Talking leadership 8: Anthony Finkelstein on lessons from government

The City president discusses his personal ties to the institution, the opportunities and threats universities pose to national security, and self-indulgence in higher education

January 11, 2022
Anthony Finkelstein
Source: City, University of London

When Anthony Finkelstein first started as the UK government’s chief scientific advisor for national security someone told him they were going to “crack on” with a task. “I've been 30 years in academia, nobody has ever cracked on with anything.”

After five and a half years in Westminster, Finkelstein has returned to higher education as president of City, University of London. Having also forayed into the world of technology start-ups, the computer scientist believes universities have much to learn from government and the digital domain.

Sitting in his light-filled office in Clerkenwell, complete with a framed photo of the Queen on the wall, Finkelstein discusses the lessons he took from government, the opportunities and threats universities pose to national security, and his family connection to City. He also predicts seismic changes hurtling down the line for higher education.

“To be a good leader of a university you need to both have a deep immersion in how universities work and are managed, but actually also standing outside it. You need a little bit of both,” Finkelstein says.

“This sounds disobliging, and it’s not intended to be, but one thing I think is that [if] you spend a little bit of time outside academia you realise there’s quite a lot of self-indulgence in academia,” he says. During his time in the defence and security area of government, he was surrounded by “quite a lot of grounded, pragmatic people. And sometimes those are in shorter supply in academia.”

“I do like that get on with it [attitude], that grounded, pragmatic, let's do it [approach]. It might not be 100 per cent right, but we’ll do it. A little bit of absence of preciousness that sometimes we are guilty of in academia,” he adds.

“I just quite like working in a setting where people crack on.”

Public service duty
When the opportunity to work for government came knocking, Finkelstein couldn’t get to the door quick enough. “I gave it about five milliseconds of serious consideration.”

He saw it as part of his public service duty, his deep commitment he attributes in part to being the son of immigrants, Polish Jews who came to the UK to escape Nazism. His efforts were rewarded with a knighthood in the most recent New Year Honours list.

Much of the national security work he cracked on with he cannot discuss – at one point he asks to switch the dictaphone off so he can solemnly explain this – but he does stress the indispensable role of research. “The UK's future prosperity and security rests in significant part on its scientific capabilities – both to deliver prosperity [and] to deliver hard and soft power.”

If this was not clear before the pandemic, it certainly is now, he says. “While scientists collaborated, states competed over access to supply chains. While some states innovated and developed novel vaccines…others did not and sought to use other tools of the state.”

“Enough,” he says, when asked to elaborate, implying we are straying too close to an issue of national security he is not at liberty to discuss.

Finkelstein played an important role in cementing the centrality of science and tech via his contribution to the government’s post-Brexit integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy – a document that puts science and technology slap bang in the centre of foreign policy. But what does this mean for the university sector?

Again, he cannot go into detail but says that “if higher education finds itself a central part of a geopolitical contest, we then need to be aware of the threats posed potentially by adversaries. And that ranges across the whole gamut of things from direct theft of intellectual property at one end, to the assertion of malign influence at the [other] end.”

In November 2021, Finkelstein wrote on his blog – which covers a range of topics, from computing and university life to religion and Masterchef – that in return for the £20 billion government funding for research and development, academics should “not give away knowledge, in the pursuit of which the UK taxpayer has invested millions, for a small, supposedly unrestricted, donation from a Chinese corporation”.

He was being jocular, he says, but he does believe individuals and institutions have a duty to “take care”. That taxpayers’ cash could have been spent elsewhere, therefore academics “must be careful in our partnering with an eye to the interests of those who have funded us”.

Others have put the China issue in more certain terms; a report by the former universities minister, Lord Johnson of Marylebone, published in March 2021 points out that China will soon usurp the US to become the UK’s most important research partner and calls for a “robust framework” from government outlining how higher education should engage with the increasingly powerful nation. Does Finkelstein agree?

He defends the government, saying it has already “taken significant steps”, but concedes “there is probably more to do”.

“There is of course a limit to what government can do…it may well be that the R&D and university community will themselves have to take significant responsibilities,” he adds.

Perhaps the UK needs to beef up the number of experts on China? Finkelstein declines to single out one country, saying “government will require significantly more global expertise, particularly in Asia and the Pacific”.

The future of higher education
“I believe that in 10 years you will not recognise higher education as a result of the digital disruption we are seeing,” Finkelstein says.

He is not sure exactly how it will be different – citing the principle that it’s easy to overestimate what will happen in the next two years and underestimate the next 10 – but he does think education will be “more digitally mediated”, hyper-personalised and analytics-driven; business processes will be delivered at speed and scale; the campus will change “beyond recognition”; and “the boundaries between home, university workplaces and things like that will dissolve”.

Finkelstein believes higher education has much to learn from the technology sector’s iterative approach.

“Knock on the door of any digital business and say ‘Hi, I've come here from a business that takes two and a half years to innovate in its main line of business’ – which is what it takes a typical university to do – and they’ll look you straight in the eye and say, ‘You're going to go broke.’”

Tech principles such as working at speed, failing fast, pivoting, and minimal viable products all influence his approach, and he hopes he can help City get ahead of the curve on digital transformation.

He is currently developing his strategy, a key part of which will be projecting City’s distinctive identity.

“City's really unusual in the sense that it is both oriented to skills, the profession, vocation, and social mobility, but it is also a research-centred institution,” he says.

“We’re not just another plate glass institution. Many institutions struggle for their identity; we don't.”

He is especially proud of City’s contribution to social mobility – “it’s profoundly important”– but he doesn’t see it as something every university needs to focus on: “Different universities have different missions. And that’s right.” In fact, he is concerned that the “sector has become extraordinarily homogenising, driven by a narrow sense of what a university is,” which is, he believes, driven by league tables.

A family affair
Finkelstein became president at City in June 2021 but he was no newcomer to the university: he had previously been head of computer science from 1994 to 1997 and before that had walked the corridors as a young child with his father Ludwik Finkelstein, an eminent professor of engineering who served as pro vice-chancellor.

“He was a key part of the foundation of the university…what they call a City icon,” Finkelstein says. “I loved my father deeply and respected him enormously.”

Perhaps that was part of Finkelstein’s draw to City? Emphatically not. “It would be deeply wrong, it would’ve been a very bad mistake to want to do this role because my dad did this role,” he says, but “I like it now I’m here.”

Relearning success
As he re-enters the world of academia, Finkelstein’s biggest personal lesson from his government days is, he says, the relative nature of the rules of success.

“If you do something, and [to] set modesty aside, are reasonably successful at it, you tend to think that is the way things are done in the world. That’s how things are done, that is how one is successful, that is what makes one effective. And then when you move to a different setting, you suddenly realise that much of that is contingent upon that individual set of circumstances,” he says.

“You have to relearn how to be and how to engage and how to interact in a new setting. And that is a very important experience. And it has shaped me significantly.”

Quick facts

Born: London, 1959 

Academic qualifications: BEng in manufacturing engineering from the University of Bradford; MSc in systems engineering from the London School of Economics; PhD in systems engineering from the Royal College of Art

Lives with: His wife and cat. He has two grown sons.

Academic hero: “My dad.”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

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