate talent, and serve society.

And not just in the hard sciences.

Although the solutions to many great problems facing our shared world are likely to be technological, the context of those problems is inescapably human.

So we need talented and ambitious graduates in the arts and humanities.

We need their words to articulate the 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 – is that knowledge is not a finite resource.

Everyone can partake of knowledge and its benefits, and in doing so, instead of depleting supplies, enrich 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 literatures, we find new lenses through which to view our world.

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 gargantuan problems.

We rely on people who can think critically and independently, and on researchers capable of examining every aspect of a specific issue.

That is one of the key roles of global universities like PKU and Cambridge.

Global universities must be places where we are allowed to let our thoughts roam across the cosmos, to collaborate with one another, and to share our findings and our ideas.

Where we contemplate how to overcome the impossibles of today.

Where breakthroughs are made, and innovations developed to 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 challenges.

And there are many.


We live in what, borrowing from WH Auden, I call an 'age of anxiety'.

Floods and droughts, fires and famines.

We are seeing conflict, hunger and financial disaster leading to mass migration of refugees on a scale unseen since World War Two.

We will undoubtedly see a rise in the number of '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.

There are those who would wish to de-couple us from the success we have achieved together over decades of collaboration.

The urgency to address these issues is obvious to us all.

In the run-up to this year’s China Development Forum, Lu Mai, the Vice Chairman and Secretary General of the China Development Research Foundation (CDRF) observed that the world at present is facing great changes.

To meet them, the five pillars of China’s new development philosophy are: open, innovative, coordinated, green and shared development.

Part of China’s greater openness strategy is the vastly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to strengthen infrastructure, trade, and investment links between China and some 65 other countries that account collectively for over 30 percent of global GDP, 62 percent of population, and 75 percent of known energy reserves.

It is collaboration on a global scale.

As we’d expect, Peking University is at the heart of understanding and implementing this vast undertaking.

Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management launched a Belt and Road Institute, designed to carry out research into the initiative.

Now Peking University has just announced three new projects.

Two will explore the history of cooperation and collaboration that puts this 21st century Silk Road into historical perspective; a third aims to foster future leaders from the countries involved.

So, collaboration and a deep understanding of China and its partners will form the basis of how Peking University tackles the challenges for this region and the world.  

In Cambridge, where blossoms and spring buds are also appearing along the banks of the River Cam by Xu Zhimo’s memorial garden at King’s College, we are also seeking to address these challenges in a multi-disciplinary fashion.  

Engagement with China is a priority for our Schools of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

Our Department of East Asian Studies is the only centre in Europe to engage in extended research in Chinese linguistics.

Cambridge’s China Executive Leadership Programme, headed by Professor Peter Nolan, brings 30 or so leaders of China’s 100 largest state-owned enterprises to Cambridge for an annual three-week course.


Working together, and understanding and engaging with each other and our communities, are absolutely crucial.

With global challenges of a magnitude rarely, if ever, seen in human history, we need global solutions, drawing on global intellectual resources.The threats posed by microbial resistance do not stop at international borders.

Diabetes and Alzheimer’s do not distinguish between ethnicities.

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 a move towards carbon neutrality, is 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 renowned its reputation – or how brilliant its people – no individual research organisation can attain excellence on its own.

World-class institutions must harness the power of strategic partnerships – with other universities, with businesses, civil society, NGOs and governments.

Global universities must seek connection, communication and collaboration if we wish to see changes that will make the world a better place for everyone.

Cambridge is also working together with Chinese institutions elsewhere on projects with that very aim.

Our academics are working in strategic partnership with the Nanjing Municipal Government, where just last year, we created the Cambridge University-Nanjing Centre of Technology and Innovation.

It is the University’s first overseas enterprise at this scale.

At the heart of the new Centre’s activities will be research into technologies that support a modern 21st-century city with integrated IT, health care and building management.

Innovations emerging from the Centre will enable the development of 'smart' cities in which sensors are applied at every level of infrastructure – to enable sustainable choices and to monitor performance.

As well as supporting health and wellbeing in new cities, the new Centre will help deliver more efficient energy use.

This is only the most recent example of our collaboration with Chinese partners.

It is an essential part of Cambridge’s contribution to society to tackle some of the great world problems. But we cannot do this on our own. There is a famous proverb: ‘You cannot clap with just one hand’.

We are also engaged around the world in 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.

We have also undertaken work on food security in Inner Mongolia that has improved China’s domestic grain market.  

Research by Cambridge Professor Martin Jones restored the status of an almost forgotten ancient grain to that of a 21st-century food staple that is now considered a means of mitigating against the boom–bust nature of harvests.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations now recognises the Aohan Dryland Farming System as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems site.

Aohan millet, dismissed as birdseed in the 20th century, is now badged as a high-quality product and sold in large quantities in the Chinese market.

Solving this challenge – providing adequate nutritious food for the planet’s burgeoning population – required the combined efforts of archaeologists, local farmers, and agronomists.

Together we must all 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.

But scientists are not the only experts needed to address these issues.

Ensuring food security needs 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 teams of researchers that only global research universities can marshall.

They need institutions that are not seeking simply to profit, but to help, and which place their contribution to society firmly at their core.

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 some of those with power – or those who seek it – to emphasise our differences.

To divide and conquer.

In my lifetime, I have never seen a period where these forces of division seem so strong.


But this is not the time for divisions.

Nor is it the time for polemics and national self-aggrandisement.

Critical, independent 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 along the ancient Silk Road 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… papermaking, printing, the compass and gunpowder were all invented in China, and spread around the world along the ancient Silk Road.

Collaboration across time – and across the world – has always happened.

But now this road is being renovated and widened for the 21st century.

China will bring its expertise to a world where 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, but 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 China – and why we are hoping to strengthen our partnerships with great universities such as Peking University.

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.

Together we can find the paths through which we can lead each other out of this age of anxiety.

Thank you.