A globe

World-leading universities can play an important role in strengthening African research, writes Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Institutional and International Relations Eilis Ferran

I was recently invited to address a meeting of the International Alliance of Research Universities at the University of Cape Town. The theme was Global transformation, and I spoke about global universities and their global responsibilities.

Stimulated by the lively discussion among the IARU members and energised by the powerful strategic transformation process underway at our host institution, I have continued to reflect on the theme.

What does it mean, today, to be a global university? For me, a university is global when it reflects global diversity, when it addresses global issues, when it establishes global partnerships, and when it assumes the mantle of global leadership.

Diversity is key. At Cambridge we understand diversity to mean that universities must not only offer variety in the coursework and subject matter they teach, but also in the types of education they provide.

I feel strongly that we cannot call ourselves global if we are beholden to views or practices that are too parochial, and so we must be open to a multiplicity of educational approaches, and we must be prepared to incorporate them into our own working practices.

This isn’t always easy. Cambridge has struggled, for instance, to find a way to make Massive Open Online Courses (known as MOOCs) fit its own tried-and-tested small-group educational methods, though we are currently reviewing the best ways to make use of new technologies to improve student experience.

Another case in point: we believe that our collegiate model of undergraduate teaching is not replicable outside the university, and so we are reluctant to establish overseas teaching campuses. But we have long understood the benefits of facilities established overseas for the purpose of research.

Underpinning Cambridge’s claims to be global is also a willingness to consider, if not always embrace, a diversity of world views - even those that we may find challenging.  

And surely we can only call ourselves global if we acknowledge and integrate the full range of talent available to us regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or financial capability.

The scale of the challenge

Next: we are global because we address global issues.

Whether it is food security or energy sustainability, whether it is the perils of climate change or the realities of mass migration, the challenges we face are truly global.

And so, too, must be the solutions. Infectious diseases are not bothered by borders. Regardless of whether we are in China or Australia, we are all affected by the problems of ageing societies.

Which brings me to the next point about what it means to be a global university: global partnerships.

Collaboration between universities, within countries as well as across borders, is no longer optional. In an age of diminishing resources, and as the scale and complexity of the challenges increase, collaboration is an imperative whether we are in Cambridge, Copenhagen or California.

No matter how good it is, no matter how high in the rankings, an individual university cannot attain excellence on its own. Nor can a single country.

World-class research is a global project. And truly global universities are those able to harness the power of strategic partnerships—with other universities, with businesses, with civil society, or with governments.

The knowledge community

And the final qualification for what makes a university global:  The assumption of a role of global leadership.

Universities like the members of IARU are perhaps the only modern institutions with the means and the legitimacy to bridge the gaps between disciplines, between different sectors of society, and between different cultures. This legitimacy gives universities a convening power unlike anyone else’s.

No institutions are better placed than leading universities to bring together policymakers, non-governmental and international organisations, businesses and the knowledge community to thrash out solutions to the challenges ahead. This legitimacy allows us to lead in efforts to improve lives not just at our doorstep, but anywhere in the world that improvement is needed.

But global leadership requires courage, creativity and close cooperation.

It demands being able to successfully balance our commitments, from engaging with our immediate neighbourhoods to engaging on a world scale. We do this to satisfy our societies’ aspirations for equality, development and growth.

It comes from an understanding that what we do at home can positively affect lives, and livelihoods, on the far side of the world.

It means knowing, for instance, that research in plant sciences carried out in Cambridge can help make crops in Ghana more resilient, but also that the knowledge developed by clinicians in a Ugandan maternity ward can save lives in Cambridge.

It requires us all to take full responsibility for that knowledge—and to act on it.

When it comes to discharging its global responsibilities, the University of Cambridge has been leading by example. I could mention, for instance, the Cambridge-Africa Programme, which since 2010 has been engaging formally with partners across sub-Saharan Africa to boost their research capacity.

This successful and sustainable model for global engagement is about allowing excellent African research to flourish.

It contributes, in a modest but decisive way, to the Sustainable Development Goals set out by the UN in 2015, in particular by helping to break the pernicious effect of poverty on health, nutrition, and education.

It makes a direct contribution to mitigating poverty, to ensuring food security, healthy lives, and equitable education for all, and to empowering women.

It helps to re-balance asymmetries between global partners, to expand the global knowledge ecosystem, and to put in place a global network of future academic and civic leaders.

It allows us to engage with new partners, and to strengthen our collaboration with others we already know well.

We acknowledge that the success of our Cambridge-Africa Programme is not only dependent on the expertise and the personal commitment of our researchers, but also on the generous support of academic and funding partners.

And we acknowledge that the Cambridge-Africa Programme is relatively small compared to some of the capacity-building initiatives and scholarship schemes currently in place.

But I leave you with one question: What if every one of the world’s leading research universities could do something similar?

Imagine the transformational effect that the commitment and the concerted efforts of the world’s top research-intensive institutions might have on Africa’s capacity to produce knowledge.

That would be “global transformation” indeed.

Eilis Ferran is pro-vice-chancellor for international affairs at the University of Cambridge.

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