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									                  World-Class Universities in the Twenty-First Century
        Professor Andrew Hamilton, FRS, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford
               Speech at United Arab Emirates University, 10 October 2010


Professor Hamilton has been Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford for just over one
year, and while leading one of the world's top universities, continues to run an internationally
recognised chemistry research laboratory. Drawing on his personal experience as a
professor and administrator at leading universities such as Princeton, Yale, and Oxford, he
will discuss what it takes for universities to both achieve and sustain the very highest
international levels of performance. While contrasting the approaches of different universities
around the world, he will highlight important common features: a focus on research
excellence, underpinned by an international, open outlook; a commitment to high-quality
education; and sustainable funding to ensure access.
Your Highness Sheikh Nahayan, Vice-Chancellor, Provost, Colleagues

and Friends

Thank you for the warm introduction and for inviting me to address you

today. I have an admission to make. This is my very first visit to this part

of the world in my whole career. Therefore it is an immense privilege to

have been invited to address you on your Convocation Day, and a very

great pleasure to be able to see your university in person. While I am

new to the Gulf States, Oxford University certainly is not. Our strong

links go back to the very founding of the UAE. The late Sir Geoffrey

Arthur who read Arabic at Oxford was the last Political Resident and

played a key role in negotiating the creation of the UAE. He then went

on to become Master of Pembroke College at Oxford and he formed

strong links between the College and the UAE that endure to this day.

The current Master of Pembroke, Giles Henderson, has accompanied

me on this trip. So many of the names associated with the recent history
of this region were linked to Oxford. For example, T E Lawrence, Wilfred

Thesiger and Edward Henderson (the first British Ambassador) all

studied at Oxford University.

I have taken as my subject “World-Class Universities in the Twenty-First

Century”. This is an extremely pertinent issue for the present time, as a

significant number of nations and states, both in this region of the world,

and further east, are investing very heavily in Higher Education and have

great aspirations in that respect. I particularly want to discuss what it

takes for universities to achieve, and to sustain, “world-class” status: the

very highest international standards. This isn‟t just a theoretical exercise:

top universities are unique institutions that are incredibly valuable to our

local, national, and global societies. They have a transformative effect

on the lives of their already-talented students, challenging them to even

greater heights of achievement, and sending them out into the world

equipped to assume positions of academic, cultural, artistic, and political

leadership. World-class universities conduct research that transforms

our understanding of the world, past and present, and that can cure real

world problems, such as disease, alternative energy and climate

change. They generate ideas that become businesses, creating value

for our economies. So their existence, and their persistence, matters

enormously - not only to the people who work and study in them, but to

the people in the societies around them.

In my view, being a world-class university comes down to four things:

outstanding people; a focus on research excellence underpinned by an

international, open outlook; a commitment to high-quality education; and

sustainable funding to ensure excellence and access.

I start with outstanding people in defining what it takes to be world-class

because really, that is what it all comes down to. We talk in universities a

great deal about buildings, and of course it matters greatly to have

excellent equipment, state-of-the-art laboratories, and libraries rich in

historical manuscripts as well as the current literature. But a university is

defined by the quality of the minds working within it. World-class

universities are sustained by the presence of world-class minds. This

means, first and foremost, outstanding professors: people who are doing

rigorous and original research and who set high standards for their

colleagues and their students, and who inspire them to do great work.

They are constantly pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge in

their fields. At every leading university I have worked at, a huge part of

any academic leader‟s job – head of department, provost, vice-

chancellor – is to make sure the university recruits and retains the very

best academics. There are important scale effects here: world-class
universities have lots of talented people, in all subjects, and at all stages

of career development. They think hard about whether they have a

critical mass of excellent people working in any given field: it‟s hard to

attract great people without other great people already in place.

To give you a concrete example of this: one of the most exciting

developments of the past year at Oxford has been the announcement

that Andrew Wiles will return to Oxford, from Princeton, in 2011. You

may have heard of Professor Wiles. He is arguably the most famous

mathematician in the world: he proved Fermat‟s last theorem. You could

argue that he – and I – are British sea turtles: we did our degrees in the

UK, have spent extended periods in the US, and are now returning

home. Professor Wiles‟ arrival will cement the status of Oxford

mathematics as one of the pre-eminent departments in the world.

This example reminds us that faculty searches in world-class universities

are now genuinely global. People over-use the term „war for talent‟ in the

business world, but the truth is that there is real and increasingly global

competition for the best academic talent. It‟s not just that British people

such as Professor Wiles and myself consider jobs internationally. At

Oxford, 40% of our academic staff are citizens of countries other than

the UK.

World-class universities also require world-class students. You can see

the effort that leading universities put in to selecting the very best

students. In the United States, April 1 is the day that letters of admission

for undergraduate study to top universities are mailed out. At Yale,

where I used to work, 7.5% of the students who applied for

undergraduate admission for next autumn received offers. At Harvard, it

was 6.9%. This is the culminating moment of a long, involved process, of

students working hard at their secondary school courses and extra-

curricular activities; sitting SAT tests; writing essays that describe their

interests; and meeting with an alumnus for an interview. For admission

to Oxford, we ask many applicants to sit additional academic tests;

everyone who is admitted will have had an academic interview, typically

with one of the professors that will teach them.

Graduate school applications are subject to similar levels of scrutiny. In

the sciences, when you accept a PhD student, you are taking on an

academic apprentice and a junior colleague, who will work with you in

the lab for the next four to five years. So you want to make very sure that

you are taking a student who can handle the work and who is a good fit

with your programme.

As universities, we go to all this effort because we want students who

will maintain a high intellectual level on campus. We want students who
can keep up with, and who will benefit most from, the challenging

education we provide them with. We want students who will challenge

the ideas of their professors and help them to do great research. And we

want people who will leave to do credit to their universities as they move

out into academic and other fields.

The second requirement of a world-class university is research

excellence. At Oxford, 39% of the university‟s income comes from

research grants, and two-thirds of its academic staff are on research-

only contracts. (The other third do both teaching and research). Our

academics develop new insights into the way world works, the way

cultures interact, into how we can prevent disease, and how we can

tackle social problems. Universities provide the long time scales and the

freedom of inquiry that enable researchers to make fundamental

breakthroughs. You can see some of this very visibly in concrete outputs

– numbers of journal papers and books published, patents filed, spin-out

companies generated, vaccines created. But we also have to search for

it more intangibly, in enhanced understanding of the past or greater

knowledge of comparative political systems: in a more sensitive and

informed society.

Many countries around the world drive research as much from the

industrial sector or from independent research institutes as they do from
universities. This is of course important. But universities offer an

unparalleled environment for excellent research: a concentration of great

minds, free to follow curiosity-driven research agendas, supported by

high quality infrastructure, and constantly invigorated by a regular influx

of energetic students.

One thing that world-class universities rely on is an open, international

outlook on research. You need to keep abreast of the literature

internationally, and be seeking to work with the best people in the world,

wherever they are. Science in particular is international. My colleagues

in physics and genetics, for example, would tell you that it is simply

impossible to tackle the big questions in their disciplines without large

international consortia. How would it be possible to build something like

the Large Hadron Collider at CERN without an international alliance of

scientists and without the financial support of their governments? I

visited CERN at the beginning of this year, and I have to tell you, it is an

extraordinary facility. Chemists rarely praise physicists, but I cannot wait

to see what new insights into particle physics emerge from this unique

global collaboration. International collaboration is vital for so many

academic disciplines. So, for example, colleagues in Oxford‟s School of

Geography and the Environment have worked with the Arab Water

Academy on strategic water issues for the region. And as water

resources become ever more pressing for the entire world, pioneering

research and activity of this nature will prove vital.

In other areas of research, the ability to bring minds together in

collaborative work across disciplines will, I think, be increasingly

important to tackling the fundamental research questions of the 21st

Century. At Oxford, we are very excited about the Oxford Martin School,

an interdisciplinary institute created “to formulate new concepts, policies,

and technologies that will make the future a better place to be.”

Distinguished academics lead fifteen interdisciplinary institutes focused

on major challenges of the twenty-first century, from environmental

change and migration to emergent infections and the future of humanity.

How you foster interdisciplinary work, without losing the foundation of

disciplinary excellence, is a major challenge for world-class universities


Interdisciplinarity has a wide range of other applications. So, only last

month, Oxford launched the Blavatnik School of Government. In two

years‟ time, the first graduate student intake will begin courses drawing

on the social sciences, humanities, physical and life sciences, and

medicine. Many of the most pressing problems of government, whether

it be energy and resource security, or the ageing of populations, or the

regulation of the biosciences, will require national and international
leaders who are equipped with a broad range of understanding in law,

politics, demography, science, history and ethics. Oxford may well have

produced – already - 26 Prime Ministers for the UK, and 70 Presidents

or Prime Ministers internationally. Think what it can do with a dedicated

School of Government!

We have discussed outstanding people and research excellence. World-

class universities also have a core commitment to high-quality

education. Institutions focused mainly on teaching – such as liberal arts

colleges in the United States or further education colleges in the UK –

have their role to play in the higher education ecosystem. What makes

research-intensive universities distinctive is that students are being

taught their disciplines by the academics who are – day by day, in the

lab and in the library – generating that new knowledge. In world-class

universities, it is world-class academics who are doing the teaching. This

makes for an incredibly powerful introduction to the world of ideas, and

the way in which its boundaries constantly shift.

World-class universities seek to provide an outstanding education that

will equip students to analyse problems, to read critically, to conduct

experiments, and to approach received wisdom with a critical eye.

Whatever their field of study, and whatever their future career, we want

students equipped to be productive, inquisitive citizens. Above all, we
want them to leave with the ability (and ideally, a desire) to learn,

continually, over the course of their lifetime.

Different countries approach this challenge in quite different ways. In the

United States, a wide-ranging secondary curriculum leads to a liberal

arts education for undergraduates. Students will spend half of their time

in one discipline, but will also be required – through a core curriculum of

some kind – to cover defined and common areas of knowledge. They

will study a foreign language, they will explore moral philosophy, and if

they are scientists, they will still be required to study courses in literature

and the arts (and vice versa).

In England, the approach is very different. England has a much more

specialised secondary system, where students choose 3-4 courses to

study intensively for two years at the age of 16. This is followed by a

highly specialised undergraduate degree: at Oxford, if you study

engineering as an undergraduate, that is all you study. You immerse

yourself in your subject, and do not spend time outside your major.

In many other countries, the systems fall somewhere in between these

two. It isn‟t obvious to me that there is a right or a wrong way of doing

this. Choice is important: different kinds of students will thrive in different

environments. It is important, however, to think hard about what we are

trying to achieve with our curriculum, and to ensure that whatever the

subject mix, that we are equipping students with first-rate analytical and

communication skills.

In a day and age of mass higher education, we have decided at Oxford

that a combination of independent study and extremely small group

teaching is the best means of transmitting these skills. The Oxford

tutorial is a remarkable educational experience where weekly a student

is probed and challenged by a professor in a 1:1 or 1:2 situation. There

is quite literally nowhere to hide. I am sure you can imagine this causes

some fear and anxiety in the student. But this in turn causes them to

study hard, developing the skills of self-study and self-motivation that are

the goals of a higher education. For all students, we provide

membership in two academic communities: a department, as in other

universities, which is subject-specific, and a college, which spans all

subjects. Colleges are unique to Oxford and Cambridge, and in a large

university of 20,000 students, provide smaller, multidisciplinary

communities of up to 700 students, in which they live and study.

Whatever the system of teaching and curriculum, it‟s clear that great

universities think as hard about the education they deliver as the

research they conduct. And they think about how to help their students

meet the challenges that this education presents. World-class
universities - for example - are increasingly international in terms of their

student body. At Oxford, more than a third of our students are citizens of

countries other than the UK. We have many students, in other words,

who grew up in cultures and in academic traditions quite different to the

standard in the UK. So we have to consider how we help both our

students and our academics to adapt to our unique environment.

Fourth and finally, world-class universities require sustainable funding

that helps them to achieve excellence and to ensure access for their

students, regardless of means. This may sound like a less glamorous

subject than the other three, but it is of course absolutely fundamental.

One of the reasons that US universities have been dominant in the

league tables is their financial resources: their endowments have

provided them with secure funding and therefore the ability to support

great professors, build cutting-edge facilities, and provide financial aid

and scholarships to attract the best students, regardless of means. UK

universities have historically had smaller endowments but have relied on

diversified funding streams – research grants, government grants for

teaching and for research, and in Oxford‟s case, publishing income – to

maintain their position. Excellence in universities, as in virtually

everything else, costs money. That is why, as the head of a world-class

university, I spend a significant amount of my time fundraising.

Ultimately, properly managed endowments provide the best long-term

financial security for universities.

Where does all this leave us? The four components to a world-class

university that I have described – outstanding people, research

excellence, high-quality education, sustainable funding – are high

hurdles. But when built up, over years, with care and commitment, they

make world-class universities truly wonderful places to work.

Let me finish with one characteristic that world-class universities must be

very wary of and that is, of course, complacency. Any university that

succumbs to the temptation of looking at old buildings and long

established traditions and thinking that that is all that is necessary to

remain pre-eminent is in for a shock. You can tell that I am saying this to

my own university as much as to anyone else. Higher education world-

wide has never been more competitive. Dynamic new universities, and I

see one looking around today, are making great strides with that special

blend of youthful vigour and unbridled imagination. The pace of change

is accelerating in the world of higher education. And this is beautifully

summed up by a piece in the famous English novel Alice in Wonderland,

written by that Oxford mathematics teacher, Charles Dodgson, better

known as Lewis Carroll. Alice and the Red Queen are running through

the forest and Alice, puffing, says:
“Aren’t we there yet? Where I come from you usually get where you

are when you run this fast?”

The Red Queen replies:

“What a slow sort of country! Here it takes all the running you can

do to stay in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else you

have to run twice as fast!”

So, Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Provost , Colleagues and Friends, we

in Oxford have got our eyes on UAEU as you run faster and faster. You

have the energy and the talent in your academic staff and students to be

a major force in the work of ideas. I will enjoy watching, with great

anticipation, your progress and achievements. I wish you all every

success during the coming year. Thank you for inviting me and thank

you for your attention.


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