A unique meeting of the heads of some of the smaller leading liberal arts universities around the world, called the Universities G20, took place at the University of Buckingham earlier this month.
The idea came to me in part as a response to Brexit and the need to reach out to universities across the world. But it was also born out of frustration at the large and inevitably impersonal conferences and forums that are part of the life of the vice-chancellor. I have yearned for a deeper and more rewarding level of communication and engagement with fellow leaders.
The presidents and principals from around the world were an impressive bunch. They included Jamal Al-Lail, president of Effat University, Saudi Arabia, who is bravely advancing the cause of the education of women; Patrick Awuah, president of Ashesi University, Ghana, who left a high-flying career in Microsoft to found the university dedicated to educating a new generation of ethical and entrepreneurial leaders across Africa; and Laurie Patton, president of Middlebury College, where she is embroiled in a struggle in the US to ensure that freedom of speech prevails on campus.
These three, and other leaders like them in the G20, lift my sights to new levels of academic and moral achievement for higher education.
We had 14 speakers at the inaugural annual gathering, including Jo Johnson, the UK universities and science minister, who shared thoughts with the presidents about how autonomy can be enhanced to enrich the academic experience of both faculties and students; astronomer royal and past president of the Royal Society, Lord Rees of Ludlow, on how university leaders can prepare students for the challenges of this century; and economist Lord Layard on embedding well-being into university life.
What Layard had to say chimed with many of the leaders. One of the universities in the G20 is Tecmilenio University in Mexico, which is the first “positive” university in the world, drawing inspiration from the work of Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania. Not surprisingly perhaps, a number of the presidents practised mindfulness, which provides the opportunity for renewal and reflection for busy people. I’m delighted to have played a part in persuading Jon Kabat-Zinn of the mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Clinic in Boston to come to the UK to address vice-chancellors this summer.
The idea for this new grouping came from the Schools G20, which I set up 10 years ago for some of the leading schools in the world, including Raffles Institution in Singapore which has sent more of its students to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in a year than any other school in the world. The heads of the schools found, as the heads of the G20 universities found, that huge strength can be derived from smaller and more intimate gatherings where sharing can be on a deeper level.
The challenges facing universities today – diversity, Brexit, financial, digital – have arguably never been greater. The weight resting on the leader is considerable. Many leaders lack the time for renewal and refreshment. Bodies such as the G20 which offer complete trust and confidentiality between fellow leaders provide just that stimulus, and I would not be surprised if more such small groups blossom in the years to come.
Sir Anthony Seldon is vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham