Professor Stephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellor

Universities need international partnerships to advance knowledge, but they must also be alert to the risks involved. So says Professor Stephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge and host of the League of European Research Universities’ autumn online Rectors’ Assembly.

You’ve spoken recently about the need to think carefully about how and why a university engages with the world. What brought about this reflection?

If you look at the tectonic shifts taking place in geopolitics, and their profound implications for interstate relations, you have to start asking serious questions about your partnerships around the world. For example, how do we make sure we are attuned to potential risks, and then find ways to address them? It’s not about retreating into silos of national academic culture – I think that would be disastrous. But we do need to make sure we are on the front foot, so that we don’t get pressured by political forces into taking decisions that would be profoundly negative for international academic collaboration.

Are you thinking of a particular political situation?

Obviously, the US–China relationship, and frankly the UK–China relationship, have been very much called into question. But it isn’t just about China. If you look around the world, there are risks in relationships in the Middle East, in India, in Brazil, and dare I say it in parts of Europe, in Hungary and Poland.

What kind of risks are universities experiencing?

One is the basic physical security of students and researchers. We had the horrible circumstance of one of our PhD students, Giulio Regeni, being murdered in Egypt. He was working on questions that many other people, from many countries, had worked on for many years, yet all of a sudden it became a heightened political risk. So, we have to consider situations like that very carefully.

Are there also broader threats to research?

Not everywhere we work in the world has the same commitment to academic freedom as do we, so we have to ask how we manage relationships when the partnership is based on quite different values. There is also the potential for the theft or hostile use of intellectual property, or gaining access to security-sensitive data. This is clearly an issue that governments are very preoccupied with, all around the world.

Does this make some partnerships impossible?

It’s not that we want to say that we cannot collaborate, but there have to be fences around certain areas of collaboration, so that we don’t get ourselves into damaging circumstances.

How can European universities approach this challenge?

We have to be clear with both political and public actors, and the media, that we are not naïve – although we are often accused of that – and that we are thinking very carefully about these issues. We must keep our minds open, but also show people that our eyes are open, as we engage in these partnerships.

What practical steps can you take?

The most important thing we can do is help develop a more risk-literate culture in our universities. A lot of partnerships are discussed at the level of departments, or even individual professors or researchers, so I think we have a duty to help our colleagues understand that there are real risks, and that they have to attend to them. At Cambridge, we’ve established a set of international principles, which we are using to develop educational opportunities and online resources so that staff across the university think about these questions when they are discussing and negotiating potential partnerships.

Companies are also increasingly powerful global actors, for example controlling the circulation of data and knowledge...

This is complicated, because we are highly dependent on legal structures created by governments and through intergovernmental negotiation. So, the most obvious thing we can do is try to influence the policy and legal framework around how those companies operate. Some of that has to do with trying to resist the overweening power of single publishing companies, for example, and a lot of work has been done through LERU and other organisations on that issue. But we also have technology platforms that potentially can be the source of both disinformation and abuse of information produced by universities. We can’t easily attack that directly, as institutions, but I think we can do so obliquely by trying to influence public policy.

Do all these risks affect the rationale for international collaboration?

Why we collaborate has not changed in any profound way: we collaborate because it is essential to knowledge creation. There are so many areas that cannot be addressed, even including fundamental scientific discovery, if you don’t have proper international collaboration.

For example?

Universities have a fundamental role to play in helping to create resilient, sustainable societies, and I think we’ve seen that clearly in the COVID crisis. Politically, there’s been rather weak international collaboration, in my view. If you look at access to vaccines, for example, in low-income countries less than 5% of populations are inoculated, even with one dose. But at the university level we’ve done remarkably well, working together and rapidly sharing knowledge. That kind of collaboration is crucial to generating social resilience in relation to the pandemic. And if we are going to have resilience around climate change, we absolutely need to be sharing the best knowledge we can.

Universities also have an influence on sustainability as investors. Is that role changing?

There is now much more expectation that we will be active social actors in relation to sustainability. At Cambridge, we are moving towards the lowest possible carbon relationships in our endowment fund, but that’s not enough. We’ve also promised to use the endowment fund as an educational mechanism for other investors, with whom we partner, around questions of sustainability, to help them understand why it is so important that they too make the transition. I think that shows the kind of expectations that universities will be under: it’s not enough to just declare things, we’re increasingly going to be asked to show, through our own actions, how we promote sustainability.

Cambridge is hosting the LERU Rectors’ Assembly this month. What does this occasion mean to the University?

I see it as a great moment to be able to reaffirm our very strong links with European partners. That’s really important in the post-Brexit environment. It’s also an opportunity to say thank you, because LERU and the extended university network have been forceful in working with the EU to try to affirm our future participation in Horizon Europe. I’m very grateful for that.


This interview first appeared on the League of European Research Universities' (LERU) website on 16 November 2021. Reproduced by permission.