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The Global Business of higher Education


Interview with Dr. Indira V. Samarasekera (April 8, 2011)

Dr. Indira Samarasekera

‘Germany can learn from Canada’s openness towards new ideas and people’, says Dr. Indira V. Samarasekera, the President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Alberta - one of Canada’s leading teaching and research universities. Dr. Samarasekera recently visited Germany to further a partnership between the University of Alberta and the German Helmholtz Association based on a number of energy environmental projects. lemmens online sat down with Dr. Samarasekera to discuss modern higher education policy, global research challenges and international competition for the brightest scientific minds: “Today, and in the foreseeable future, we are going to be in a war for talent. Countries will succeed or fail based on the quality of their human talent.”

Curd Knüpfer conducted this interview for lemmens online. He was assisted by Erik Paschen and Manfred Ronzheimer.

lemmens online: Welcome to Berlin. You just toured Adlershof Technology Park. Did you learn anything new, were you impressed with what you saw?

Dr. Samarasekera: I was very impressed because it was an example of how outstanding science, conducted by scientists in a range of physical science disciplines, was harnessed with technology and people who understood what it takes to nurture new ideas into new companies. While there are many places in the world where people have done this successfully, this technology park was an example where there had been a thoughtful experiment conducted over 15 years that was beginning to demonstrate results. It involved a university; it involved research laboratories of the German government. And it involved the private sector and a very sophisticated management structure.

What are some of Helmholtz’s research fields that also interest you?

We have chosen to work in the area “energy environment”, particularly around the question of sustainability which is very important to Germans and to Canadians. We are working in areas such as Carbon Capture and Storage, areas around geo-thermal, and around heavy oil upgrading to reduce energy impact.

But isn’t this is very much oriented towards mainly the sustainability of the traditional energy sources and not as much towards renewables?

If we look at the energy situation in the world, certainly for the next 20 years, we have to manage the carbon emissions from hydro carbons. They cannot be replaced overnight. There are still a large number of coal fire plants for power generation around the world and of course countries like India and China are heavily dependent on coal. So this is about solutions for global challenges.

Speaking of universities getting involved with research and industry – would you say that this is a new type, a modern type, of university that involves itself in planning like this?

Universities are about talent and ideas – they have always been about talent and ideas. The difference is we have entered an epic period in human history, where economic growth and social innovation depends entirely on talent and ideas. Universities are required to be engines of innovation in a way that they haven’t been in the past. What is important is that universities identify the ideas, protect the intellectual property, give the professors and students the time to take those ideas and create companies.

So what would you say makes a university not just modern but perhaps even excellent?

There are enormous transformations taking place in society: People are connected, ideas are connected. And there is also an enormous economic power shift taking place from the western world to the eastern world. At the University of Alberta, we said we want to be one of the world’s great public universities and we are going to get there by giving students outstanding opportunities for learning, discovery and citizenship. Everybody has to learn how to learn. On the research side, we allow professors to have the freedom to pursue their own interests. However, we also believe, as a great global university, we must contribute to a few grand challenges. And so we have undertaken to strategically identify areas where we can make a difference and bring researchers around those challenges.

But who is to say what those global ‘grand challenges’ are? Where does the impulse come from?

I think there has to be a push and pull. I’ll give you an example: We have a professor who developed a vaccine for hepatitis B. But he developed that vaccine in partnership with GlaxoSmithKline, a pharmaceutical company. So there is a case of push from our professor, but a pull by the company. And then along comes a global philanthropist, Mr. Lee Ka Shing, an Asian billionaire. He’s given out billions of dollars in research funding because he wants the global community to work on problems that are relevant to China. So last year, he gave us a gift of 28 million dollars with the requirement to partner with a university in China to undertake studies jointly in areas like hepatitis C and other infectious diseases.

But is that really a model? Do you sometimes have the feeling that it’s more of a push and less of a pull than you would like it to be?

A modern university cannot operate without a good, competitive state support. Certainly not in countries like Canada or Germany that have certain social values around public education and access to universities for the average citizen. When you go above and beyond those basic investments, when it comes to research, then the funding could be a range of sources. It could start from basic research funding from governments, because governments are more likely to fund what we call “blue skies research” out of which might come unexpected discoveries. Universities and the private sector haven’t quite figured out how to work together globally. There are some universities who do it better than others. And in some universities the tradition has been, not to engage the private sector for fear of having the research sector too directed towards short term industry needs. You have to guard against that. Universities are not about the short term, but the long term.

Would you say that competition is a good thing?

Competition produces excellence. Universities will compete for students, they compete for research funding, and they compete for professors. That’s part of the business that we’re in. But as Canadian universities, we are competing with many other countries for international students. They are going to come from countries like China or India. It makes very little sense for each Canadian university to mount a national recruitment campaign in India. It’s much better to collaborate. Why not use the Canadian brand to go and then get students and let them decide whether they want to go to the University of Alberta or the University of Toronto? On the research side, I’ve also been promoting the importance of national strategies and research partnerships to solve challenges with Canadian universities and international industry.

In Germany there are plans to create federally backed and funded universities, “Bundesuniversitäten” with bigger budgets that should enable them to compete on an international level. Would you say it’s better to have a broad spectrum of excellence, or several elite pole positions that attract people to the country?

A university can’t be outstanding across the board. A natural weeding is going to take place in the university world. It has already happened. There are elite universities that have hundreds of years of history that are now leading the world. Countries like Germany and Canada must invest, such that they have an adequate number of absolutely top class universities that can compete with the absolute top class in the world. Today, and in the foreseeable future, we are going to be in a war for talent. Countries will succeed or fail based on the quality of their human talent. Having said that, I don’t think it should be about entitlement. I decide you’re going to be a federal university and I start shoveling money in your direction. I don’t think it’s that simple. The universities should be expected to compete for additional resources, which is what the German ‘excellence initiative’ is all about. Additional resources based on some very clear strategic goals, and then they should be measured. And if the university does not measure up, they should be off the list.

So does a modern university have to conduct itself or start thinking the way a big company would?

Yes, in many respects they are a business. As university leaders, we don’t like to think of ourselves as businesses, but we are. Many of us have a budget of 2-3 billion dollars; we have populations of 50 000 on our campuses; we have to attract money and we have to be good stewards of resources in order to demonstrate a social return on investment. But we also need to recognize that academia operates on long-term horizons and thrives when there is intellectual freedom.

Comparing Germany and Canada, where could one side maybe learn from the other?

Canada can learn from Germany lessons around how you’ve been so successful in creating knowledge based enterprises, building a manufacturing sector and sustaining it for a long time. Whether it’s your automotive sector or it’s your energy sector.

Germany might find some lessons from Canada on how we deal with people of many cultures and customs; how we integrate them into the labor force, how we manage some of the tensions that result from people of different cultures with different customs coming into Canada. Germany can learn from that because ultimately, both countries will thrive based on how well they nurture human talent and how well they equip people to compete in a new world. Everything we learn from one another, if it contributes to that goal, then we’ll be ahead and if we don’t, we’ll fall behind.

Thank you for taking the time.



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