About this speech

  • Title: Knowledge capital and development for all
  • Speaker: Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor
  • Date: 24 March 2018
  • Delivered at China Development Forum, Beijing

Knowledge capital and development for all

This is my first visit to China since I took up the post of Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. In earlier roles, particularly as Vice-Chancellor at the University of British Columbia, I had the opportunity to interact widely with Chinese institutions, and I am especially pleased to be back.

It is an honour to have been invited to the Economic Summit of the China Development Forum. The overarching theme of China in the New Era is one that relates to us all.

We have been discussing earlier today the importance of China’s role as an accelerator of development. This raises the question of how other institutions can contribute to development. My fellow panellists and I have been asked to concentrate on the importance of knowledge capital. I’d like to start by addressing the question of how universities – as creators, repositories and disseminators of knowledge – can make a contribution.

It is useful to begin with a basic working definition: by knowledge capital I mean all those intangible assets – belonging to a company, an institution or a country – that are essential to its activities. These intangible assets can take the form of information, data or ideas… they can take the form of intellectual property including patents and licenses… and, crucially, they include human capital – whether it is individuals with specific skillsets or networks of people with a specific expertise.

Knowledge capital has always been difficult to measure, although organisations like the OECD now have enough data to show that increased investment in knowledge-based assets is clearly linked to increased growth.

But let me now address the role of universities with regards to knowledge capital. If I can use a metaphor that is very appropriate for Cambridge, the creation of knowledge – and by extension of knowledge capital – is in our DNA.

It’s what we do: we create, we curate and we communicate knowledge. We do it, in part, out of sheer curiosity about the world. We do it, also, because the application of knowledge can have economic benefits. But above all, we do it to contribute to society.

And who do we mean by society?

I mean our local community, certainly. For instance, we contribute by training many of the teachers working at local schools.

We also contribute at a national level – for example, by providing the know-how for large infrastructure projects (Cambridge engineers advising on one of London’s huge rail projects, or creating quieter jet engines, or developing personalised medicine).

We make a global contribution, too – we help build research capacity in places where the development of local knowledge and skills is essential to dealing with local problems – Cambridge’s work on maternal mortality in Uganda is a good example (especially as it has involved not only the application of medical knowledge, but has also required the expertise from colleagues in the human sciences).

And we collaborate with international partners to address some of the most pressing global questions – whether it is tackling global food security with Indian partners, or understanding the challenges of technology and innovation as we will be doing with Nanjing municipality.

This is how a University like Cambridge – or indeed like Yale, or LMU, or CUHK – can use its knowledge base – its knowledge capital – to contribute to development.

Of all the intangible assets that underpin our knowledge capital, the most precious is people.

It is people who generate the new ideas; it is people who ask the searching questions, and collect the relevant data to answer them; it is people who make the discoveries; it is people who bring those discoveries to the market, and create the intellectual property.

The conclusion I draw from this is that, for countries and institutions wishing to expand their knowledge capital, the single most important investment is in their human capital.

I’d like to finish by briefly discussing two key elements that I think are essential to the sustainability of knowledge-based capital: equality and openness.

Institutions – and this is especially true of knowledge intensive institutions like our universities – thrive through diversity and inclusivity.

A university must be committed to the full development of all its talent. This means being inclusive of those individuals, or those groups of individuals, who have not been fully represented in the past.

Gender equality comes to mind right now, as my university has just published a gender pay gap report. It is an area where the University of Cambridge has not always, I’m afraid to say, been at the vanguard.

Cambridge only began admitting women as full members of the University in 1948. One of our old colleges excluded female students until 1988 – that was around the time when I was a PhD student there…

Things have certainly moved on since then. But inequality of opportunity between men and women still persists in the university sector. There remains a gap between the number of men and women who enter higher education in the Western world. And there is a disparity between the number of women who enter higher education, and those who go on to succeed in academic careers. In UK universities there are four male professors for every female professor. In Cambridge, the ratio is of five males to every female professor.

Cambridge is a work in progress. Our recently published report shows that the University has made headway in reducing its gender pay gap over recent years. But it also reveals that this progress has been slower than we would like. I am committed to taking action to close the gender pay gap as quickly as possible, so there is more work for us to do.

My final point about knowledge capital is that it requires openness. I interpret this openness in a number of ways:

I mean being open to talent from all over the world – from the students we admit to the senior appointments we make. I said a moment ago that a university’s diversity plays an important role in sustaining its academic excellence. Globally influential universities need the most talented men and the most talented women if they are to remain leaders.

I mean openness to working with other organisations in and across society – whether it is other universities, governments, non-governmental organisations, or industry.

I mean openness to exploring the big questions that face humanity – from understanding what makes us at the molecular level, to understanding the origins of the universe. It was this openness to big questions that made Professor Stephen Hawking, who passed away last week, so remarkable.

I mean openness to genuine debate: universities should be places where fundamental questions are raised, and where challenging issues are debated and fully considered. Some of those conversations can be uncomfortable, but it is essential that we don’t shy away from them.

I mean, finally, openness in the governance of our institutions. Higher education around the world is under pressure on many fronts. Openness and transparency in our decision-making processes does not make life easier for the people in leadership, but it seems indispensable to maintaining the public trust in our institutions’ mission.

'Knowledge itself is power' is a famous line attributed to one of Cambridge’s most famous graduates – 17th-century philosopher Francis Bacon. The question before us – particularly those of us in universities – is how we build and deploy and share all that knowledge for the greater good.