Our University – Open to the World

Dateline: Shanghai

When I first came to China I knew nothing about it. I had taught some Chinese postgraduate students in Oxford, but the country itself was a vast mystery. My knowledge of China, like many of us, was gleaned from kung fu films and depictions of the life of the last emperor.

Beijing in 2005 and visiting Peking University transformed my view of the world. I was so disgusted at my own lack of understanding of this giant and still-emerging powerhouse that I started learning Chinese.

Little did I expect that ten years later I would be sitting in Hefei with the head of one of China's premier manufacturing companies, talking partly in Chinese about Sheffield's illustrious reputation in material science – a reputation which makes a leading-edge company wish to do research with us on the latest methods of making complex components for helicopters, planes and nuclear energy.

Little did I expect to be speaking in that same room about how our university might help train the next generation of young people in research, in engineering and manufacturing, and to extend this to excluded groups of Chinese youth as our own apprentice centre has done in Rotherham.

We share a love of ideas and research, translating into jobs and lives for young people. That's what Open to the World actually means, and it is what being a global university means. It is true global engagement.

On this trip I have benefitted from the work of a new team including Malcolm Butler, previously Faculty Director of Operations in Engineering; our new Director of Global Engagement Dorte Stevenson working in Global Opportunities; and Dr Lucy Zhao our Confucius Institute Director who has taken on a broader role of supporting partnerships in China. Now in Shanghai, we are talking to the Faculty of Engineering and Nuclear AMRC to see how these collaborations will fly.

The day before, we had met with China's leading engineering university, Shanghai Jiao Tong and signed a new agreement for student exchange. This partnership will however not only encompass engineering and science, but we discussed the ways we might collaborate in areas such as architecture, planning and landscape, and in history and the humanities more broadly.

This evening, scholars from Beijing University are flying to meet us to speak about creating a partnership backed by the Chinese government. And back in Sheffield our colleagues are hosting a visiting party from Tsinghua University to develop joint studentships with Imperial College and Manchester.

These are the top universities in China who – mindful of our reputation for engineering, material science and advanced manufacturing, but also of our considerable efforts to show that we are open to building relationships in this astonishing country – now want to partner with us in broader ways. I want to thank all of you for making us a place where this is a reality.

At the same time, sitting here in Shanghai, I have not forgotten our European colleagues across the whole university who have been so much part of this reputation and capability and who we must not lose. I want to thank the scholars who have taught international students from across the world, and particularly those who come to us from China who spread our reputation across this land.

The UK government is asking us at the moment to comment on its Industrial Strategy and I have taken the opportunity at the highest level to reinforce the message that, without the presence of international students and European scholars, there will be no industrial strategy for the United Kingdom.

People may think that we are swimming against a tide of narrowness and misunderstanding. But I feel confident that the new relationships we began to build long before the referendum vote and the initiatives we have with China will make it abundantly clear that we are a university that will need, demand and deserve continued investment from the UK government. We are also discovering that these values in action are acting as a magnet to new partners in our own country, with the information giant Microsoft drawn to our ambition and commitment to being truly international.

The work we are doing internationally is no sideline. It is utterly relevant to the work we do together. We are not only mourning the errors of nationalism which are engulfing so many nations at this time. We know that the best defence is attack. We are going out into the world and by doing so we will do good for our own university at home and the community which founded us.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett FRS