Cambridge v-c on universities and the poorest billion

Do the world’s leading universities have a role to play in alleviating the plight of the 1.3 billion people living with extreme poverty and hunger on incomes of less than US$1.25 a day while a further five billion people live on less than $9 per day? The question was raised last Thursday by Cambridge University Vice-chancellor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz.

Delivering the Richard Larkins Oration at Monash University in Melbourne, Borysiewicz put forward a powerful argument that yes, universities could do something to tackle global poverty because its consequences were a blight on individuals, society and the planet.

He admitted, though, that the role of universities in reducing poverty and its impacts was a matter of debate:

“My contention is that global research universities like Cambridge and Monash have a key role to play. In fact, universities' contribution to the alleviation of poverty, disease and malnutrition is seriously undervalued and misunderstood, including by universities themselves,” he said.

“I argue that the advancement of health, wealth and nutrition in low-income countries is, firstly, a wholly legitimate target as well as a major academic challenge for the world’s top universities, and secondly, that we are in fact uniquely well placed to make a difference.”

Borysiewicz said that in every historical and geographical incarnation of a university, “making a difference in the world” had been a recognisable aim: “Academics do not withdraw into universities, despite their monastic roots, to think deep thoughts – they deepen those thoughts by constant engagement with others and the challenge of real-world problems such as poverty.

“Large research-intensive universities have global reach, ambitions that stretch far beyond the short term, and an acute understanding that they are there to tackle the big questions on behalf of society.”

Universities employed thousands of extremely bright people with skill sets of exceptional breadth and depth, he said, and no other agency could match their track record nor scope and scale in research and education.

They were also “the last great integrators of knowledge” and could address the real world, grand challenge problems such as those in low-income countries. This matters because putting technological solutions to work is nearly always a multi-faceted problem worthy of universities' attention.

Referring to the ambitions of developing countries to have their own universities, Borysiewicz said a partnership programme between Cambridge, the University of Ghana and Makerere University in Uganda, supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and other philanthropists, aimed to strengthen their capacity for a sustainable research and mentoring culture, by cultivating the talented individuals who will make this long-term goal a reality in African countries.

“Shortage of PhD-level staff, research-active mentors and internationally competitive research groups is a serious limitation on training the next generation of African researchers, to an extent that is not true of India or China,” he said.

“The long-term goal must be to build capacity to a point that the university in a low-income country is strong enough to exercise choice of partner based on its own reputation and excellence.

“Gone for me are the days of exploitative partnership or a neo-colonial model, which merely seeks access to populations or resources – we must seek engagement on the basis of equality, and partnerships, where we are clear about how and where we add value.”

There were no universal panaceas to the issues of poverty and inequality, or water supply or food security, but academics had the essential skills that could impact significantly on such issue.

Universities, “as honest brokers”, could knock on doors that are not opened to governments. Countries that might find it politically unacceptable to deal with some governments or the private sector were perfectly happy to deal with universities and with most NGOs.

“Academics worry whether exercises such as the Research Assessment Exercise in Australia or REF in the UK would be unsympathetic – which inherently they are not. However, putting it bluntly, if saving lives interferes with research assessment models, then which one needs to compromise?

“The matter boils down to two questions: should we, the world’s universities, do this? And can we do this? My answer is yes we should – and yes we can.”

* A live broadcast of the speech is available on YouTube here.