Business engagement key

The final day of the Universities UK conference saw presentations from the UUK President, Steve Smith, and the Minister for Education and Intellectual Property, David Lammy.

Smith opened by setting out the role of higher education in helping the UK through the recession, highlighting the contribution universities make to the national economy and social justice. The UK HE sector has a strong international reputation which has largely been built on the quality of the sector’s provision in teaching and research, allied with a high level of graduate employment. Universities, he argued, are crucial to the UK recovery and as such there was a strong case for growth and increased investment.

Lammy recognised the value of the sector to the national economy. However, there is no real prospect of increased public funding because, as Lammy observed, the current levels of funding are unlikely to be sustainable in the future. Indeed there was mention that some areas of public funding would be ‘contestable’. What this means in practice is likely to be outlined in the framework for higher education due to be announced by Peter Mandelson later this year.

There was significant emphasis on links with the commercial sector and demonstrating the value of the sector in Lammy’s speech. The framework will “describe the vision of how Government will support universities and employers in working together to balance the supply and demand of high-level skills and the many other economically valuable things that our universities deliver”. The REF (Research Excellence Framework) is likely to include measurements of the economic impact of research and work is underway to identify ways of helping universities make more effective use of their intellectual property. Universities were encouraged to diversify their sources of income with Lammy identifying tailored courses for businesses as one potential income stream.

There were some common themes in the two presentations. Both recognised that the sector needs to market itself better to highlight the quality of provision and the contribution universities make to the economy and community. There was also agreement that the sector, in common with the country as a whole, faces a challenging few years. On the opening day of the conference it was noted that, in the US, endowment and private investment in higher education had fallen dramatically. Assuming the same trend in the UK suggests that private investment is unlikely to grow until the recovery is well underway. Universities will be subject to many of the same financial constraints and will be looking to cut services and programmes in order to remain efficient or, in some cases, just to survive. It seems to me as if universities are being handicapped just at the time they are being asked to lead the country out of the recession.

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