GCU Chancellor Professor Muhammad Yunus talks to Peter John Meiklem about his philosophy on education and how it can shape the future.
On a sunny day at Glasgow Caledonian University, Professor Muhammad Yunus turned conventional wisdom on its head.
In the speech which accompanied the Nobel Laureate’s installation as Chancellor of Glasgow Caledonian University in October 2012, he said that students should no longer be content to study hard and get the best job available to them. They should instead focus their talents on “big things”, namely unlocking their inherent entrepreneurialism and becoming “job givers, not job seekers.”
Returning to campus almost two years later for this year’s summer graduations, GCU’s Chancellor is more insistent than ever that his radical message to students, and to higher education in general, should be acknowledged, no matter how frightening it may seem.
“Students should be frightened − it’s the natural reaction. Nobody told them about this. For the first time there’s light outside and the students say, ‘oh my god, what’s light?’ I have lived all my life in the darkness, so light is a scary thing.
“Students have always been told, work hard, get a degree, then go get a job, and see if you can get the best job with the best company. They were never told they have creative power or that they can create their own businesses.”
As graduates, Professor Yunus believes students should use their skills, talents and experience to create the social businesses which will, in turn, generate the change required to improve the world, tackling poverty and other forms of inequality.
Professor Yunus’s views mirror his equally radical approach to finance. He has made his name making loans to the poor, helping millions to fight poverty in the process, even though banks and governments told him his ideas would not work.
The Chancellor continues to believe human ingenuity and talent, unfettered by bureaucracy, can solve the world’s most pressing problems − especially if that talent is properly supported by universities. “They must be a reservoir of knowledge which is useful to people − particularly the neighbours,” he says.
Professor Yunus’s academic career began at Chittagong University in Bangladesh, where he served as a Professor of Economics. It was not through academia, however, that he distinguished himself, but by making a loan of $27 in 1974 to 42 basket weavers who worked in villages next to his university. That gesture would ultimately grow into the Grameen Bank, the methods of which are now used in 59 countries, including the UK, to help families fight poverty. For this, he has been celebrated many times over, receiving the highest civilian honour bestowed by the US Congress, the Congressional Gold Medal, shortly after being installed as Chancellor of GCU. Not that his impressive roll call detracts from his determination to change the world from the ground up, rather than interpret it from the lofty position his celebrity allows (he appeared on the front cover of a Forbes magazine philanthropy issue with Bono and Bill Gates).
“I think universities have to be, by their very nature, close to people,” he says. “The ivory tower university is a meaningless thing. If you want to be relevant to people’s lives you’ve got to get involved, you’ve got to wet your feet and find out what this is all about.” He likens the effective university to a doctor who cures a patient, in the process helping the patient and widening the doctor’s pool of knowledge. Learning for learning’s sake, it appears, is not in the Professor’s textbook.
GCU fits in this tradition, he says. The University’s commitment to the common good meshing seamlessly with his own faith in the university that “wants to get involved in action.”
He explains he knew nothing about GCU until he met the Principal and Vice- Chancellor Professor Pamela Gillies, who was interested in his work and “wanted to get things done rather than sit there and be nice.”
Professor Yunus accepted an honorary degree from GCU in 2010. His relationship with the University, and its Principal, deepened and he was installed as Chancellor in October 2012. When he opened the New York campus last year, he told guests he had “fallen in love” with the University.
In particular, he is impressed by the way microcredit, and the ethos behind social business, have been embedded in the curriculum, by the way GCU ‘walks the walk’ through initiatives such as the widening participation and community engagement initiative the Caledonian Club and by running the Grameen Caledonian College of Nursing in Bangladesh.
“It [GCU] gives me inspiration that a university can be orientated to creating a new kind of framework, a new kind of world… it’s not one whimsical stab and let’s forget all about it. It’s a continuous effort in trying to redesign and reshape the minds of young people.”
For him, the introduction of the Grameen system of microcredit in the UK, which the University has been facilitating since 2010, is a further example of a university looking at the problems around it and doing its best to solve them.
“Glasgow needs microcredit very badly as there’s lots of unemployment and welfare dependent people,” says Professor Yunus.
“If the University has nothing to do with these people then its knowledge looks good in the books but it has absolutely nothing to do with people’s lives.”
And for him, this is a bottom-up, global revolution, fuelled not by the grand plans of leaders such as himself, but by young people, students, and their desire to build a better world. He says universities must pay attention to this change, or pay the price.
“Young people are not satisfied bysimply learning chemistry, biology or history − they ask about the future. So you’ve to tell them what maths has got to do with building the future or what physics has to do with the future of the world they want to live in. Universities will have to find ways to make themselves relevant to young people.
“It’s a process that’s showing up − it’s not happening everywhere − but young people want to know what relevance their education has in their life. Is it just a piece of paper at the end of their studies or is it because young people are preparing for something?”
Professor Muhammad Yunus answers his own question of course. In a way, his whole life has been an answer to it. And it’s an answer he hopes all GCU students, and young people, can emulate.