Home » Views » Universities key says Willets

Universities key to Britain's industrial strategy, says David Willets

David Willets
Keele University

Keele: From cyber security to industrial strategy and education as an export — below we carry edited extracts from a wide-ranging speech by David Willetts, that has obvious implications for the UK's professional services community.

Willets, UK minister for universities and science, was speaking at the Universities UK conference at Keele University yesterday.

A world without boundaries.

"It's great to join you all at Keele as our hosts celebrate their 50th anniversary. Recalling the creation of universities back in the 1960s reminds us of an optimistic sector in one of its most ambitious periods. Today, even during this era of inevitable austerity, I believe that we can still be ambitious and optimistic.

The place of HE in the nation

"2012 has certainly been a big year for Higher Education, with our reforms coming into effect. I recognise that inevitably some stress and uncertainty accompanies changes on this scale. The Government appreciates the maturity of the sector and the leadership of vice chancellors in what are, for some, challenging times. In particular, I appreciate the Government's close working relationship with UUK. We cannot always agree, but our discussions are always open and founded on mutual trust. More than that, they are based on a shared belief that our universities are a tremendous national asset which we need to sustain and to grow.

"In popular consciousness, of course, 2012 will be remembered for the Olympics and Paralympics — which gave our universities some excellent opportunities to demonstrate their place in national life. I congratulate UUK for illustrating the many connections between universities and the Games. We all think especially of Usain Bolt and his fellow Jamaican sprinters thanking their Birmingham University hosts after capturing all the medals in the men's 200 metres final. But there have also been plenty of examples of volunteering and community engagement. We can all be proud of the university research which improved the performance of our athletes and the university-designed equipment which gave them a competitive edge. Now, the University of Worcester has launched a new degree programme for those wanting to study and ultimately work in disability sport.

"The debt of Olympians and Paralympians to HE is just one example of a wider debt of many of us to our universities. Last week, I was at the annual British science festival, sharing the excitement around the discovery of the Higgs Boson and most recently the discovery that redundant DNA is not so redundant after all. Again, British academics and universities are at the heart of these breakthroughs. With your contributions to the intellectual life of our nation, to educating the next generation, and to innovation and research, universities are more central to our society than ever before.

Protecting our national assets: cyber security

"HE's growing economic importance was made plain at the recent launch of the Government's cyber security guidance because quite simply, much of the UK's intellectual property resides in our universities. Only this month, Oxford University confirmed that its online security had been compromised by a cyber attack — just a day after the Cambridge University network experienced disruption. The Government will work closely with universities to ensure that the UK's higher education system has a visible and credible international reputation for protecting commercially sensitive research from the growing risks posed via cyber space. But we can go further than just protection. Although UK universities are potential victims of cyber attacks, they can also be a large part of the long term solution. GCHQ, the EPSRC and BIS recently recognised eight UK universities as centres of academic excellence in cyber security. There is real scope to translate this knowledge into commercial opportunities and export earnings, while — for graduates — there are good prospects in cyber jobs as demand increases, providing of course they develop the right skills.

"Today I can announce the first academic research institute — receiving total investment worth £3.8 million — to improve understanding of the science behind cyber threats. This new facility, based at UCL, will draw on university expertise in both technological and behavioural disciplines. Academic teams from UCL, Imperial, Newcastle and Royal Holloway will be the first beneficiaries of research money. The institute opens for business next month.

Other kinds of "impact"

"Clearly, part of the case for well-funded universities — as suggested by the example of cyber security — is their economic benefit. But I readily acknowledge that this is not what drives many academics, for whom intellectual curiosity is the main motive. It is a noble motive, which must be respected. However, it does help when academics and universities demonstrate how their research contributes to a strong economy and a good society. We are supporting this crucial work.

"I can announce today that we are providing an extra £6 million for the Higher Education Innovation Funding to be shared amongst a number of universities to assist them in further driving growth, creating and supporting innovative enterprises and building strategic relationships.

"The Research Excellence Framework will, for the first time, recognise the highest levels of research excellence with reward for the past impact that it has achieved. I know that you are currently busy preparing impact case studies for the REF — and that you will all be aware of the breadth of "impact" that this encompasses. It is not about "commercialisation" but more widely anything which has an effect on, changes or benefits the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life.

"The REF is an assessment of research excellence. It is not about "journal rankings" or "journal impact factors". Whether the research output has been published in an open access journal, a traditional publication, or even if it hasn't been published in any journal at all, this does not affect the assessment of its quality in the REF. REF panels will not make use of "journal impact factors", rankings or lists, nor the perceived standing of the publisher, in assessing the quality of research outputs. An underpinning principle of the REF is that all types of research and all forms of research output shall be assessed on a fair and equal basis by experts in the relevant disciplines.

Open access

"As you know, we have also announced that we are shifting to open access for publicly funded research published in these peer reviewed journals — following the excellent report from Janet Finch, the former vice chancellor of this university. Removing pay walls will have real economic and social benefits. Still, we understand that making the transition to "gold" open access has a cost — roughly one per cent of the national science and research budget.

"Last week I announced an extra £10 million to be allocated to our 30 most research intensive universities to assist with the costs. This is in addition to the contribution RCUK will be making to institutions to support payment of article processing charges associated with open access, through block funding grants from next April onwards. We'll be providing more detail on this soon, and the UK Funding Councils will launch a consultation on setting a requirement that research outputs submitted to any REF should be as widely accessible as possible.

HE and philanthropy

"Another report, published only yesterday by HEFCE, I particularly commend to you. I took Professor Shirley Pearce's excellent Review of Philanthropy in UK Higher Education on holiday with me, and very much enjoyed reading it — sad but true.

"There has been substantial momentum since Eric Thomas's excellent 2004 report. The matched funding pot has meant that many more universities and colleges have been able to attract philanthropic gifts over recent years, and voluntary giving has improved across the piece.

"In these financially strapped times a challenge for every institution is to diversify its income streams and develop strategies to stimulate donations- to position their institution as an attractive proposition. Both BIS and HEFCE will be giving the report's recommendations serious attention. Shirley and her team have made many telling observations, including on donor behaviour. We will be guided on your views. We do need to remind people of the charitable status of many university activities. If the option of a charity number for a university would help, we can take it up with the Charity Commission. And it is right philanthropy is properly recognised in honours system, so do put people forward to us and the Cabinet Office.

Industrial strategy and education exports

"When Vince Cable launched our industrial strategy on Tuesday, we identified education as one of the key sectors of the future. Our universities, for one, are internationally recognised. We can do more to take advantage of our position.

"You are a great British export industry, and in a growing market — in 2000 there were just over 2 million students worldwide studying outside their own countries. Ten years later this had doubled to 4 million. By 2020 it is predicted to be around 7 million. Our education exports are already worth around £14 billion, and could rise to around £20 billion in 2020 and nearly £27 billion in 2025, representing an annual growth rate of approximately 5 per cent.

"Some of our key economic partners of the future like Turkey, Indonesia, Brazil are experiencing a surge in the number of young people. They are keen to invest in this generation through more HE at home and more opportunities abroad. That is why HE now has such an important role in our trade missions. Earlier this year, vice chancellors accompanied the PM and me to Asia. We're going to Brazil later this month.

"Opportunities for UK education overseas extend significantly beyond teaching students. For example, other countries are attracted to the expertise that UK institutions can offer in governance models, professional development and curricular design; construction, management and financing. Some foreign education systems, particularly in emerging markets, have complex needs. For them, we are adopting a new approach, which we are calling "system-to-system" — facilitated and coordinated by the UK Government. Under this umbrella, the new UK Education Services will identify opportunities, then initiate and mobilise consortia to win the contracts. It could include higher education, further education and schools, as well as a range of non-education specific services. I am taking a delegation on a system-to-system education export mission to Colombia and Mexico later this year.

"The system-to-system approach is not about replacing or duplicating the many excellent initiatives underway. But system-to-system supplements the bilateral opportunities already undertaken by many institutions and other organisations.

"Overseas students travelling to the UK to study is just one way we can grow. Last year 400,000 overseas students came to the UK to study. But for the first time this was exceeded by the record 500,000 people who benefitted from British higher education while living abroad. I salute the trail blazers like Nottingham, Liverpool Reading, UCL and Newcastle with campuses abroad. On a recent visit to the US I was struck by the surge of activity in distance learning. We may be at a tipping point in distance learning as technology offers more efficient and more effective ways of online learning than ever before. We will be doing more work on this in BIS over the months ahead as I believe these forms of education are really going to take off.

Visas and the situation at London Met

"There are few sectors of our economy with the capacity to grow and generate export earnings as great as higher education. Every overseas student on average pays fees of about £10,000 a year and spends almost as much while they are here. That means 400,000 overseas students bring in almost £8 billion a year. They make a big contribution to the economies of cities like Bradford and Exeter and Manchester, as well as London.

"We must not allow the London Met issues to jeopardise this success story. I am grateful to the whole sector for its prompt, coordinated and effective response to the UKBA's decision to remove London Met's tier 4 sponsor licence. Both UUK and the NUS are playing a full role in the London Met task force that I set up within hours UKBA's announcement. Individual universities are offering places for the mini clearing operation that goes live next Monday.

"We must not lose sight of the individual students who are most affected by the current situation and we must maintain confidence across the world in the fair deal for overseas students. They may face costs of moving to alternative accommodation and costs of applying for a new visa. So I can announce today that we are setting up a £2 million fund to help legitimate overseas students at London Met who face extra costs through no fault of their own as a result of transferring to another institution. This will provide certainty to London Met students at what is a stressful and unsettling time.

"I hope no other institution will face a similar situation in future. But it makes sense for the sector to plan now for how it would manage that risk if it did arise — we need to underline the message to students and potential students and their families that the UK is a safe and welcoming destination. There are examples of protection schemes in other countries and in other sectors — the ABTA scheme is one obvious example. So I very much welcome UUK's willingness to develop proposals for a sector-led response to discuss with all its members. I look forward to seeing the results of that work.

"We must go further to protect our international reputation in the short-term too. We have already used Foreign Office posts to signal that we remain open to overseas students and I have agreed with your President, Eric Thomas, that we will jointly author an article to offer to key newspapers in our target markets explaining that overseas students are welcome here, and reminding them of what a great opportunity it is to study in UK.

"Every year, countries around the world send their best and brightest here to learn. When they come, they bring with them the potential to add a rich and diverse cultural scene to many of our towns and cities. They bring a great opportunity to make our courses more international in scope and to contribute to enabling a well-rounded education for our home students. This is a globalised world, and our people should consider themselves privileged to be exposed to such talented people from all its corners. Without international students, we would not only be poorer economically — we would also be more boring, more insular, and more ignorant of the wider world.

"That is why transparency in the immigration statistics is vital. We therefore want to publicise disaggregated figures so that the debate can be better informed. The ONS is planning improvements in its methodology so that in future it will be possible to better identify students in the emigration flows.

"I want to make clear the attitude of the government. There is no limit on the number of legitimate students from overseas studying at British universities. They have to have the language skills and the academic training to benefit from Higher Education here. It is in everyone's interest to maintain our high standards. The vast majority of international students are here legitimately, study hard, contribute to our economy, and take nothing from us except a world-class education. Where things are working at their best, they also make us more cosmopolitan, sustain links between our communities with heritage in other parts of the world and those places, and make the higher education offer more diverse than it otherwise would be. It is crucial that we sustain and develop these advantages."

Share this article