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International Relations

HOME > International Relations

University of Cambridge seeks closer ties with China

March 23, 2018

Abstract : Cooperation with new academic powerhouse of China is at the top of the agenda for the new vice-chancellor of the prestigious University of Cambridge. The university's Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope told Xinhua in a recent exclusive interview that ...


CAMBRIDGE, Britain, Mar. 23 (Xinhua) -- Cooperation with new academic powerhouse of China is at the top of the agenda for the new vice-chancellor of the prestigious University of Cambridge.

"In previous roles, I have worked closely with Chinese colleagues both in academia and in government," the university's Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope told Xinhua in a recent exclusive interview.

Toope, a scholar who specializes in international relations, studied at Cambridge for his doctorate. The Canadian took office in October 2017, making him the first foreigner to hold the post of vice-chancellor at Cambridge in the university's about 800-year history.

"I'm now very hopeful being here at Cambridge that there will be even more opportunities to engage actively with China ...(a country)with an extraordinarily growing influence a university like Cambridge must be paying attention to," Toope said.

One of his first acts as the 346th vice-chancellor of the university in the east of England was to contact China's Ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming.

"I felt it was appropriate to discuss a possible collaboration with the Chinese ambassador who is a very distinguished diplomat who's been posted here in the United Kingdom for a long time, and I wanted to get his advice on how best to proceed; and we had a very good conversation," Toope said.


Toope said that the university had already developed many links with China.

The strides that China has taken since its reforms and opening-up in 1978 has been unprecedented in history, said Toope, and that direction of opening up and cooperation is welcome.

"I think China is going to be, for the foreseeable future, at the heart of international cooperation," Toope said, hoping the University of Cambridge had a role to play in that cooperation.

"Many of our scientists and scholars who already have strong links into China, we have particularly powerfully connected to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to Tsinghua University and Peking University in Beijing, but now we're also looking to develop another hub in Nanjing," he said.

Toope was proud that about 10 percent, around 1,200 people, of the University of Cambridge's student total population was Chinese, and that the university was aware that there was "so much talent in such a huge country that is dedicated to education."

"So we want to continue to welcome outstanding Chinese students to come here," he said.


Brexit has dominated British political life since the vote to leave the European Union (EU) on June 23, 2016.

The University of Cambridge has for centuries been a major center of learning in Europe, and the formal separation of Britain from the EU poses previously unimagined challenges for the institution, for its role, its status, its capabilities, its staff and its students.

Toope believes that as a foreigner, his appointment was a signal that the university was keen to continue international collaboration.

"I think it was in fact part of the thinking of my coming to the university that, as a signal that the university is committed to genuine global involvement that it was not looking inward in any way; whatever happens with Brexit was important."

He said he felt very welcome here at the university.

"I have sensed a tremendous desire on the part of all of my colleagues to be clear to the rest of the world that Cambridge is very much engaged outside Britain," the vice chancellor said.

A lack of clarity about what Brexit would mean in detail, or when or if Brexit would be delivered, was a problem.

Toope said: "One of the great challenges we're facing is that very little is clear about Brexit at this point, so we are, I will be honest, a little frustrated; it's difficult to plan, not knowing exactly what agreement will be reached."

He added there were "potential negative consequences" which the university would address very carefully.

About 23 percent of the university's staff comes from the EU. Toope said the university wants to make sure that it is still deeply connected with its European partners in research networks.

"We want to make sure that we are still a welcoming environment for European students," said Toope. "We also want to make sure that we remain a very welcoming place for our current staff members who are from Europe."

He, however, admitted that in some senses the university remains dependent upon understanding what the final agreement will be between Britain and the rest of Europe through Brexit.

"Even in the medieval period, there were people coming from Europe to study here, people from here going to continental Europe. We want to make sure that that continues," Toope added.


Toope said that the university was "a remarkably ambitious place", with a keen interest in piloting the best path towards continued success in the future.

"I would say that one of my overall impressions so far is that my colleagues here are tremendously committed to working hard to make the next generation of discoveries to teach students with even more commitment than in past generations. I think that that's a remarkable thing to be able to say about an institution that's 800 years old," said Toope.

Toope said it was a priority to ensure that the foundations of 800 years of research and tradition were not compromised by future developments.

To that end, the vice chancellor said he placed diversity at the heart of his thinking.

"I think what marks a great university is diversity of engagement, diversity of thought, diversity of practices, so that a wide range of people bring their talents to the university, we then have to have the ability to make sure that they are talking with each other, so we need flexibility and the way we organize our labs, the way we organize our teaching structures," said Toope.

He said the university must also fundamentally commit to supporting basic scientific research and basic scholarly endeavors.

"Great world universities don't look only at what's happening tomorrow," said Toope, adding that although applied research is very important, there must also be people who are thinking about the very long-term, who are just trying to understand the world in new ways.

"It's those kinds of discoveries that Cambridge has been famous for over the years; work on DNA, Charles Darwin was here, these are fundamental shifts in the way we think about the world they're not about what happens tomorrow, that I think is the mark of a truly great world university," he said.

Toope said he wanted to bring different parts of the big institution of the university closer together in a kind of "joining up."

He said the university has a desire to connect its various parts more effectively.

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