Address at the UN 9th University Scholars Leadership Symposium, Bangkok

Good afternoon. It’s a pleasure to be here alongside my Universitas 21 colleagues, Professor Peter Mathieson from the University of Edinburgh, and Professor Tan Eng Chye from the National University of Singapore. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak to you, our students—the leaders of tomorrow—about some of the most challenging issues facing the globe right now, and what sort of leadership we will need to address them.

In my remarks I will focus on how universities, such as UNSW Sydney where I am the VC, define our role in solving the Grand Challenges of our time. And I hope you will indulge me as I share some reflections from my own life as well, to chronicle some of the milestones that have shaped my view of the world, and inspired me to contribute wherever I have had the opportunity. You are all familiar I’m sure with Adam Smith’s theory of the Wealth of Nations. It is the idea that the ‘invisible hand’ of market forces will guide people to act in their own interests, and in turn, the interests of the nation. Published in the 1700s, it was very much a book of its time. In what he calls the New Wealth of Nations, Indian economist, Surjit Bhalla puts Smith’s theory to the test, and finds that in our world today, it is not economic capital that will determine the success of nations, so much as it is human capital. Education. He sees the proliferation of human capital as the most extraordinary leveller the world has ever seen. He points out that while the industrial revolution transformed lives primarily in the western world, the education revolution has transformed lives all over the world. And he is right – it has been nothing short of a revolution.

In my lifetime alone, the literate proportion of the global population has increased from less than 40 per cent to above 85 per cent, according to OECD and UNESCO data. This trend is especially the case in the Asia Pacific. The OECD reports that in China, adult literacy has increased from only 64 per cent in 1982 to almost 86 per cent today; in India, literacy stands at 74 per cent, increasing from just 12 per cent when India secured independence in 1947. As a doctor, medical researcher, development worker, and university leader, I have seen first-hand that education holds so many of the answers our world needs. Both in terms of research capacity – improving and saving lives through medical, and technological breakthroughs. And in terms of education – building the world’s human capital so people are empowered to change the course of their lives, and in turn pass on that privilege to others.

In a world where political interests are creating more walls and barriers than ever before, fear and anxiety are powerful and dangerous forces. But I believe, as I suspect everyone here does too, in the collective power of universities to offset these forces. Former British Universities Minister, David Willetts, has described universities as the equivalent of ‘the giant California redwood trees in the natural world – deep-rooted, long-lived, and with the power to shape an entire ecosystem around them.’ In our growing climate of instability, with trust in traditional norms crumbling, universities can emerge as agencies for policy improvement and active, positive change. A key driver of this is international education. I hope I don’t offend Professor Mathieson by emphasising this point, but Australia has just arguably overtaken the UK as the world’s second biggest destination for international students, after the US. In Australia, international education is our third largest export, generating $32 billion for our economy. It’s important that our local students travel abroad too – the more students we have crossing paths with new people, the stronger our global civil society will be. This matters because we need a strong civil society now more than ever.

The problems the globe faces are of unparalleled urgency – mass migration, climate change, food security, cyber security – and the higher education sector is uniquely equipped to tackle them. At UNSW we run a Grand Challenges program, which brings together world experts on climate change, refugees and migration, the pace of new technology, and the roots of inequality. We also run the Institute for Global Development, which exists against a backdrop of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We have hundreds of projects running in public healthcare, climate science, energy and water, sexual and reproductive health, maternal health, AIDS/HIV, and defence and security. Our focus is on Africa, the Pacific and Asia, but we also run projects to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. And we try to make our impact as tangible and transferrable as possible.

As Myanmar transitions from military rule to democracy, for example, UNSW is working with local scholars on how constitutional law and reform can bring greater social and economic benefits Our partnership with Gulu University, in post-conflict Uganda’s north, has us collaborating on women’s health. We are working at Makerere University, where the Brien Holden Vision Institute and our School of Optometry and Vision Sciences has established Uganda’s first undergraduate program in optometry. Just like our work in Myanmar, our focus in Uganda is on building capacity – running programs for Gulu University academic staff, and facilitating visiting research fellowships in both directions. Our guiding philosophy is that collaboration is the key to success – our educators and researchers in Australia have both a great deal of expertise to offer, but a great deal to learn as well. Which brings me back to where I started – why human capital is so powerful. By definition, knowledge is transferrable. And I really believe that the most valuable contribution we can make as leaders is building the capacity of others; passing our knowledge on. I’m proud of the fact that so many of our students at UNSW – like you – have that strong sense of responsibility to be a force for good in the world.

One of my favourite UNSW stories is of third-year Chemical Engineering student, Buddhi Ranasinghe, who decided to get six of his friends together to use their skills to solve some of the basic water and sanitation problems faced by rural farmers in his home country of Sri Lanka. After realising that people were spending a large proportion of their income on buying water, the students built a water filtration facility so the village they were working in could become self-sufficient. The facility now delivers 10,000 litres of clean water per day to more than 600 families. It has created three jobs. But most importantly, all profits are being reinvested in STEM, business and entrepreneurship education for the local people. This is the essence of good leadership – putting your skills towards expanding the opportunities of others. It took me a bit longer than Buddhi and his friends to realise this.

At the end of my medical training at age 24, I travelled to Kenya to work on a research project. The project took me out of England, where I had spent my entire life in Cambridge and London…to right into the heart of the shanty towns of Nairobi. That trip had a pivotal impact on how my life and career would unfold. For a start, I fell in love with Africa. And it inspired me to return, when in my forties, I had the opportunity to establish and run the Uganda Institute for Women’s Health, through University College London. But more broadly, it helped me to gain perspective on the world and my place in it – it helped me realise that I had opportunities that others could not have dreamt of, just by virtue of where I was born. I had never thought of myself as particularly privileged before that. But I was, and extraordinarily so. At each step of my career since, I have gravitated towards work that will enables me to share the opportunity that privilege has given me.

I found working as a doctor in a clinical setting extraordinarily rewarding. It is a massive privilege to help people at some of the most challenging times in their lives. But I also found it constraining only being able to assist one person at a time.I realised that I may be able to do more through research to stem the flow of disease. So, I moved into medical research, looking into cancer screening processes which had the potential to save many thousands of lives. And from there, into higher education, to facilitate the next generation of students and researchers, who may well eradicate cancer altogether and have an impact on countless major challenges.

Now, I realise that many of you will have come from challenging backgrounds and had to go through difficult times to be here. But by virtue of being here, at this event, you are privileged. So if I could pass on just one piece of advice to you, it would be to figure out how you can share that privilege with others. As much as I would love to take credit for this, it’s not an original idea – so many of our society’s most effective leaders have said it before. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, when he said that ‘real leaders …recognise their role as servant.’ Bill Gates, when he remarked that, ‘as we look ahead into the 21st century, leaders will be those who empower others.’ Michelle Obama, when she said that when you walk through the doorway of opportunity, don’t slam it shut behind you.

Instead, reach back, and give others the same chances that helped you succeed. True leadership is doing what you can to foster the intellectual and leadership potential of others. Realising this is, I think, the key to unlocking the true ‘wealth of nations’, and transforming humanity for the better.

Thank you.

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