Imagine, for a moment, a global gathering of university leaders somewhere in rural England. The gathering is addressed by the Queen and by Nicola Sturgeon. Both talk in engaged and committed terms about the strategic importance of universities in economic growth, social cohesion and change leadership. There’s a reception after the event, and both remain to engage with the participants.
This more or less is what happened at the quadrennial Santander Universities conference in Salamanca. For the last eighteen months or so Sheffield Hallam has been a Santander university partner, thanks to the initiative of Deborah Harry, our Chief Finance and Planning Officer. Generous support from Santander helps us to further develop student enterprise and community engagement. Indeed, Hallam’s participation in the global network, and the eloquent advocacy of James Johnston- who leads our development team- on their advisory board, has helped to push the agenda to social mobility and widening participation. Two weeks ago, Santander drew together its almost 700 partner universities from around the world. The convening power was remarkable: the gathering was addressed by the King of Spain and the President of Portugal, both of whom spoke, and engaged with participants as outlined above, and by the Secretary-General of UNESCO. It drew a genuinely global audience of rectors, presidents and vice-chancellors, including thirty-five vice-chancellors from the UK, stretching (alphabetically) from Abertay to Wolverhampton via Exeter, Hallam and UCL.
Salamanca was one of the great universities of medieval Europe; 2018 marks its eight hundredth anniversary, and it reaches still around all the winding medieval sandstone streets of the city. The concept of international law was virtually invented in the university. Its academics were asked to provide expert assessments of Christopher Columbus’ wild schemes for exploration. The first universities of the Americas were modelled on the university. But Salamanca became a backwater. Jan Morris, in her book on Spain which catches, elegantly, the spirit of the country, says that it ‘is a lovely city, but like many lovely Spanish things it is sad. Its glories are dormant. Its university, once the third in Europe, is now classed as the seventh in Spain and seems to have no life in it’. There were few students in evidence – one approached me to ask, fruitlessly, for a light for her cigarette. She declined, whilst agreeing with my suggestion that it would be much better if she gave up the habit. The skyline is dominated now not by the university, but by the twin cathedrals of the town, so close together that from a distance they appear to be one building, sitting on the city’s skyline like an ocean liner squeezed onto a riverside mooring. The combination of the Counter-Reformation, centuries of the Spanish Inquisition and then four decades of General Franco snuffed out the liveliness of the free-thinking university. The city is now difficult enough to get to: two hours or more across what seems (at least in a bus) like an endless Spanish plain, and it is at best a beautiful backdrop.
For the Spanish and Latin American universities at the conference, the agenda was ‘Ibero-American’: the cultural network of the Hispanic world, a reference point for almost all the Spanish speakers. Brexit was mentioned just once from the conference platform, and then by the OECD secretary-general as an example of how things can go wrong when universities do not lead public debate. Elsewhere, the themes of the conference were recognisably familiar: resources (inevitably not enough of them), the importance of research and teaching to the mission of the university and the necessary (but always demanding) effort to ensure they fertilise each other, the significance of universities’ engagement with a world beyond – which is all too often willing to ignore them, and the potential (and pitfalls) of technology – at its most powerful when used in support of the university’s mission. I talked to three Latin American university rectors, on the steps of the new – sixteenth century – cathedral and the issues we swapped were the issues of universities everywhere: budgets and technologies, connecting the different parts of the university’s mission, engaging policy-makers in long-term thinking.
Salamanca provided a salutary reminder of the power of global perspectives in universities. It’s easy to become bogged down in the day-to-day challenges of the English university world: put thirty-five UK vice-chancellors together and the conversation inevitably turns to things like the post-18 funding review, the TEF and the REF, and the industrial strategy.
While I was in Salamanca, our Prime Minister made an important speech about science and the industrial strategy – Roger Eccleston attended for Sheffield Hallam – in which she confirmed the government’s enthusiasm for staying in (and contributing to) the European Union’s science and research programmes. As Salamanca attests, it is all too easy for places once driven by inquiry and knowledge to lose their confidence by turning away from the world. The Prime Minister’s commitment, and, in its different way, the Santander Rectors’ Conference are a reminder of the importance of open engagement. The wider network brought a global perspective – to adapt a phrase, universities around the world have more in common than divides us.
On my way back from Salamanca, I stopped off in Madrid. There, I spent the evening meeting with a diverse, engaging and lively group of Sheffield Hallam alumni. Former students of Engineering, Business, English, Languages and so on, some who’d worked in Madrid for two decades or more, some relatively newly settled there, working in property, hospitality, tax, consultancy, and all of them engaging with, and shaping, the world.