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Distinguished scholars, ladies and gentlemen,

1.It gives me great pleasure to be with you this morning, addressing university leaders from across the Asia-Pacific from the podium of Malaysia's oldest higher education establishment, Universiti Malaya. As ever, I am delighted to return to this university, and to watch it continue to thrive and prosper on the global stage – not least through the hosting of prestigious international forums such as this one.

2.Allow me at the outset to extend my deepest and most heartfelt sympathies to the people of Turkiye and Syria, following the severe double earthquake that struck their countries earlier this week. At this time of suffering and grief, you are in all our thoughts and prayers.

3.As Chancellor of this university, I feel both immensely proud of its many achievements to date, and deeply invested in its continued success going forward. Now this, of course, begs the question: what does success look like for universities in the twenty- first century? And, even more importantly, what are the means by which that success can be achieved? The answer to the first question is, perhaps, more straightforward. To my mind, there are four key components of success for higher education institutions in the twenty-first century:

4.If only it were that simple! With mounting global financial pressures and the ever-more apparent impacts of the climate crisis, the present landscape for higher education institutions is turbulent, challenging and uncertain. Rapid technological change, a changing labour market, geopolitical shifts and tensions, populist backlashes against multiculturalism and globalization, the impact of the recent pandemic and fears of future ones – all these and more make the role of universities not only much more difficult, but also much less clear. What should universities stand for in the twenty-first century? What values should they uphold and inculcate? What essential purpose in society should they fulfil? These are the key questions with which university leaders must grapple, in order to chart a course for their institutions going forward.


5.Given the current financial outlook and market volatility, it might seem logical that twenty-first century universities need to think and operate more like businesses. They must be forward-looking, agile, adaptable. They must think carefully about the value that their courses provide to students in the global marketplace. Indeed, we saw the importance of that flexibility during the pandemic, when universities had to adapt at speed to a new world of online teaching. Many institutions are now capitalizing on the exciting opportunities presented by this new way of delivering higher education through low-cost online distance learning, which also serves to greatly expand access. Universities will need to continue to adapt and innovate in response to the new challenges and opportunities of the twenty-first century. Higher education leaders with sound business sense will be vital to this.

6.And yet, universities are not businesses. Their success, their value, cannot be measured purely in terms of profit, and their students are not simply customers. Universities are thought- leaders; defenders and discovers of knowledge. To quote the famous 19th century British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli (d. 1881), they are places of "light, liberty and learning". I, for one, firmly believe that universities have a civic duty to use their talents and resources to support the public good. We saw this in practice when the Astra-Zeneca Covid-19 vaccine was developed at speed by Oxford University scientists, and the University insisted that billions of doses should be distributed at cost to over 150 countries in the developing world.7 Such decisions cannot be made on the basis of market forces and financial reckoning alone. They require moral and academic leadership, as well as a business mindset.

7.Research shows that the most successful universities across the globe are, indeed, those whose leaders are committed to academic values and to achieving the four success metrics I outlined above. Sometimes, these leaders remain active professors themselves; always, they have a passion for the disciplines of both the sciences and the humanities.

8.This is, I think, a point worth reiterating: the sciences and the humanities. A true university must nurture not only the crucial STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – but also the Humanities: the knowledge that comes from history, philosophy, religious studies, anthropology, languages, literature and the creative arts. The leaders I have most admired at the universities where I studied have always embodied these values, passionately advocating for pure as well as applied study, and for the pursuit of wisdom in all its forms. At a time when technical training is more and more sought after, while the humanities are defunded and deprioritised in education systems throughout the world, advocacy for them by university leaders is more critical than ever.

9.You might ask, of course, why does all this matter? Isn't the priority of universities in the twenty-first century to equip their students for the world of tomorrow? And isn't it digital literacy that should be of paramount importance for young people entering work in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Isn't it scientists, mathematicians, and engineers that we need to solve the health, infrastructure and environmental challenges facing our planet today? To which the answer is: yes, of course we do! But we need philosophers, historians and writers as well. This point was made persuasively by the newly appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Professor Irene Tracey, in her recent inaugural address. Tracey is a distinguished professor of neuroscience, but she spoke in her address of her "awe of people trained in the humanities." And she criticised the "great divide" that has emerged between the sciences and the humanities, arguing that today's young people need a thorough grounding in both, in order to navigate the challenges of the future. She also observed that, while the next generation certainly does need to understand maths, science, technology and engineering, "it also needs to understand itself".

10.In preparing the minds of the next generation for the challenges ahead, we must ensure that all students, regardless of subject specialism, are digitally and technologically competent. At the same time, we must ensure that all students have the opportunity to develop their creativity, as well as a strong sense of ethics and values. As Islam's most famous theologian Imam al- Ghazali (d. 1111) memorably said, "Knowledge without action is insane, while action without knowledge is in vain." In other words, we must make sure that today's students have both the skills to take practical actions, and the wisdom to direct those actions to productive and worthwhile ends.

11.To make advances in Artificial Intelligence and genetic engineering, for example, we need scientists and engineers. But to be able to consider properly the risks and the ramifications of such developments, as well as the gains, we also need philosophers and theologians with expertise in ethics and moral hazard. We need historians, who can tell of occasions in the past when apparent progress has had catastrophic unintended or unexpected consequences. And we need creative individuals who can dream up hitherto unimagined new solutions to our various problems.

12.In addressing climate change, we need not only technological solutions, but also changes in human behaviour. Literature and the arts can teach our students the true value of the beauty of the vanishing natural world, which in turn will foster their desire to be good stewards of the earth, the oceans and the air above us. For Muslims, this is the applied study of the theological concept of khilafah, humankind's true vicegerency and responsibility for our planet.

13.And in negotiating the perils of conflict and rivalry – whether ethnic, national or international – we need not only lawyers and political scientists, but also theologians, anthropologists, linguists and historians who have been trained to understand the customs, beliefs and value-systems of different cultures and faiths. So, another important function of our universities is to equip the brightest young people to be able to speak to their peers across the world. This vital ability to communicate and, even more importantly, to understand, is another skill fostered by the Humanities.

14.Over many years of public speaking, I have returned again and again to the image of building bridges. Usually, these have been bridges between disparate countries or communities, or else between conflicting viewpoints.16 In relation to the role of the twenty- first century university, I would like to use that image of the bridge in a slightly different context. To my mind, part of the role of the university is to build a bridge between the past and the future between wisdom and progress. The nineteenth-century biologist, Thomas Huxley (d. 1895), described medieval universities as being "storehouse[s] of old knowledge", while Victorian universities were "factor[ies] of new knowledge." I think in the twenty-first century, universities need to be both of these. And it is that skill of looking to our past, in order to shape and improve our future, that the Humanities so brilliantly nurture. In looking to the future of the university in the twenty-first century, then, it seems only fitting that we learn from what some great thinkers have said about the value of the university in the past. Allow me, therefore, to offer you some words of wisdom from a pair of nineteenth-century alumni of my own universities.

15.Cardinal John Henry Newman (d. 1890) studied and then taught at Oxford. In his great book, The Idea of a University, he wrote that the object and mission of the university was not "mechanical production" – in other words, the practical training of students. Instead, he argued that the university's "function is intellectual culture; here it may leave its scholars, and it has done its work when it has done as much as this. It educates the intellect to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it."

16.This noble thought reminds me of a conversation I had with the former Provost of my Oxford College, Sir Jonathan Bate, in which he spoke of his visits to distinguished college alumni. He told me that, whether they were captains of industry, wizards of finance, or Supreme Court Justices, they would say again and again that what they sought when recruiting university students was, emphatically, not expertise in management and marketing theory, or knowledge of mergers and acquisitions. Everything specific to their professions could be taught – indeed, was best taught, on the job, through experience after graduation.

17.Instead, what they wanted from the students they recruited were what we might call 'soft' skills: open and inquiring minds; articulate voices; clear reasoning and good writing; human and social skills; the ability to think on one's feet, to balance opposing points of view, to come to a decision and then to act upon it. What they wanted, in other words, was an intellect that could, as Newman said, "reason well in all matters", "reach out towards truth" and "grasp it." How striking that, at least in one university leader's recent experience, the purpose of the modern university aligns so closely with Cardinal Newman's statement on the subject almost two- hundred years ago.

18.Reflecting upon Cardinal Newman's vision of what a university should be, higher education leaders today might wonder whether our universities have become high-end vocational or 'trade' schools- essentially factories supplying graduates to meet the needs of modern economies. This question is especially relevant for us here in Asia, I believe – particularly for our policy makers in higher education. Are the roles of universities in the developing world seen as different from those in the developed world – and should they be? Would the study of literature, for example, be regarded as a luxury by some? All universities, of course, and especially those in the developing world, need to equip their students with relevant and marketable skills. But what we must recognize is that the core skills fostered by the humanities – communication, decision-making, the ability to synthesize huge quantities of information – are of enormous value in real-world contexts.

19.After completing my studies at Oxford, I continued my education at Harvard. While my research interests were, by this time, very focused, I was always conscious that this great university was built on the strong foundations of the "liberal arts" undergraduate degree in which Harvard had led the world for generations.

20.It was in 1837 that Ralph Waldo Emerson (d. 1882), then a recent graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, delivered an address to the university's Phi Beta Kappa Society entitled The American Scholar. In the address, Emerson laid out what he saw as the three functions of the true scholar – functions which, I believe, should still be at the forefront of the mind of every university leader today.

21.He began by asking the question: "What does scholarship teach us to know and to see?" His answer was that the role of the university was to create the Thinking Man (at Harvard in the nineteenth century, it was only Man, whereas now it is Man and Woman – we have at least made some progress in the last two centuries!). Now, for Emerson, there were three key qualities that shaped this Thinking person. As he put it:

The first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of nature. Every day, the sun; and, after sunset, Night and her stars. Ever the winds blow; ever the grass grows. Every day, men and women, conversing, beholding and beholden. The scholar must stand wistful and admiring before this great spectacle. He must settle its value in his mind.

22.For us today, and not just in relation to universities, but throughout the whole world, there is no more important and pressing question than that of nature – of the future of the planet. "Ever the winds blow; ever the grass grows" said Emerson: but the way in which the winds now blow, and the grass now grows, in the age that geologists have come to call the Anthropocene, have been shaped by humankind and its toxic emissions in a way that Emerson could never have imagined. Our most urgent need is thus to settle the value of our planet in our minds and in the minds of the next generation of thinkers.

23.Emerson continued his meditation on the formation of the true scholar by saying:

The next great influence into the spirit of the scholar is the mind of the Past – in whatever form, whether of literature, of art, of institutions, that mind is inscribed. Books are the best type of the influence of the past, and perhaps we shall get at the truth learn the amount of thisinfluence more conveniently – by considering their value alone.

24.The insights to be gained from 'the mind of the past' are now available to us in many forms as well as books, we now have television, film, Netflix and, above all, the Internet. And our sense of that mind is far more diverse than it was for Emerson: we have learnt to listen to the wisdom of the East and of indigenous peoples, as well as that of the Western tradition in which he was nurtured. But what we sometimes forget is that the Internet and social media content are not moderated by scholars, publishers, editors, critics and peer reviewers in the manner of traditional book learning. For this reason, a crucial function of the twenty-first century university is to train and guide students to be better able to distinguish the mind from the mindlessness, the historic truths from the fake news, and the beautiful from the ugly.

25.And this is important, especially in our fractured public realm, because university leaders have a duty to speak to this public realm. This brings us to Emerson's third and final point:

There goes in the world a notion that the scholar should be a recluse, a valetudinarian – as unfit for any handiwork or public labour as a penknife for an axe. The so-called "practical men" sneer at speculative men, as if, because they speculate, they could do nothing … Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential.

26.In other words, education, according to Emerson, is a preparation for action, just as Imam al-Ghazali preached many centuries ago. This is a point which, I hope, has been present throughout my speech, but I am keen to re-emphasize it. From the importance of higher education institutions being adaptable and innovative, to the value of the Humanities, a common thread has been how universities can engage with and give back to society. They do this by training students to be able to make valuable contributions; they do it by generating research that benefits humanity. And universities also give back to society through their leaders- leaders who will speak out and stand up for what they believe, and who argue for it rationally and articulately. As I look out across this room today, I feel confident that I am addressing a generation of university leaders who will speak out and stand up for truth in a time of great uncertainty. This, certainly, is something the world is much in need of at present.

27.Now, I am conscious, as I reflect on the various thinkers and truth-tellers I have quoted during my speech, that almost all of them -from Benjamin Disraeli, to Thomas Huxley, to Cardinal Newman and Ralph Waldo Emerson – hail from the nineteenth century. In articulating the role of twenty-first century universities, I have turned, very specifically, to the wisdom of the 1800s. And while this was not exactly deliberate, I do not believe it is any coincidence, either. The nineteenth century was, after all, a period of progress, innovation, rapid change and globalization.

28.In that sense, it has many parallels with our current era, with all the excitement and all the uncertainty that rapid change is bringing in the twenty-first century. For just as the nineteenth century witnessed seismic shifts in employment and production due to mechanization during the First Industrial Revolution, we, too, are experiencing similar shifts due to AI and digitization, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. As we stand on the brink of this rapidly evolving future, it is reassuring to know that others have stood there before. In the nineteenth century, great thinkers looked to the universities to shape and guide the progress of the era in the right direction, towards a brighter future. In the here and now of the twenty-first century, I believe the world must look to you to do the same!

Last Update: Mar 08, 2023