Professor Stephen J Toope and colleagues at Peking University

Strong links with universities around the world underpin Cambridge's traditional strengths at a time of uncertainty, writes Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen J Toope

 “Travel makes one modest,” said Gustave Flaubert. “You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”

I have had travel on my mind these days. Not the escapist travel that many of us wish for after a long winter, but the purposeful travel that helps us nurture links and strengthen relationships with partners around the world. It is an essential part of a Vice-Chancellor’s job.

In India, some weeks ago, I met with government officials to discuss ways in which Cambridge researchers can collaborate with Indian counterparts to address jointly some of the urgent global challenges, from ensuring global food security to mitigating climate change. In Bangalore, I visited the Centre for Chemical Biology and Therapeutics (part of the city’s Life Sciences Cluster), where Cambridge scientists and their Indian colleagues are working to improve cancer diagnosis and treatment. Even as we reaffirmed old ties, we created new ones: at Ashoka University, near Delhi, I had a very fruitful discussion about the role of social sciences and the humanities in addressing fundamental social issues and in connecting cultures.

More recently I visited China and Japan, where I met with representatives from Peking University, Tsinghua University and the University of Tokyo.

Global collaboration is at the heart of our mission. Every year, Cambridge academics build partnerships, share expertise and showcase research with colleagues around the world. And every year students from overseas come to Cambridge to study. International cooperation is the lifeblood of academia, and a crucial link between countries.

We live in what, borrowing the title of a poem by WH Auden, I have often referred to as an “age of anxiety”, a time when the world faces challenges of enormous complexity. As the population expands to the point where the planet’s resources cannot cope, many regions of the world lack even the basic necessities of life. Climate change is a threat to our existence. We are seeing mass migration on a scale unseen since World War II. Across the world we are witnessing the rise of political extremism, religious fundamentalism and intolerance.

The threats posed by microbial resistance do not stop at international borders. Diabetes and cancer are not the preserve of one specific country. A city’s pollution does not end where neighbouring farmland begins, nor do its effects discriminate between adults, children or livestock.

Such problems might be political and social in nature, but their solutions are not the sole preserve of politicians and governments. Universities must play their part.

To do so effectively, however, universities must work across borders. Challenges on this scale, of this complexity, demand the kind of multi-disciplinary approach at which global research universities like Cambridge excel. No matter how distinguished its history, how well-resourced its campus or how brilliant its people, no individual research organisation can tackle these questions on its own. World-class institutions must harness the power of strategic partnerships –with other universities, with businesses, with civil society and with governments.

Cambridge is fortunate to start from a strong position. Our academics and research staff continuously push the boundaries of knowledge, seeking always to work with some of the most talented scholars and scientists around the world to address pressing global issues. Their record of success over many decades is central to Cambridge’s worldwide reputation for pioneering research and discovery.

Of our 19,000 students, one-fifth of undergraduates and two-thirds of post-graduates are from overseas, as are the majority of our post-doctoral researchers. Many become lifelong ambassadors for the University and we now boast an active overseas alumni population of more than 120,000 in 190 countries. Thousands of students have been funded through the Cambridge Trust and, more recently, the Gates Cambridge scholarships programme. Add to that the worldwide reach of Cambridge University Press and Cambridge Assessment and you complete a picture of a truly global university.

We have strategic partnerships across the globe. The Cambridge-Africa Programme has developed capacity-building initiatives and research mentorship opportunities involving universities in Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and elsewhere. We work closely with the Government of India and other national and international partners to pursue research in crop science. In Europe, we have an institutional-level alliance with the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU) and important partnerships with the Max-Planck Society of Germany and SciencesPo, in Paris.

A flagship collaboration in Singapore is helping Cambridge researchers diminish the carbon footprint of the global chemical industry. A collaboration with the Sunway Medical Centre of Malaysia will raise standards in healthcare education in that country, while fostering the further development of biomedical research in the United Kingdom. Last year we opened the Cambridge University-Nanjing Centre of Technology and Innovation in Nanjing’s Jiangbei New Area to support innovative joint research in areas such as smart cities. On the education side, we are refreshing international recruitment efforts with a particular focus on North America, India and Europe.

Though the prospect of Brexit has dampened the United Kingdom’s reputation as an open, outward-facing country, it is the duty of global universities like Cambridge to ensure that we continue to actively seek out global partnerships. We should be ceaseless in our ambition to be the best – best for research, best for education, best for students – recognising that being the best also means embracing excellence beyond our walls – and indeed beyond our shores.

I have just returned from Paris – where I met Cambridge alumni, and reiterated Cambridge’s commitment to its partnership with SciencesPo – and Brussels – where I renewed a longstanding and wide-ranging agreement with the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Both these visits were originally conceived as part of our efforts to shore up meaningful relationships in the aftermath of the United Kingdom’s departure from the E.U. Brexit has not happened. When it does, whatever form it takes, we will continue to value and nurture those international friendships.

Soon I will be in Munich, to celebrate the growth of our strategic partnership with LMU. There, as I did in India, China, Japan, France and Belgium, I will be delivering one key message:  the University of Cambridge is open to the world.

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