Global leaders gather at NUS for THE Summit

From left: Prof Tan, Prof Lin, Prof Fortier, Prof Guzzella and Dr Hon during a panel session at the THE World Academic Summit 2018 co-hosted by NUS

More than 500 senior leaders from over 200 institutions who flew in from 53 countries across the globe converged at NUS University Town from 25 to 27 September for the largest ever Times Higher Education (THE) World Academic Summit 2018, co-hosted by NUS. 

Delegates were given the opportunity to hear from more than 70 distinguished speakers in academia, government and industry on issues aligned with the Summit’s theme of “The transformative power of research: advancing knowledge, driving economies, building nations”. This included engaging speeches, masterclasses, breakout sessions and panel discussions on topics such as the role of research universities in continuing education, how universities can encourage entrepreneurship as a driver of growth, the importance of cross-border collaborations, and how to address some of the most pressing challenges and opportunities faced by world-class universities in the 21st century. 

NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye said that universities would have to bridge two roles — as knowledge pioneers, and as collaborators in a wider ecosystem, working with diverse stakeholders to ensure that advances are fully leveraged for maximum benefit across society. “A key approach would be to nurture deep and broad networks of collaboration and partnership with stakeholders, as well as overseas unversities, both within the region and globally. By doing so, we broaden our perspectives, develop new competencies and expand our opportunities to benefit society and advance nations. The World Academic Summit is thus an ideal platform to strengthen and renew our common bonds of friendship and common purpose,” he said.

“Are we facing the edge of a new phase of human history? We probably are. But we should always be. That’s what the transformative power of research, the theme of this Summit, really is about…so this is the perfect environment for us to dissect and debate how we can steer the transformations in positive directions,” added CEO of THE Mr Trevor Barratt. 


Prof Tan and Mr Barratt 

Nobel Laureate and Vice-Chancellor of Australian National University Professor Brian Schmidt delivered the opening keynote on the role of research universities in translating knowledge into real-world impact. The core of a university’s value to society, he said, is to increase our stock of knowledge, for it is from this stock of knowledge that new ideas, technological revolutions and societal transformation emerge. 

“This unfiltered pursuit of knowledge, I argue, is the building block of all that we do and we must continue to fight all attempts that seek to hinder its pursuit if we are going to be able to advance prosperity for all…Business as usual has its place, but it should be surrounded by bold thinking, risk-taking and the pursuit of new ideas…More than anything, universities going forward must place themselves at the epicentre of society and guide the transformations that must occur if humanity is to achieve a globally sustainable future. I’m afraid the alternative, for me, is not worth contemplating,” said Prof Schmidt in a powerful message to the audience.

This was followed by a panel discussion chaired by Prof Tan, with panellists Professor Suzanne Fortier, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University; Professor Lino Guzzella, President of ETH Zürich; Dr Hon Hsiao-Wuen, Corporate Vice-President of Microsoft Asia-Pacific R&D Group; and Professor Lin Jianhua, President of Peking University sharing examples of the approaches they have adopted in their own institutions to create new impact.

A key approach would be to nurture deep and broad networks of collaboration and partnership with stakeholders, as well as overseas unversities, both within the region and globally. By doing so, we broaden our perspectives, develop new competencies and expand our opportunities to benefit society and advance nations. The World Academic Summit is thus an ideal platform to strengthen and renew our common bonds of friendship and common purpose.

Singapore Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung further spoke about this need for new ways of thinking in a dialogue session moderated by NUS Senior Deputy President and Provost Professor Ho Teck Hua. Societies face similar challenges, he said, driven by the same deep global forces that manifest locally. The days of growing through population increase are over; it needs to be driven by innovation and productivity instead.

“From foreign direct investment coming and setting up factories to make things, we have to create things from research and development and entrepreneurship coming out of universities and industries…In that kind of environment you are constantly on the move, you are constantly understanding your customers, building new products and services and being at the forefront of technology…You learn for life,” said Mr Ong.


Mr Ong (right) in a dialogue session with Prof Ho 

In another panel discussion, CEO of NUS Enterprise Dr Lily Chan touched on how universities can partner industries and governments for economic growth. She was joined by Professor Lily Kong, Provost at Singapore Management University who chaired the session; Professor Bernd Huber, President of LMU Munich; Professor Robert Morris, NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine; and Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of University of Cambridge. 

“If we can solve a challenge — it doesn’t have to be global, it can be a small localised challenge — by utilising expertise and technologies from all the partnerships that all of us have, that would be one way how governments, universities and corporations in the region can pull together to solve something,” said Dr Chan. 

On how universities could align their research policies with national innovation strategies while maintaining space for fundamental research, Professor Wong Poh Kam, Senior Director of NUS Entrepreneurship Centre said that the dichotomy of basic versus applied research is “too simplistic”. 

“You need to have excellent science to produce significant impact. You never know if applications 20 years from now will be based on fundamental science. Therefore, we need both basic and applied research,” said Prof Wong, during the breakout session, which also sought the views of Professor Asma Ismail, Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia; Professor Jay Lee from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology; and Professor Low Teck Seng, CEO of National Research Foundation Singapore.

A final segment on the rise of Asian universities saw THE Editor Mr John Gill and President of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology Professor Tony Chan discuss the exponential improvements in education and research by Asian universities over the last decade and the challenges ahead.

This was capped by a panel discussion chaired by Professor Kishore Mahbubani, NUS Senior Advisor (University & Global Relations) and involving Prof Asma; Professor Devang Khakhar, Director of the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai; and Professor San Ling, Provost of Nanyang Technological University.

Prof Mahbubani highlighted the heightened sense of one’s own cultural identity that he found evident in Asia, saying, “I think it’s this explosion of cultural confidence in Asia that is going to drive Asian universities to try and do exceptionally well in some areas.”


The Summit was attended by more than 500 delegates from 53 countries

A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between NUS and Microsoft during the Summit for the application of artificial intelligence (AI) to bolster research capabilities. NUS will leverage the Microsoft Academic Graph and AI technology to enable its researchers to extract and analyse knowledge embedded in various publications’ data for streamlined research processes and better insights. The technology giant also signed an MoU with AI Singapore, chaired by Prof Ho, to foster greater AI skills among the current and future workforce to allow more people to participate fully in the digital economy.

This year also saw the introduction of the THE Leadership Survey workshop where Mr Gill presented the results of a landmark survey which asked the leaders of 1,100 universities for their views on the academic, political and technological trends they believe will shape higher education over the next 12 years. The results showed that by and large, most university leaders put helping students to excel as their top priority, and agreed that the future would see the entry of more mature learners, more applied research, and a greater emphasis on science and technological disciplines. 

Also revealed at the event during a special Gala Dinner for guests held on 26 September at The Fullerton Hotel Singapore was the THE World University Rankings 2019. NUS was ranked an impressive 23rd worldwide. Chief Knowledge Officer of THE Mr Phil Baty said that the data shows that NUS is one of the most innovative and dynamic universities in the world. “NUS has outstanding scores across all of THE’s core metrics, but it has one of the highest scores of all universities in the elite world top 30 for international outlook, demonstrating that NUS is a magnet for global talent, and a highly sought-after research partner for universities across the world. This is proven not just by the data, but by the fact that 500 top university leaders, as well as industry and government figures, gathered at NUS this week for the THE World Academic Summit — the biggest world summit in the five-year history of the event.”

The next THE World Academic Summit will be held in partnership with ETH Zürich in Switzerland from 10 to 12 September 2019 with the theme “How talent thrives”.


NUSChoir performing at the Gala Dinner held for delegates at The Fullerton Hotel Singapore