South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Kevin Rafferty says universities in Hong Kong and the mainland must embrace free thinking and an entrepreneurial spirit if they want to achieve academic excellence
What makes a good university? Although Professor Andrew Hamilton, the outgoing vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, gently declined the invitation to tell Asian universities how they should meet the challenges of the 21st century; he did, over the course of a speech, a small discussion group, an interview and two hours of drinks and snacks with a few Oxford alumni, give the ingredients required. Hong Kong and the rest of China should take note.
His lessons are that a world-leading university needs an international outlook; dedication to quality research and excellence; a spirit of enterprise and invention with the surrounding community; competition and cooperation with other leading universities; the warm support of benefactors and alumni; an independent spirit ready to stand up to government.
Hamilton is very much Professor International. He came to Oxford after being provost of Yale University, the No 2 job there, and from January 1 will become president of New York University. Before becoming Yale’s provost, he was a professor of chemistry at Yale, professor at Pittsburg, and assistant professor at Princeton.
Oxford is probably one of the most international universities in the world, with 40 per cent of its professors, 29 per cent of its students and 58 per cent of its graduate students coming from outside the UK. Equally important, it is at the centre of a “knowledge spine”, embracing scientific and entrepreneurial establishments from Bicester in the north to Harwell and Culham in the south. Other world-class universities, including Cambridge, Stanford and Harvard-MIT, have similar corridors of knowledge.
This multifaceted excellence involves cooperation between the university and the community, including the creation of spin-off companies in which the university has a shareholding.
In 2015, Oxford-based start-ups raised more than US$200 million in venture capital. NaturalMotion is a good example of this dynamic. It was founded by Torsten Reil, a neuroscientist working in Oxford’s zoology department, “trying to do real-time simulations” of different creatures walking naturally. NaturalMotion’s insight supplied the virtual stuntmen in films, including Lord of the Rings. Then Reil used the technology in video games, most notably in the Grand Theft Auto franchise, which took the gaming world by storm. NaturalMotion was bought by Zynga for US$527 million, with Oxford University collecting a 10 per cent share.
Hamilton is protective of a university’s need to do research untrammelled by government or corporate pressures for immediate results. A university must also be a place for constant exploration of new thoughts and ideas. Debate and the clash of ideas, and sometimes personalities, add to the richness of human knowledge, and may lead to unexpected discoveries that sometimes have practical use.
The biggest challenge for Asian universities, especially for China, now including the University of Hong Kong after the Johannes Chan Man-mun affair, is the relationship with government. Hamilton’s Oxford and other leading universities believe that the ability to challenge the government on small or large matters, from student visas to whether the government’s own claims add up, is a vital part of a university’s free-thinking advancement of knowledge.
Xi Jinping (習近平) evidently sees universities as teaching machines that preach the party line, didactic Confucianism at work. The challenge for China is whether its universities can be centres of excellence and advancement of knowledge when large areas of inquiry are off limits by government order or when government decides who are its loyal professors.
Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT and others have burst beyond national boundaries to become international and global. Leszek Borysiewicz, Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, asserts that his university’s task is “to serve the most important partnership of all, society itself, and by society I mean the whole of mankind”.
Kevin Rafferty is a journalist and commentator, and former professor of Osaka University