Universities ‘cannot do sustainability on their own’

Universities might be in the ‘sweet spot to redefine the future’, but they still need to work with government and business, says leader

June 12, 2024
Freddy Boey
Freddy Boey

University leaders must focus on their institutions’ strengths rather than trying to emulate their renowned neighbours, a Bangkok conference has heard.

City University of Hong Kong (CityU) president Freddy Boey said that he had always been ready to “dramatically change everything” when he assumed leadership roles in academia. But that did not mean straying from the institutional mission, as he stressed to colleagues when he became provost at Nanyang Technological University in his native Singapore.

“I didn’t want to be National University of Singapore number two,” he said. “I wanted to be Nanyang Technological University number one, which means a different way of doing things.

“I’m doing the same thing Now at CityU. I don’t care about Hong Kong U[niversity]. I only care about being number one in CityU.”

Speaking at Times Higher Education’s Global Sustainable Development Congress, Professor Boey said university leaders needed “a certain belief. Then you need a small group of people who believe what you believe, and the minority will become a majority. You need to shame those passive-aggressive people.”

In a discussion focusing on cross-sectoral collaboration, he said universities would be “foolish” to imagine that they could drive the sustainability agenda on their own. But governments would be just as wrongheaded to think likewise.

“If they ignore their own university, they do it at their own peril,” he said. “It’s very expensive to run a university. But trust me, it’s even more expensive if you don’t run one.”

Professor Boey said two unique characteristics put universities in the “sweet spot” to redefine the future. “Number one: every year, clever people with their brains coming out of their ears and noses, if I can say so, rush to get into your university. Great talent; young people; you hold them in your hand [for] four years.

“The second is that if you do enough research, you will have a reservoir of intellectual property. The fastest way to transform a country or city is by start-up companies. I am convinced of that. I have seen how transformational it is. It sure beats writing a Science paper.”

Start-up companies occasionally made universities “rich”, he said. “More important, [they] create quality employment for all the young people.”

He said the world had developed four distinct models of cross-sectoral collaboration. In the first, exemplified by Silicon Valley, the companies and talent came to perhaps a handful of universities. In the second, exemplified by Shenzhen, the “universities come to the companies”.  

The third model was Switzerland, where federal engineering universities worked “hand-in-hand” with industry and government, he said. The fourth was Singapore, where the government lavished money on its universities. “But as I tell people, money is only money,” he told the forum. “Money is not research.”

Research funding always needed to be used selectively, he said. Vice-chancellors were perfectly entitled to prioritise their institutions’ research strengths. “You need to choose judiciously,” Professor Boey said.

“No university in the world can claim to do everything – not even Harvard. The last thing you want to do is put out your budget and distribute it…‘fairly’, [so that] everybody has something. You are going to do a lot of things with mediocre results. I’d much rather do a few things with fantastic results.”


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