Know thy place - Sir Keith Burnett asks if universities have to choose between being local and global

16 August 2021
Posted by Study Group

Know thy place - Sir Keith Burnett asks, should universities have to choose between being local and global?

When the world-renowned Oxford plasma physicist Hans Von Engel was asked to state his affiliation, he is said to have replied that he was “from the University of Oxford...which is near Didcot”.

I was reminded of this while reading the City of Oxford’s Development Plan, posted through my letterbox just this week. This speaks with justifiable pride about all the research and teaching, which goes on within the city. I was glad to read it because I know that my alma mater is not only a global force in education and research but also a local powerhouse. And I don’t have to walk far to bump into evidence.

At the end of my street is the Jenner Institute, the research campus that helped create the Oxford Astra-Zeneca vaccine and so allowed local residents to leave lockdown and return to local shops and restaurants. Within half a mile are the university hospitals, which train the medical staff we have relied on so heavily these past months.

The university is enriched by scholarship, but also more connected to the city than many recognise. It isn’t only the 26,000 students who study with its Department of Continuing Education. Oxford’s strengths in medicine, for example, owe much to the philanthropy of local car manufacturer, Lord Nuffield, so you can draw a direct line between the auto workers of Cowley and life-saving vaccinations.

You might think that, as someone who has always worked in research-intensive universities, I have little appreciation of other institutions, but nothing could be further from the truth.

When I was head of science at Oxford, I was much concerned about the training of technicians – so crucial in making breakthroughs. Some studied within their own scientific departments, but many others at the further education colleges of Oxford and beyond or at the excellent Faculty of Health and Life Sciences at Oxford Brookes University, a few streets away from the Jenner Institute. It takes a whole educational village to raise a vaccine.

In fact, the greatest breakthroughs in medicine and manufacturing technologies happen when institutions come together. I saw this at first hand when I was vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield. It was clear that engineering research collaborations with industry needed the support of apprentices trained by our excellent partners at Barnsley College. The alliance between the Sheffield University Medical School and our teaching hospitals meant that local people had access to genuinely world-leading consultants, but their care was supplemented by the superb nurses and medical specialists trained at Sheffield Hallam University.

All our universities are local and indeed personal in their impact. But all also need to be part of a global endeavour to seek understanding for the greater good.

I have recently heard some commentators trying to make political capital by literally putting newer institutions “back in their place”, as local rather than national or global. But this is to denigrate their extraordinary success in providing the highest-quality training to all parts of our workforce. They have also done exactly what successive generations of parents and governments wanted: given young people of all backgrounds access to university education.

So what’s this “local university” debate really all about? Simple. Follow the money.

There is understandable concern about the cost to the country and individuals of higher education, especially now that statisticians and demographers tell us we can expect as much as a 40 per cent increase in applications to UK universities over the next four years. The fiscal pressures on the Treasury are great and the loan book is eye-wateringly costly.

But we should beware of how we respond. Remember, fees for domestic undergraduate teaching have been frozen for over a decade, amounting to a real-terms cut of over 20 per cent to universities already. This will only be exacerbated if inflation increases and fees remain frozen, as widely expected.

The original idea behind the marketisation of UK higher education was to unleash commercial innovation and choice, as private providers came in to offer high-quality education more cheaply. It hasn’t worked like that, of course, and is even less likely to do so as fees fall in real terms.

What would happen if the sector was divided into local universities for some and fancy ones for those who are mobile and whose parents can afford accommodation? As the experience of further education has shown, public cash tends to follow high-profile national initiatives. Local-only universities could easily be starved of funds. That is precisely the wrong approach.

A few months ago, I visited Huddersfield University and saw the physical transformation and employment it is bringing to the local area through genuinely impressive engineering and health research combined together with its success in attracting international and local students. So I wasn’t surprised to see the government’s latest announcement of innovation funding to a consortium including old and new northern universities working together to make a difference to their local areas, the UK and the world. The £42 million Advanced Machinery and Productivity Institute incorporates the University of Huddersfield’s Centre for Precision Technologies, the University of Leeds’ Institute of Design, Robotics and Optimisation, the University of Manchester’s Departments of Materials and Electrical and Electronic Engineering and the University of Salford’s Centre for Autonomous Systems and Advanced Robotics.

If there’s going to be any levelling up in the North of England, as the former chief economist to the Treasury Jim O’Neill says, it will be in large measure through its universities - but only if they are allowed to grow and to be both local and global. The same is true of the communities around Surrey, Teesside and Strathclyde, in my homeland of Wales and in our brilliant but profoundly unequal capital city.

So I do not want higher education policy to be constrained by a misunderstanding of local benefit. It is neither bright nor beautiful to keep the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. “Knowing our place” should mean aligning the local and international to drive change for all our children.

Sir Keith Burnett is Chair of Study Group UK and Chair of the Nuffield Foundation.

This article was published by the Times Higher Education and is available online here. 

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