Forging bonds across borders

John Hay explains how sharing ideas can shrink cultural divides

Universities are a potent force for international accord and co-operation.

The University of Queensland, one of Australia's leading teaching and research institutions, has students and staff from 120 nations. One in six of our students is from abroad, and the roll call of overseas alumni includes a who's who in many disciplines.

As a young graduate from Western Australia, a new world opened up when a Hackett Research Scholarship enabled me to read English at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and to develop a wide range of international friendships and interests.

Few bonds could be sturdier than those forged in a shared passion for learning, a team victory in securing funds for research or a laboratory breakthrough after years of collaboration.

Queensland's formal multilateral networks include Universitas 21 and the Association of Commonwealth Universities. The university has agreements with more than 210 organisations in 41 countries, ranging from a marine studies partnership with the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to collaborations on law and agriculture with the University of Papua New Guinea.

In the late 1980s, a Scottish-born medical researcher, Ian Frazer, and his Chinese-born peer Jian Zhou teamed up in a quest that led to the world's first vaccine for cervical cancer. Zhou, an alumnus of Wenzhou Medical College, introduced Frazer to Wenzhou staff when the pair visited in 1998.

Today, seven years after Zhou's death, Frazer (Australian of the Year 2006) is building on the legacy of their partnership by aiming to develop vaccines to prevent more strains of the cervical cancer-causing virus HPV.

Frazer has joined with Wenzhou and the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane, Australia, to trial a vaccine for the world's most common sexually transmitted disease, genital warts. The partnership will also lead to new personal and professional alliances.

An international collaboration on hypersonic scramjets with British firm QinetiQ displays similar potential. It may have the power to shorten the flying time between our nations substantially. And cross-border research to conserve coral reefs could redeem fishing and tourism in island nations of the Commonwealth.

Exchanging ideas can be as effective in shrinking cultural divides as can sharing a lab bench. Looking abroad for research and investment partners is one way to maximise research, entrepreneurship and the student experience, while minimising reliance on domestic government funds.

John Hay is vice-chancellor and president of the University of Queensland, Australia, and chair of Universitas 21.

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