In Conversation: Cambridge VC urges unis to help third world

Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, VC of Cambridge University, discusses all things higher education in our latest In Conversation. Cambridge University

Cambridge University’s Vice Chancellor, Leszek Borysiewicz has been a pioneer in developing the world’s first cervical cancer vaccine.

But now he’s turning his attention to a much more difficult task – trying to convince the world’s universities to think beyond their national borders, and to use their power and resources to help the developing world.

In his Larkins Oration given in Melbourne last night, Professor Borysiewicz said all universities had to a key role to play in reducing poverty, and developing countries, too, need to build up higher education at home.

“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,” he said.

So where do Australian universities fit in? And should all universities strive to be better global citizens?

As part of our In Conversation series, Professor Lynn Meek from the LH Martin institute sat down with the Vice-Chancellor to discuss these and other issues in greater depth.

The following are interview highlights, but you can read the full transcript here.

Developing universities in the third world

Lynn Meek: In policy terms, it seems to be - at least over the last few years - a real shift from international policy about the developing countries where the emphasis from UNESCO and World Bank and other international bodies was on education for all and certainly let the universities languish…

Leszek Borysiewicz: And that to me that’s the real problem because the question is, in times of need when your resources are small, are universities the element to sacrifice - it is the easy one to see in those settings.

I mean in some countries, remember universities globally are always the place where criticism mostly arises, academic staff are never going to be staff that are going to be “yes men” for any government, and some governments find that very uncomfortable to have a university that’s always being critical of them.

That’s our nature as academics; that’s what we do, we’re trained to ask the question “why?” all the time and some people find that uncomfortable.

But until that recognition occurs it’s going to be very difficult to sustain it. As far as I’m concerned, I think a university - one or two major universities in these countries - are going to be absolutely vital to make sure that they are considered on a peer basis as these activities develop.


And there’s self-interest in that, too, that we’ve got to remember. The self-interest is very simply that if you can build up strength in such a country you end up with a good trading partner at the end of the day.

And the problem with the previous model is sustainability. Once you bring that word into it, if you don’t develop that capacity locally, I mean how long can you keep on pouring resources into it without any sustainability locally for that activity?

Global brain drain

Lynn Meek: Do you think the present systems can and should evolve so as to better include the developing countries? Or will the dominance of the western research university continue, with “brain drain” being the norm rather than brain circulation?

Leszek Borysiewicz: I think you’re getting to one of the core questions of the problem.

You know we’re seeing this drain from countries in the developing world: we see it in the health services, we’re short in many countries, and I suspect Australia is the same for nursing staff and elsewhere, and we’re recruiting mercilessly from the Philippines and from poorer countries, and offering very good job security to individuals from those countries, but actually we’re denuding their capacity.

And that can only be countered by helping to develop that capacity locally. I do worry about this idea of almost like a colonial way of “send us your good people and we will educate them” - it isn’t the way forward.

It’s about helping that country develop its capacity because otherwise, as the InterAcademy report showed earlier on, if you don’t develop that capacity you cannot develop your own intellectual property and in the absence of that intellectual property the chance of getting small companies to really develop in that area, to build up a system whereby that country can begin to operate on an equivalent peer-to-peer basis, is always going to be restricted.

Now as in most industries I suspect the universities are always going to have a global elite. Obviously my job, day job, is making absolutely certain that Cambridge remains part of that grouping.

The question is going to be how that grouping behaves towards those other countries, and that’s a cultural context. What I’m trying to call for in the Larkins Oration is actually that universities recognise their responsibility for engagement and help these institutions to actually gain that access to some of those networks that you talked about that are so critical.

So there’s a responsibility on us to help them get to that level, whether it’s just by capacity building, but it’s by engaging them in projects and programs that we deal with, and not just trying to see them ceded as colonial projects in countries.

Where do Australian universities fit in?

Lynn Meek: There’s much speculation that this is the “Asian century” and Australia is part of the Asian region, although I think it’s only recently realised that, and there’s still some debate.

Do you have any advice for Australian universities as to how they can ensure that they are part and parcel of the massive socioeconomic development taking place around them?

Leszek Borysiewicz: Wow. Firstly, I think I’d hesitate to give Australian universities advice - they’re very successful institutions in their own right.

But I think Australia’s very lucky to be part of the Asian complex at the present time and the huge economic growth that is going to happen in this region. I think everybody recognises - in Europe and I’m sure in North America as well - that we’re going to see a burgeoning development of skills and activities in the Asian area.

So I think academics in this region have got a great role to play in actually ensuring that that development actually happens in the most effective and efficient way, and we’d all benefit from that.

It’s a shrinking planet, we communicate electronically, and we can all work together to the benefit of rapid resolutions of these issues.

What are the barriers? Mostly political and historic I suspect, maybe a few economic ones as well, but it’s a matter of getting a new mindset to stop thinking of national boundaries stopping the bounds of academic interaction.

Read the full transcript here.