Leszek Borysiewicz and Lynn Meek In Conversation – full transcript

Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz talks with one of our academic experts about the changing role of universities. Cambridge University

To listen to the conversation between Leszek Borysiewicz and Lynn Meek, please see the link below. An edited transcript is available here.

Lynn Meek: Hello, I’m Professor Lynn Meek from the LH Martin Institute of the University of Melbourne and I’m talking today with the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, for The Conversation. On behalf of the Martin Institute I’d like to welcome you here to Australia and taking the time to talk to me today, and also I must apologise for mispronouncing your name.

To get started, I saw in a recent article in the University World News, you wrote that universities hold the key to economic growth.

Would you explain your argument in a bit more detail? Is this the case for all universities? And is there a danger in too closely tying the mission of the university to that of economic utilitarianism?

Leszek Borysiewicz: I think that is really a very important and multi-faceted question. Is there a danger of tying it too closely to universities’ missions? I think the answer is yes.

There’s a primacy of mission within universities, which has to focus on excellence and quality in relationship to education and research. This is enshrined in Cambridge in the mission statement of the university, which is actually one of the shortest mission statements I’ve ever read.

You might think for an 800 year-old institution it would read like twenty pages of a book but it’s very short. It merely says “to serve society through education, learning and research at the highest standards of international excellence”. It may be short but it actually encompasses a number of elements.

The issue within Cambridge is the exploitation of discovery is part of that serving society element and therefore, it’s a perfectly valid and important part of the mission but it can’t substitute for the other parts themselves. So we don’t divorce it, we actually link it very firmly.

Now, at Cambridge, what we don’t try and do is to set up a system whereby the university forces exploitation on anyone. It’s a personal decision by academic staff. Secondly, we have structures which are geared towards building a local ecosystem around Cambridge rather than worrying about a line in the accounts of the university which says so much came in from intellectual property.

The truth is the intellectual property, unlike many institutions in Britain, we let go to the individual academics. And we use an office, called Cambridge Enterprise, to help them exploit it, but we don’t force them to use that particular office - it’s just we believe we can offer a provision that’s second-to-none to the individual investigator to help them exploit that activity.

We have probably the most generous benefits in the United Kingdom to investigators who do this, and we support them through a variety of angel and other funding.

But then something else has happened, and it’s an element of that structure which it doesn’t try to hang on to that enterprise but gives the freedom to individuals to develop, has resulted in this explosion which we call the “Cambridge Phenomenon” but which euphemistically - particularly around Europe - is known as “Silicon Fen” to separate it from Silicon Valley.

In fact, some of us might argue it’s just as successful as Silicon Valley if you take it as a fraction of GDP or a fraction of the economy.

To understand this, just ponder for a moment - Cambridge has a population of 100,000 people, and with the local region it’s a population of around 600-650,000: roughly 1% of the UK population. Within that population, through the sort of methodologies that I’ve adopted and this sort of laissez-faire approach to intellectual property, 1,500 companies have been created. We now know we’ve created around 53,000 jobs in that area. We have nine £1 billion companies; two £10 billion companies in that territory. We have a population that has changed dramatically, in as much as 25% of the working population is now employed in knowledge-intensive industries.

The UK average is only 11 per cent, so we’ve actually changed the nature of the workforce by the fact that we’ve ceded to this ecosystem.

And lastly, it attracts the big players in. So around us, we just recently had the announcement that AstraZeneca is moving its headquarters from London to Cambridge in this area together with a major development.

GlaxoSmithKline are there, Microsoft are there, all of these players are coming in and building on a large number of small companies that owe to a greater or lesser extent, but are increasingly also interacting together and creating an ecosystem where Cambridge is there but supporting their entrepreneurial activity.

So it doesn’t deviate or change us as a university - we still are very fortunate in the number of Noble Prizes that we have won and everything else; it doesn’t change the primacy of our mission, but it enables something very special to start happening in a region and engages us very closely with the regional population as well.

Lynn Meek: I suppose looking at that too and considering the degree to which that model can be replicated elsewhere, leads me to my next question.

I understand that in your Richard Larkins Oration will explore the potential of the global research university enhancing research and innovation for development in low and middle income countries.

What do you see as the main barriers that need to be overcome to fully realise this potential and to what degree is the Cambridge model a movable feast?

Leszek Borysiewicz: That always is a good question because we all find solutions – the question is always, are these solutions local or are these solutions to a systemic problem and therefore, are there systemic answers to that problem?

At this point I think I would probably say that it’s a local solution and therefore individuals trying to emulate it should look at it in-the-round and then extract from it what is actually going to work in their own ecosystems. I mean everything is in a cultural context that is different at different settings.

In relation to the developing world, there are three major elements where I’ve always felt that universities will have a major role to play.

First, I think it’s our multi-disciplinarity, so many of the problems facing resource-poor countries at the present time are large scale problems and you’re going to find some local solutions but you’re going to need a huge amount of interdisciplinary to actually to being to try to tackle the problem.

Now I’ve always held the premise that the last great integrators of research activity are universities. It’s the only place - I’ve worked at the Medical Research Council and headed it in the United Kingdom, and that’s fine for biomedicine - but actually universities are the only place where you will find those in sociology, economics, business studies working alongside medics, molecular biologists, physicists and engineers and it’s therefore in the university that offers an integrating activity.

Secondly, there’s something special about the nature of that university interaction - we’re trusted. Because unlike many organisations, sometimes if you’re trying to help with the US dollar, many countries in the developing world will just not accept that US dollar from the US government, whereas we’re an important and respected interlocutor.

The challenge though if you’re trying to develop the local economy is how far you can get sufficient peer group engagement and, therefore, do we have to play a role as universities in building up local capacity to ensure that you can get engagement in a commercial sense between spin-outs in Cambridge and in that country and perhaps one of the biggest challenges - and certainly one that I’ve often found when you sit and assess grants coming in for major overseas programs - is how infrequently you’ll find the small and medium enterprise sector in the developing country being actually engaged: usually it’s a major external supplier.

So I think the big problems are to ensure that there is equivalent quality and peer capacity to have that engagement in country that you can establish meaningful partnerships and then allowing those partnerships to thrive by the recognition of the local ecosystem to see how far you can get those commercial interactions happening.

So if you can only deliver a part of that equation you will have made a difference I believe, and an important difference, and universities are ideally placed to do that. But you should aspire for rather more and it is possible that some of those interactions would develop, and you might be able to catalyse them from a university-to-university interactions rather than trying to direct them from that end, which I think is a real danger if you try to over-manage these situations. Allow them to happen by organic interaction.

Lynn Meek: One of the things that has become very evident now is that the research networks, and particular international research networks, is where the real action has been in terms of producing results, and there’s the potential there for the developing countries to benefit from those networks coming in.

But at the same time we also know that, in terms of higher education and research, that the core isn’t a few global countries, and I suppose, the next question is, realistically, 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? I think there’s a tension there between the two and potential in one way, and continuing dominance in an other.

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 were 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.

You know we create them and we get together with scholars from Melbourne and Cambridge and London and New York or elsewhere. But do we actually invite those from those countries, and until they’re seen by all of us as equivalent peer with their own experts, it’s going to be very difficult for them to break into those systems.

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.

Lynn Meek: And 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 particular what we see now in Africa: they were more productive two decades ago than they are currently.

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.

That must not remove from the development of primary education and the increase in development to secondary education. But if the net outcome of secondary education is a loss of your best manpower to overseas universities because you have no provision available to you, I don’t see that that is actually a way in which you’re ever going to be able to have the capacity to build in country’s strengths.

So I’m very much in favour that the operative word has got to move from “grants” and “aid” and all the rest, to “meaningful partnerships”.

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?

So I think for me, “sustainability” and “partnership” are the two words that should really drive those agendas, and that maybe we were wrong with the way those agendas were being pursued previously.

Lynn Meek: And I suppose in terms of self-interest, stability would be another factor.

Leszek Borysiewicz: If you have a country that has got sustainability and has got economic growth, then I think security, stability, food security all follow.

And there’s a very interesting paradox because of our worries about global demography elsewhere, there’s also this wonderful paradox that actually you start having improvement in health, improvement in productivity; family size tends to start falling and that’s going to be an important consideration when we consider there will be nine billion people on the planet.

So, all of those factors seem to point to a betterment in those countries, that’s actually a global betterment for all of us as well.

Lynn Meek: I suppose within that context, too, that it’s not only the natural sciences and medicine that were talking about; social sciences and humanities have a role to play.

Leszek Borysiewicz: You couldn’t be more right. I mean to me you cannot solve the grand challenge problem by science alone.

Take my own world of vaccines, you remember the issues that arose in the United Kingdom over the MMR vaccine. Technologically that vaccine was safe, it was very effective at delivering protection against these areas.

Back in my home country of Wales we’ve got an outbreak of measles at th present time, 600 cases in the city of Swansea. Why? Because of the scares that occurred around the MMR vaccine about 15-16 years ago.

Now there was no rational reason, but people do not always behave rationally, and therefore, if you have a technological advance, vaccine failure, the technology in many vaccines as we see in SARS and elsewhere, we can develop vaccines quite quickly, but the real trick is will they be publicly acceptable.

So just ask yourself: those aren’t disciplines that are held by technologists, or molecular biologists, or immunologists; those are techniques that are known by social scientists, those involved in political studies, those involved in anthropology. And we need all of them to come together to decide on these very big programs.

It’s no good running a national vaccination campaign if half the country isn’t going to accept the vaccine. You’ve got to have buy-in and in today’s population, which is more and more informed, will question more and more, it is even more important that we bring more disciplines to play as these decisions are taken.

So I can’t see any grand challenge, be that energy, whatever, just being solved by technology alone. It’s going to require that very important component of understanding the cultural and social context into which you’re trying to bring those changes.

Maybe if you want a prediction, I think that will become more and more important, and it’s why I will argue that universities are the ideal places to do this, because we are the integrators that allow that sort of interaction to happen day to day.

I’m sure the LH Martin School interacts closely with scientists here in other domains, even quite basic domains, and I know that happens with the Judge Business School, sociology and other domains in Cambridge.

Lynn Meek: We still have CP Snow’s “Two Cultures”, but I agree with you that we’re trying to move to overcome those.

Leszek Borysiewicz: And I think we’ve got to overcome CP Snow. Maybe that’s a strange thing for Vice Chancellor at Cambridge to say, it’s a wonderful read and a great book.

But the very nature of what that book did, and does in the modern mind, it actually cements an idea that we are operating in two cultures. Its title is the most pernicious thing because most of us recognise that there is only one culture which is actually to try to progress to work together towards the best research outcomes and the best evidence base, and that implementation in policy.

And so I do hope that one day we will be able to have an anti-CP Snow lecture in Cambridge that could be just as successful.

Lynn Meek: There must be a catchy title there …

Leszek Borysiewicz: I’m sure there will be one.

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.

One of the reasons I visit this region so much is that I’m learning so much about new activities and directions that are happening. It’s a vibrant society that’s really moving forward quite dramatically, and the opportunities for Australian universities are absolutely fantastic.

I happen to think that in this region those opportunities are also extremely good for collaborations from Cambridge as well, and these meeting points in a global world are going to be very important, but there is an added value that you’re at a shorter time flight to much of Asia than I would be from Heathrow in London.

So I think you should be taking advantage of it - I know many institutions already are. It’s a great opportunity.

Lynn Meek: Yes, and the scale of development is amazing, when you can go to Shanghai or Singapore - there’s nothing developing about them at all…

Leszek Borysiewicz: Not at all, but what’s also interesting is that there are opportunities and new questions arising.

So as academics, you know we are voracious for anything which has actually got an interesting question or an interesting angle. The opportunity to study this development for economists, for historians, for those involved in business or elsewhere - these are fascinating case studies in their own right, because we have an enormous amount to learn, making sure that reiterations of mistakes of former centuries in other approaches are not reiterated.

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. The bottom line is that it’s such a small place that you can now get pretty quickly around the whole world - and when we get the new stratospheric aeroplanes it’s going to be faster still.

So 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.

I think those times are rapidly disappearing and the internet has led the way in showing how those boundaries are really relatively artificial when we think the end goal is shared knowledge, and the exploitation of that knowledge for the public benefit.

Lynn Meek: Yes, and as you say that small world is getting smaller by the day.

My last question - and I think you probably have already answered it, but you might want to elaborate a bit more - though an 800 year old institution, the Western university has gone through numerous stages of evolution over the centuries.

People talk about the university as a staid institution, but when you look back over the years it certainly has evolved and changed - even Cambridge I think. But what do you see as the next major stage of development of what is this paradoxically enduring institution?

Leszek Borysiewicz: It’s an interesting question. For me, I’m a biologist, so therefore if you believe in natural selection, if you fail to evolve, you die out. So I think the fact is if you’ve been around for 800 years in the current climate you actually have evolved and evolved very successfully, and I think the university will continue to do that.

But there are going to be serious questions with how we actually broaden the scope of education - maybe it’s going to be through technology to get greater involvement to those who may not have access to the brick-and-mortar university. And I think there’s going to be real challenges in that aspect of pedagogy in the future. I mean all of us are going to look at different solutions to that, and there’s no doubt that that is going to be an important element.

I think the way in which we do research is going to change. We have to think very hard about the sheer cost of infrastructure in some disciplines - in particle physics at the moment you talk in billions of dollars for the facilities that are now going to be needed. The Large Hadron Collider is going to be very large indeed.

So I think all of these are going to make us work in a more interactive way and make better use of resources, and that means international collaboration around major programs is going to grow. So universities are going to have to adapt to the fact that we’ll be working more and more in partnership as time goes on.

Funding is changing, moving much more from my experience at the medical research councils, we look at research funding more and more large scale projects because they’re administratively more efficient for funders. But that has to give a lot of responsibility for developing large-scale teams which will probably be interdisciplinary and more than one institution.

No matter how large your institution, you’re not going to solve the problems of energy in one institution, and it’s going to mean multiple partners coming in - the corporate sector, private enterprises, public sector, charities, NGOs - a whole series of individuals are going to have to be involved in that interdisciplinarity.

And lastly I think the student population will change. I think we’ll have a student population that will be getting a lot of the facts and information from an ever-burgeoning internet with a lot of material available rapidly to them.

So our whole way of publishing and getting outcomes is going to move away from the conventional, so how we appraise performance - how we appraise outcomes - is going to be a very different issue.

But what we cannot stop, from my point of view, is that Cambridge is still that old age mission statement that we started with - “to serve society through teaching, learning and research at the highest levels of international excellence”.

And I think what will distinguish us is that we sustain quality and excellence above all else in what we do and to make sure that it is put to the service of society - society in this context being global, and not local.

Lynn Meek: So despite all of these changes and despite the comments of the doomsayers, there is a future for the university?

Leszek Borysiewicz: I’m quite confident there will be, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing what I am now.

Lynn Meek: So Leszek, thank you very much for your time and those answers to those questions. It was very interesting for me and I think it will be for our audience on The Conversation indeed. Thank you.

Leszek Borysiewicz: Thank you very much indeed.