Why business should have a say in the future of universities

Why business should have a say in the future of universities
Sir Keith Burnett

VC new March 2015 CopyProfessor Sir Keith Burnett FRS – Vice-Chancellor of The University of Sheffield and member of the board of the National Centre for Universities and Business – explains why he is asking business to give its view to a new independent Commission on the purpose and funding of higher education.

What should universities be like in the future? What should they give to their students? What should they give to the country? And who should pay for this and how?

The debate about the cost of universities – not just to students but also to the taxpayer – has shot up the political agenda. Labour has promised an end to fees but is less clear about what this will mean for the funding of Higher Education. The Prime Minister has promised to focus on reducing debt and to hold a major review, although nobody seems sure what form this will take.

In the highly politicised debate about universities, we have often felt more heat than light. The focus has been on cost, but on what we are paying for and why. Surely we should begin with what works, what needs to change, who benefits and why.

Which is why, this week, I announced the establishment of a new Commission on Higher Education – its purpose and how it might be funded. I thought it was important to have an opportunity, well away from party politics, for all those affected to shape the debate and give their evidence. A place where a difficult challenge could be open to input from not only university leaders or policy experts but from students and young graduates, from their employers and from taxpayers, from teachers and parents.

It has been clear for a while that we desperately need something which admits that everything is connected. If we want an economy and society which will allows us to thrive in the future, especially post Brexit in a tough globally competitive environment, we can’t afford to think of universities as simply a question of the private investment of young people. This is about their future, but also about ours.

In the absence of something like a Royal Commission, I knew we couldn’t wait. So I have been speaking to students and many other expert parties about how to begin such a process ourselves.

What I am not seeking is a reflection of my own views – I am on the record as questioning the whole premise for the current marketised view of education – but an independent Commission hosted by The University of Sheffield which would draw in the expert advice of others.

"Students increasingly care that they are being properly prepared for the world of work now and in the future. They want their universities to develop studies with companies, to develop work experience and the skills which they know will be needed."

Since I announced this in The Sunday Times, I have been delighted just how many individuals and organisations have already come back to me to say that they wanted to be a part of it. They, like me, felt that we were sorely in need of a way to bring together what should never have been divided – to think about the education of young people and the way that education works for them and for society more widely.

Nor am I trying to simply preserve the status quo, although there is much we damage at our peril. I have been struck by how many believe, if we are to succeed as a nation in what some are calling a Fourth Industrial Revolution, we will need the Education Revolution which goes alongside it – Industry 4.0 matched by Education 4.0.

On this and many other topics, it is crucial that business has a voice. Students increasingly care that they are being properly prepared for the world of work now and in the future. They want their universities to develop studies with companies, to develop work experience and the skills which they know will be needed.

But it also matters that business has a say because, as the Institute of Fiscal Studies makes clear, student loans are a significant and growing cost to us all. Due to the nature of our current system, the cost of student loans is now even greater than when tuition fees to students were capped at £3,000. We had better be sure our investment is not wasted on what doesn’t work.

So I am asking for your help.

The debate about the purpose, the quality and the funding of universities is far too important to be left to short-term political interest. It needs the widest debate and the sharpest minds pooling their insights and then handing back to government what we have learned together.

In this spirit, I am asking for your involvement as we shape this review. What themes must we consider? What do we need to address in the future? What model of higher education does the UK need for the next 5, 10 or 20 years?
If you would like to be involved, please let me know personally or email HECommission@sheffield.ac.uk . This is too important an issue to leave to short-term party politics.

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