Universities retain relevance in service to the common good
To answer it, we need to look at the past and present of our institutions, explore their role in shaping society and draw inspiration for the much-needed roadmap ahead.
Founded in 1897, Zhejiang University (ZJU) is one of China’s oldest higher education institutions and is now among the fastest-growing ones globally. During the Second World War, it was forced to move over 1,000 miles inland to continue its educational mission.
Despite malnutrition, disease, air strikes and against all the odds, the university still produced some 1,300 graduates, including renowned physicist Tsung-Dao Lee and mathematician Gu Chaohao.
Over the course of the eight-year evacuation, faculty and students forged close bonds with the towns and villages which gave them shelter. Whilst in Meitan, an impoverished county in Southwest China, they helped set up primary, secondary and vocational schools to develop the local workforce.
Such special bonds have been kept by generations of ZJU student volunteers who help local youth to improve their college readiness.
As times change, new challenges emerge in teaching and learning. Even for wealthier provinces like Zhejiang, quality educational provision can fall short of meeting society’s needs. In early 2013, ZJU started to create an International Campus based in the region.
This is China’s first campus for transnational education and hosts several joint institutes with US and UK partners. It seeks to combine the best of East and Western education to train globally minded, high-calibre innovators.
For families with modest incomes, the campus provides an economical alternative to the traditional study abroad paradigm. And it is also an exemplary demonstration of how partners can consolidate meaningful links across borders.
The delivery of education must adapt to new contexts as well. After the early outbreak of COVID-19, ZJU quickly switched to online education. Thanks to its digital governance framework encompassing smart classrooms, teacher training in online delivery and virtual learning platforms, more than 5,000 courses were on offer just two weeks into the transition.
Now, two years into the pandemic, hybrid learning helps protect the continuity of learning against known and unknown risks.
The role of science in development
The modern university is not only a place for scholarship, but also a research and innovation hub. That science would revitalise the war-torn nation was a genuine belief held by the ZJU community in the 20th century.
When British biochemist Dr Joseph Needham visited Meitan in 1944, he was impressed by the advances made by ZJU professors in difficult conditions. With his help, Nature published five papers authored by ZJU faculty in recognition of the originality of their research work.
The past four decades have, according to the World Bank, seen China lift nearly 800 million people out of poverty.
As China’s poverty is concentrated in rural areas, agricultural development is considered a main driver of poverty reduction. By constantly improving agricultural research, universities play a crucial role in the modernisation of the agricultural sector, leading to growing productivity and higher incomes.
In the last century, ZJU academics blazed the trail for soil science, rice science and entomology in China. Today, a new generation of researchers are tackling agricultural problems from diverse angles, ranging from crop breeding to agribusiness.
For instance, Dr Ye Ming’er, associate professor of horticulture and a ‘Food Hero’ honoured by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, has promoted fruit tree technology aimed at boosting farmers’ incomes. ZJU’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD) shares China’s experience through annual anti-poverty seminars for the Global South, benefiting over 700 trainees in 100-plus countries.
Against the backdrop of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), scientific discovery and technological innovation have been prioritised as propellers of economic growth and human well-being. ZJU provides fertile ground for talented researchers to pursue transborder innovation.
Together with international colleagues, they have deciphered the early evolutionary history of the solar system from meteorites, developed graphene aerogel – the world’s lightest material which can be used in the next generation of clothing and batteries – and set new efficiency records for low-cost, solution-processed organic light-emitting diodes and perovskite light-emitting diodes.
A global approach to the common good
With a wide range of expertise, comprehensive universities have a natural advantage in serving communities, be they local or global. Medicine is a good example. ZJU’s medical education dates back to 1912 and the establishment of Zhejiang Medical School.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, with hundreds of medics battling the virus in Wuhan and Hangzhou in Spring 2020, ZJU compiled a database of first-hand experiences early on in COVID-19 prevention and control.
Shortly afterwards, we reached out to global partners to circulate this knowledge via webinars and multi-language handbooks.
A group of medical experts from ZJU’s First Affiliated Hospital helped combat the pandemic in the Italian city of Bergamo, which was grappling with the largest outbreak in Europe.
Like COVID, many interconnected global threats are urgent and complex. We hold that international links form the basis for any collaborative solution.
Therefore, ZJU has incorporated a “global problem-solving” mindset into its global strategy. The strategy is augmented through a Sustainability Action Plan: A Global ZJU for Social Good (Z4G), which embeds sustainability in learning, scholarship and campus operations.
Under Z4G, we launched a Joint Statement on the 2030 Agenda, supported by leaders of 61 universities in 31 countries and regions. We have set aside joint funds with partners in Europe, North America and Australia to nurture collaborative research on global challenges.
Also, in line with the UNESCO recommendation adopted last November, ZJU actively engages in national efforts to promote Open Science as a critical accelerator for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in China and the Global South.
A roadmap for higher education
While deeply rooted in China’s history and tradition, ZJU is keen to navigate change so we can thrive in a world of flux. For example, we are bringing together talent and resources to delve into new issues arising from local and national development, such as inclusive growth and carbon neutrality.
While empowering local practices with global perspectives, our researchers collaborate internationally to channel local experience into solutions for regional and global issues, including food security and clean energy.
In its seminal report Reimagining our futures together, UNESCO sets out a vision for a new social contract for education based on the common good.
I believe universities of the future must be firmly woven into this contract. Their ongoing relevance must be strengthened through the third mission: to integrate and establish meaningful relationships with their local communities. Furthermore, universities with an international outlook must serve to bring together diverse communities and cultures that face common problems.
In sum, we should be more open and eager to do things differently while embracing, reimagining and shaping the 4IR. This includes providing flexible learning pathways drawing on industry perspectives and ICT approaches, developing transdisciplinary collaborations that require research and solutions to be co-designed with external stakeholders and creating diverse and inclusive campuses to strengthen dialogue among different civilisations.
In the context of climate change, college campuses must lead by example on carbon reduction too. Through constant adaptation and transformation, universities will have a better chance of establishing themselves as an engine for social progress and a powerhouse of possibilities for a shared future.
Professor Wu Zhaohui is president of Zhejiang University, China.