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Stephen Toope, director of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, says his success speaks to the strength of the Canadian postsecondary system.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Stephen Toope, director of the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, is set to become the next leader of Cambridge University, taking the helm of one of the world's most prestigious institutions at a tumultuous time for Britain's higher-education sector.

Dr. Toope, an international legal scholar and past president of the University of British Columbia, is the first non-Briton to be nominated as vice-chancellor at the 800-year-old institution.

"The U.K. is trying to assess the impact of Brexit and what it means for the research relationship that crosses the channel," said Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada. "To have someone like [Dr. Toope], who is a bridge builder, someone who has the qualities of tenacity and diplomacy, is a very timely appointment."

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While he was circumspect about what his goals would be at Cambridge, Dr. Toope, who earned a PhD from the institution in 1987, said he would reach out to another expat, former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, who was appointed to head the Bank of England in 2013. "I know Mark Carney, not well, but I look forward to having a chat with him because he can no doubt give me lots of insight into working with U.K. society," he said.

Cambridge counts more Nobel Prize winners among the ranks of its alumni and faculty than any other university and consistently falls within the top five spots on global rankings tables. But it is now facing competition from universities in the United States and Asia, which can rely on huge endowments or government funding.

Along with criticism that it has not sufficiently increased the number of students it accepts from public schools, it must also weather the immediate budgetary and philosophical threat posed by Britain's decision to leave the European Union.

About a quarter of students at Cambridge come from outside Britain, as well as more than a fifth of its staff, and it receives about £50-million ($85-million) in European research grants.

"In the whole process of selection, [Brexit] was an issue that we discussed extensively," Dr. Toope said. "I think it's going to challenge the university sector in the United Kingdom. On the other hand, there are always opportunities that present themselves in a time of change and we are going to look for those opportunities."

When it began the search for its next vice-chancellor, Cambridge said it was looking for someone who would demonstrate academic and administrative leadership and could engage "fully in philanthropy" and had a "strong global perspective."

At UBC, where he was president from 2006 to 2014, Dr. Toope launched a $1.5-billion fundraising campaign, which exceeded its goal last fall.

"I've known Stephen for close to 30 years. … He's as comfortable talking to the first-year student, or first-year immigrant or refugee, as he is to her Majesty the Queen," Mr. Davidson said. "In his new job, he will be doing all of that."

Even with the recent fall in the pound, the position comes with a salary that exceeds that of Canadian university presidents. The current vice-chancellor, immunologist Leszek Borysiewicz, had a pay packet of £325,000 last year.

Regent House, the university's governing body, must approve the decision to appoint Dr. Toope. His term would begin in October, 2017.

Dr. Toope said his success speaks to the strength of the Canadian postsecondary system. "I hope it's a recognition that we are playing at the highest standards of international universities," he said. "I've always said that we have the capacity to do that, and are doing that. This is one little data point, but it is not more than that."