Driving Forward: What David Willetts should do next

Driving Forward: What David Willetts should do next

The PM has retained someone who understands the challenges HE faces.

It’s rare to hear a collective sigh of relief when a minister who has worked on the same brief for eight years fails to find a new home after a reshuffle. But with four years in the shadow cabinet and three in the top job, there’s no doubt that universities and science minister David Willetts has made a real and lasting impact on the university sector, and on the broader innovation and business-engagement brief - so no wonder David Willetts held onto his post in the lengthy government reshuffle yesterday.

It’s good to know that the PM has retained someone who understands the challenges that higher education faces, the vital importance of business-university engagement and the opportunities that it presents. Those who had speculated about a change in post may fear inertia on the part of government over universities and innovation.

But with the support of newly-appointed minister for skills and enterprise Matt Hancock (a post jointly held in the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills), there’s much that David Willetts can achieve in the 18 months before the next election.

Here’s my list of four key priorities:


1. Help business, and government, make better use of our research community.


If students are the heart of the university system, then research is its soul. Nothing will drive the British economy harder than fostering a stronger relationship between academics and businesses in the innovation system. To compete globally we need our businesses - including small and medium-sized companies - to think about what university inventiveness can do for them, rather than just considering higher education as the preserve of students.

Our research found that SMEs account for just 3.5% of research and development spending, though overseas investment in UK research is high. Willetts must help intensify the investment of businesses in Britain in home-grown research talent.


2. Create lasting careers for women in manufacturing engineering, computing and technology by fostering collaboration between universities, business and schools.


To safeguard our industrial future, it’s time for government to support women to enter and pursue long term careers in manufacturing, technology, engineering and computing. This is not an issue of diversity, it’s an issue of providing economically-vital sectors with the best and brightest graduates.


Doubling the number of women in engineering from 9% to 20% would do much to tackle the talent and expertise deficit that the country faces. To do this we need young women to make up 45% of physics and mathematics candidates at A Level. We need specific focus on sectors, rather than a generic target for STEM graduates. That’s why we’re running a competition to encourage young women to consider careers in engineering - and why government should invest its own resources in similar schemes. (http://www.talent2030.org/girlsengineering/).


3. Help the terms of the debate about skills, talent and expertise to reflect the needs of a 21stCentury knowledge-based economy.


Businesses often express worries that UK graduates are not ‘oven-ready’ for the workplace when they leave university, and that they lack skills such as literacy and numeracy. This issue has attracted a lot of attention and government time, but the truth is we need to focus on future jobs, on producing workers who are mobile and flexible, who know how to learn and apply learning who deliver the highest quality expertise to the UK economy.


4. The graduate is the whole package.


Higher education in England focuses on building detailed knowledge and understanding. From the age of 16, we ask our young people to narrow their field of study with the majority of graduates leaving higher education with expertise in just one core discipline. This contrasts with university systems in the US and elsewhere, which prize interdisciplinary education - an approach which better replicates the way employees behave in the workplace and which generates high-quality innovation.


Today’s graduates operate in a global market, where experience in working across geographical or cultural boundaries and sensitivity to difference will mark the best from the rest. UK universities have taken small steps to reform the curriculum in recognition of these issues, but the universities minister should make sure that British graduates are prepared for tomorrow’s workplace. We need to ensure that the whole person is the focus of higher education.


David Willetts has done much to further the cause of universities and collaboration with business. But many challenges and opportunities remain in driving the quality and quantity of university-business collaboration to increase prosperity and well-being in the UK.

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