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The Role of Universities in Global Security

Lecture given to the Council for Education in the Commonwealth, Marlborough House 27th July 2022


Yesterday I was honoured to be invited to give a lecture to educationalists, policy makers and students at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. I had been asked to consider the role universities have in global security by wearing my new hat as Chancellor of the University of Reading.   The context of the invitation is that Britain is blessed to have a world-leading higher education sector, is a member of a global, voluntary, fraternal organisation: The Commonwealth; and that one of the great opportunities to build on such common wealth of shared values is in sharing ideas, talents and assets to create the best possible common shared destiny.  There are over 800 grant funded, Commonwealth Scholarship students studying across it's members universities. This was my response to the invitation given:



Ladies and Gentlemen.  Friends.


On 15 July, the Met Office issued the first ever red extreme heat warnings for parts of the UK, with temperatures forecast to soar to 40C. In the following days they hit the forecasts.


The same day, Sri Lanka swore in an acting President following weeks of unrest and mass protests over fuel and food shortages.


ONS data that day showed COVID cases in the UK had jumped by 30%, the latest statistic in more than two years of pandemic disruption, uncertainty and anxiety.


Also on that day, it was reported that a British aid worker, captured by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine, had died in detention. He had been taken prisoner while reportedly trying to conduct a humanitarian rescue mission.


There wasn’t anything particularly special about 15 July. And as news days go, it was, sadly, pretty typical. It just happened to be the day I sat down to prepare the speech.


At first glance, these events appear to bear little in common. But with the topic of today’s talk in my mind, the links seemed stark. They represent some of the fundamental security threats we face today as a global community - climate change, pandemic illness, and a breakdown in social cohesion caused by political, economic and social polarisation.


Also, this month, albeit not on the 15th, I became Chancellor of the University of Reading and presided over my first degree ceremonies. With a background as a businessmen and entrepreneur, rather than in academia, you may wonder what interested me in such a role. What has always driven me, though, and what I continue to thrive on is finding winning ideas to improve lives and working on them until the world catches on. And that is a mission that universities share.


More than 15 years ago, in the early days of developing Ella’s Kitchen, the UK’s biggest baby food business that I founded and named after my daughter, I worked extensively with University of Reading on product development, and I have maintained my relationship with the University since. Ella’s Kitchen has always been a mission-led, purpose-driven and people-centred organisation, and those are values the University of Reading shares.


The University has a worldwide reputation for exceptional research, knowledge and expertise that offer solutions to so many of the world’s critical challenges. It too is people-centric, committed to educating and skilling our young people. It is also driven by care for the environment and a deep-rooted understanding of the links between sustainability, health and security.


As a fervent believer that children and young people should be at the heart of all policy-making and social development, and the critical role of education in that mission, I was excited that I could be an ambassador for this work, a guardian of the University’s values, a challenger to grasp its tremendous opportunities and a voice for its amazing diverse community. As the University approaches its 100th anniversary in 2026, I want to make my contribution to its culture of belief that a better world is possible.


What role, then, does education have in addressing the serious, systemic challenges that the world faces?


And in particular, how can universities help the cause of Commonwealth and global security. Particularly, as we know universities are bundles of contradiction - pioneering cutting-edge knowledge yet with anachronistic ritual and traditions (often borrowed from the UK); distant ivory towers tackling very real-world, immediate dirty problems.


When you ask people what universities do, many if not most will think of teaching, usually of 18-21 year olds who have come directly from school. This fundamental role as educator is critical, but universities bring more value both to individuals and society - around the development of knowledge, the shaping of cultural and social values, and creating links across boundaries.


In doing this over hundreds of years, universities have had to adapt to the needs and expectations of an ever-changing society while holding true to the core of largely Enlightenment-based values at their conceptual heart.


And it is here that we come to the core of what I want to discuss - exploring the application of those Enlightenment values in a modern 21st century context, and what lessons universities might hold for the Commonwealth - and the role of education within it - to address issues of increasing ideological, social and economic polarisation and the implications of that for the health of both people and our planet.


Through my time in business, I have learned that trust lies at the very heart of human society, and that to deliver and keep trust you need common values, credible competency and vision. 


And the core of those common values that we take for granted, particularly in a university setting, often goes back to the Enlightenment values developed more than 300 years ago of empiricism, scepticism, liberalism and individualism. That world, of course, was far from equal. Enlightenment society and the concepts that defined it were white, European and male-centred. To my mind, the biggest triumph of those values has been their increasing expansion beyond that traditionally privileged group, in theory at least.


And what I believe lies at the heart of so much of the insecurity that we are experiencing today is the growing threats to those fundamental values - and the progress to their universal application beyond a privileged  elite - and the increased sense of instability that this creates. Fundamentally, one of the critical building blocks of trust - namely common values - is being dangerously eroded.


In thinking about how we tackle this existential problem, the Commonwealth is a truly unique and powerful model - from old, out-dated ties to empire, it has created a global voluntary alliance, bound by a commitment to work together to build a shared and ever developing set of social, ethical and political values.


And within that alliance, the Council for Education in the Commonwealth is an important advocate for the role that education, universities and child-centred policy have - in addressing this polarisation and insecurity.


But how?  I would like to briefly explore three key tasks, which, if we succeed, can truly transform our shared future:


  1. Equipping young people for the future
  2. Developing and sharing skills and knowledge
  3. Defending free expression and exchange of ideas


Turning then to the first point of equipping young people


Over the last hundred years or so, we have seen the rapid expansion in many countries around the world of the provision of post-school education to young people. Growing access to tertiary education is obviously necessary to the development of information-based economies but it is critical to the growth and embedding of a fair, merit-based society and this in turn is a pre-requisite for building a post-polarisation society.


This growth, hand-in-hand with the expansion of a market-driven - winner-takes-all - theory of economics, has however brought challenges - with the increased marketisation of education and the conceptualisation of the student, first and foremost as consumer, we have increasingly framed universities around the economic, vocational value of education.


Clearly a good career and a safe financial future are the building blocks for stability and security, but in seeking to achieve this, we must not lose sight of the role universities have in a much broader set of skills needed to overcome the ‘fake news’ era - namely, evidence-based analysis and independent thinking - very much in the spirit of Enlightenment empiricism and scepticism.


The primary role of education is not to teach facts and figures or prepare people for particular jobs. It is to teach our young people the skills necessary for evidence-based, fair and independent thought. And this can be taught in any field - philosophy or physics, economics or entrepreneurship, literature or law.

And we must also stand for and pass on the egalitarianism nature of our shared values - that no gender, creed, sexuality, or national identity has a monopoly on thought or a greater right to shape and grow these ideas. On the contrary, it is only in opening ourselves up to the ideas of others, to respect for others’ lived experience and to the intellectual strength that diversity brings that we can truly consider ourselves independent thinkers.


To do this, universities must champion intellectual honesty and transparency. Throughout their history, universities have at the very least benefited from and, at worst, been apologists for or active supporters of oppression and inequality. To be true moral and intellectual leaders, we must face up to this legacy honestly and willingly. The process of decolonising the curriculum is an important example of this.


Another comes from Reading. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, social media was awash not just in ‘thought and prayers’ but in self-serving, self-congratulatory back-patting. Reading stood apart. Yes, there was sympathy. Yes, there was condemnation. But Vice-Chancellor Robert Van de Noort and his senior team were also honest. They held a mirror up to themselves and admitted that that they too had progress to make. Robert launched the University’s Race Equality Review, led by Deputy Vice-Chancellor Parveen Yaqoob. This was first and foremost an exercise in listening to the real, unvarnished, lived truths of Black and ethnic minority staff and students. A genuinely reflective, non-defensive exercise in self-evaluation, it has led to a raft of recommendations that the University is now in the process of implementing.


Universities are powerful transition points for young people and have a role in helping support them to become constructive members of our community and the wider world. And to do so, we must live by as well as teach our values.


What then of my second task - developing and sharing skills, knowledge and resources?


As we know, but the wider public often does not, universities are homes of research, innovation and the ongoing development of knowledge. It was to the University of Reading, with expertise in food and nutrition, that I turned in the early days of Ella’s Kitchen. But it is also true that universities can be inward looking, slow to change, out of touch with the communities that surround them.


Development of knowledge for its own sake is important - I have always been a vocal advocate of the power of curiosity. But knowledge is at its most powerful when it has impact beyond academia, and even, ideally when it is co-created with the communities it works with.


Ideas are developed through exchange, discussion, debate and reassessment - the old Enlightenment ideals were based on a false notion that Europe alone had achieved universal truths. They have gained power as we have realised not just the importance of their universal application, but that they can be challenged, strengthened and expanded by those from outside the privileged elite that created them.


In our 21st century world, educational networks provide a global way of sharing and exchanging ideas and of learning from one another. Europe and the UK have much to learn from the rest of the world, for example about the difficult process of truth and reconciliation being undertaken by many of our Commonwealth friends.


What this points to is the power of trans-national education. Universities are often very diverse and multi-cultural places, but by cooperating internationally not just on research but in the business of sharing ideas, we expose ourselves and the young people we teach to more than we might otherwise see in our home community.


This sharing of knowledge across national and cultural boundaries has many benefits. Problems like climate change and pandemic illness do not observe national boundaries. So, our solutions too must be without boundary. No one nation, people or political party can solve these issues alone, but there are so many intuitional, political, economic and ideological barriers to genuine cross-border cooperation, to planning beyond the immediate political cycle. Universities have a critical role in overcoming these barriers and facilitating trans-national, cross-cultural exchanges of knowledge and expertise, in particular with those whose need is greatest but whose power and influence may be limited.


Beyond the practical sharing of knowledge, however, is the global sharing of values about which I’ve been speaking. Repression thrives through lies and misrepresentation, through victimisation and othering, through propaganda and false information. There are so many authoritarian regimes today that rely on the control of knowledge, and the role it plays in shaping social and political values.


The voice of opposition must come from universities working with civic society and business across borders to call out injustice and stand up for the open sharing of knowledge and ideas. As Russian writer and Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed in his essay against the Soviet state “Live Not by Lies”:


“[Y]ou will not be the first to take this path, but will join those who have already taken it. This path will be easier and shorter for all of us if we take it by mutual efforts and in close rank. If there are thousands of us, they will not be able to do anything with us. If there are tens of thousands of us, then we would not even recognize our country.”


And this leads to my third task - for universities to hold their ground as bastions of free expression and academic freedom.


At the heart of our role in confronting fake news, challenging polarisation and solving global problems is our ability to share ideas - our fundamental freedom of expression.


The protection and propagation of this freedom requires more than lip service - we must commit ourselves to it even where it is uncomfortable and challenging - in fact, particularly where it is uncomfortable and challenging. By shutting down rather than challenging ideas we find unpalatable, we create dogma, not truth. So much of public debate today is characterised by vicious, one-sided polemic. We suffer most from a lack of open middle-ground where people can genuinely debate ideas. We increasingly pride ourselves as a society on the unwavering, unquestioning, unnuanced defence of ideology. The response to different views is not debate, engagement and empathy - but trolling, dehumanisation and even violence.


University campuses are often the places where new ideas emerge - out of debate, challenge and disagreement not out of echo chambers. Think opposition to the Vietnam War in the US and more recently, opposition to the Ukrainian invasion by Russian academics and students.


In making this commitment, though, we must not unthinkingly fall into this intolerance and intransigence that we criticise. In this, I’m not making just another sound bite or stump speech. I’m not making an apology for single-minded ideology dressed up in the garb of freedom. Our determination that freedom of expression must thrive on our campuses, must come from genuine commitment not the kind of neo-conservative culture war often touted by political elites, driven by populism that embeds rather than challenges polarisation. We must ensure we create safe spaces and opportunities for all in a university community to challenge ourselves and our allies as much, if not more, than those with whom we disagree.


I do not claim expertise as an Enlightenment scholar or that what I’ve explored today is either novel or unique. What I want to do, however, is create a genuine call to action. To you - to us all.


We - as educators and committed supporters of this Enlightenment model - can no longer afford to see ourselves as neutral. It behoves us to live - and to operate our educational institutions - in a way that is not just true to but also advocates those values. And not just in how we educate our young people but in how we - and when their time comes, they - operate all the key institutions of our society - whether in education, government, or business. These are not conversations that should only take place in forums like this. They must take place in board rooms, in school governor meetings, in Westminster and Whitehall and every town hall in the Commonwealth, over family dinner tables and pints in the pub.


In short, we can no longer sit on the social and political fence.


Crucially, I am absolutely NOT advocating that universities align with a political party or ideology. Very much to opposite. We must speak truth to power no matter what colour rosette that power wears. We must actively encourage debate, and use our convening power to facilitate those exchanges. This is more than a simple market place of ideas, although John Stuart Mill was right that without challenge, ideas calcify into dogma. We must openly, actively and forcefully advocate for the application of these ideals to all fields of human endeavour. And we must educate the leaders, entrepreneurs, artists, philosophers, teachers and global citizens of tomorrow to do the same.


So, my three pillars that universities’ have a primary responsibility to build and maintain, in order to a support a more secure world are:


  1. Equipping young people for the future
  2. Developing and sharing skills and knowledge
  3. Defending free expression and exchange of ideas

I think each one can be wrapped in a broader responsibility to encourage, extend and build confidence in the spirit of youth. And all it has to offer. 


In doing so I am reminded of a speech my political hero Robert F Kennedy delivered at what is now a Commonwealth university, in Cape Town in 1966 - when he reflected on solving the problems of the world in his time.  Part of that speech included these words:-


“Our answer is the world's hope; it is to rely on youth. The cruelties and the obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present which is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger which comes with even the most peaceful progress. This world demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease.”


As I said at the start of this talk, I was honoured to be installed as the University of Reading’s new Chancellor last week and I gave my fist Chancellor’s speeches at its graduation ceremonies.  Perhaps it’s worth closing here with the advice I gave the young graduates, because I think its advice that each of us should seriously think deeply about as we find our own spirit of youth and ourselves seek that newer world that we encourage our young graduates to forge.  I said to them….


“Graduation is, in a way, the tradition of a right of passage into your adult life. But I would implore you, to hold on to some of your childhood, don’t leave it all behind as you walk out those doors and look forward. Nurture that childlike sense of imagination, free thinking, curiosity and self-confidence that has got you this far.  It WILL get you much further.


So, as you leave this Great Hall and this great university, and continue on your own journey, do remember to keep alive the spirit of youth that saw you through your time at school and your student days. Use it to question everything, to keep a sense of playfulness in your life, to stop you confirming simply for the sake of conforming - and to keep you… uniquely YOU.”


We as educators, can help to build communities, businesses and societies that are richer in ideas, opportunity and compassion - and we can start by doing so in our universities.  We can begin to put long-term social good over short-term profits, and challenge governments and businesses to do the same. And we can redefine our shared goals with humanity at the centre. And most importantly of all, we can equip our young people to build the world that is ultimately only limited only by their imagination.