Interview: Imperial College president hails China link, urges collaboration

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LONDON, July 24 (Xinhua) — President of Imperial College London Alice Gast has spoken highly of the college’s link to China, and urged more cooperation and collaboration between the Chinese and British institutions.

CHINA CONNECT

With less than 17,000 students on its books, just under half of them undergraduates the rest postgrads, Imperial has proved to be a magnet for Chinese students and researchers.

Imperial more than punches its weight when it comes to attracting students from China. It helps that Imperial is number one when it comes to collaborations with Chinese universities.

Gast told Xinhua in a recent interview: “We really greatly benefit from a tremendous number of Chinese students, currently 2,600, coming to study here at Imperial. They’re exceedingly bright and clever, and there’s a great opportunity here for them, especially as the world is becoming much more interconnected. We have opportunities to really drive innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Having such an international community at Imperial is a great asset, added Gast, explaining: “I think that our students who come from abroad really benefit from that mixture not only of all the UK and European students, but students from all over the world. You see that in the things that they do and programs they follow.”

Imperial has a large number of entrepreneurs among its alumni, though Gast said what has now changed is the fast pace of technology development and opportunity.

“Our biggest mechanism of technology transfer are the brilliant students that come out of our universities, some of them going to start up and some going to companies, taking up what they’ve learned and their new ideas, to help shape industries and other sectors,” said Gast.

Imperial is able to offer more and more opportunities for students to pursue entrepreneurship, through initiatives such as its innovation program for women entrepreneurs and we a major catalyst challenge with a place for students to come and learn from one another and also from mentors.

“What is so exciting is that if you look at our most successful entrepreneurial ventures, they’re mostly international there’ll be a Chinese student and a British student and another European student working together. That mixture of cultures and backgrounds and perspectives gives you much more fruitful innovations,” Gast said.

With 7,000 Imperial alumni in China, there are three very active alumni associations and a very strong growing network growing, with many entrepreneurial alumni in China pursuing their own companies.

Gast said that the alumni in China can give back is connecting with today’s students both as role models and mentors themselves, as well as being connections when Imperial students want to go to China. And it’s not only Imperial’s Chinese students who benefit from that network, but all students attracted to China, including those thinking China might be the place where they’d like to launch their start-up or expand into the Chinese market, and so our alumni network is very beneficial for that.

Gast has visited the lab at Tsinghua University in China, saying some of Imperial’s entrepreneurial students will go over there, and some of theirs will come to Imperial. It is a prime example of academic collaboration that Gast encourages.

“We learn from one another, what the best practices are, and sometimes some good ideas come out that we want to do together,” said Gast.

REFORMS AND OPENING UP

China has seen a huge transformation since its opening up to the world 40 years ago, said Gast, adding the world has benefited from Chinese students coming into outside communities and cultures.

“At the same time we’ve also benefited from it being open and being able to explore and understand the rich heritage and the culture of China,” added Gast.

It’s grown, she says, from being one where it would have been driven by alumni of an individual university as an expatriate Chinese in the West making connects back into China, to now seeing Chinese universities as being attractors to all kinds of collaborators, even those who don’t speak Mandarin.

As for the next 40 years, Gast believes China will continue to thrive, especially if the openness and collaboration is maintained.

“I do think that the entrepreneurial efforts and the opportunities to bring people together to pursue new technologies, to solve Grand Challenge problems, and continuing collaboration is so important in the future,” said Gast.

SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL

Gast is President of the college which traces its lineage back to the 19th century. Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, envisaged the creation of a cultural area in London composed of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, and the Imperial Institute.

It was in 1888, more than a quarter of a century after her husband’s death, that Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone for the Imperial Institute.

Today it is ranked among the top universities around the globe, the only high-ranking university in Britain to focus exclusively on science, medicine, engineering and business.

If any top-ranking higher academic institute proves the old saying “small is beautiful” it is Imperial, punching its weight in numerous external rankings against much bigger world universities.

As universities across the world strive to become bigger, Imperial is way down the list, especially when compared with the more than 160,000 enrolled at the University of London, the biggest higher education combine in Britain.

So if big might be good and small is beautiful, can a university maintain its own characteristics by becoming bigger or is it better to remain individually independent, but smaller?

Gast replies that whatever the size, universities need to maintain their own characteristics.

“I think one of the great benefits is to have a diversity of opportunities, and a diversity of types of institutions where different students will thrive in different ways,” said Gast.

Larger universities, with their benefits of scale and their broader sets of opportunities, while there are smaller more focused universities.

“I think that no matter how large or small you are, there are natural sizes for thriving research groups,” said Gast, adding she sees a lot of multidisciplinary challenges where academics collaborate across disciplines, and still end up then with a group that’s kind of a natural set of colleagues that they affiliate with.

Gast agrees that the pursuance of excellence has nothing to do with the size of a university, saying it’s important to measure excellence on all of its measures, not just by quantity.

POST-BREXIT

As for Brexit and Britain’s future outside the EU, Gast said after Brexit if EU citizen are considered as international foreigners, Britain needs good immigration policies.

“I’ve been a strong supporter of international student visas, but also entrepreneur graduate entrepreneur visas,” said Gast.

She wants opportunities for collaborators and top research programs to have free movement or access through other mechanisms and immigration policies.

“I still believe that needs to happen so London and Britain, and Imperial, can remain a magnet for talent.”

Gast wants to be able to bring in people from all over the world, including China, not because of a new agreement, but because Britain has had immigration policies that allowed universities to bring in international students and scholars.

Uncertainties surrounding Brexit are the most damaging thing because people are wondering and worried about what’s going to happen.

“We definitely study all the possible scenarios, and we have worked very hard to make sure we’re building and maintaining our ties to Europe,” said Gast, “we’re talking to many others in other countries to make sure we can still collaborate across the borders, no matter how the borders have set up.”

As for the age of robots, will Imperial, famed for its scientific research, ever see AI replacing its lecturers and tutors?

Gast said she does not see machines taking over the lecture halls in the future.

When does she expect the first AI teacher to appear at the university?

“I think we will have AI partners for teachers, and we will have teachers who will make great use of AI, and that will be wonderful because they can allow the human teacher to focus on what they’re really good at, and augment their understanding of the group,” said Gast.