Opening remarks to UA Summit 2015: Anticipation. Disruption. Excellence

Julie Lydon

Professor Julie Lydon OBE, Vice-Chancellor of University of South Wales, gave an inspirational speech to welcome delegates to the University Summit 2015 – Anticipation. Disruption. Excellence – on Thursday 4 June.  The summit offered a timely opportunity for colleagues at Alliance universities to come together, and explore our strengths and how we can work together to support UK-wide competitiveness and foster innovation in the sector.

Colleagues, friends, I want to welcome you to South Wales.

Our region is hosting the Manic Street Preachers and One Direction in the next two days, so you’re in good company.

Last year, many of you will have seen on your televisions the journalists speaking to audiences around the globe underneath datelines that said “Newport, South Wales.”

The City of Newport delights in welcoming great thinkers, diplomatic leaders who will shape the Alliance that underpins the future security of our world.  I’m referring of course not to NATO but to the University Alliance.

The last major speaker I introduced at a summit here had arrived on Air Force One, so you have a lot to live up to.

For last year’s summit we came by boat on the majestic Thames, at the lovely Greenwich Naval College.  Not to be outdone, we’ve provided a riverfront location today.  I can’t promise the magnificent naval pedigree in this year’s venue, but there’s a message here all the same.

As you arrive in Newport and you dine tonight near Cardiff Bay, you will have seen another chapter in Britain’s global history as a trading nation on the seas, for although Greenwich may have been where the Royal Navy was steered in the age of sail,  Britain’s empire was powered in the age of coal from the ports of South Wales.

Before I look to our discussions today, I want to tell you a story.

Our University began here in the industrial heart of Newport docks, and what started in 1841 as a mechanics institute grew into the largest university in Wales and a proud member of the Alliance.

Down the road, Cardiff was the biggest coal exporting port in the world.

In an age of pit accidents, the coal owners realised they were losing too much production because their managers and engineers didn’t have the knowledge they needed from a decent higher education.

At the start of the last century, the mine owners approached the local Victorian university college, asking for a course that combined academic engineering with the real world experience running a colliery.

The old university said no, so these captains of industry founded their own college.

Our first budget was £8,000, we started with 40 students, and our very first intake went around the world.

Sure, they powered the South Wales coal fields, but they also sank diamond mines in South Africa, mineral mines in Australia, and mined for aggregates in South America.  They went to China and every corner of the Empire, and students came to us the other way.  There was no question then of the value of international students, and we’re proud that our graduates now are in over 120 countries.

We were founded by industry to meet the needs of their professions, and that is what we do to this day.  There is a powerful strand in our DNA that runs through the University today, and it runs through the Alliance itself.  That golden thread is a strong bond with employers, a sense that university is not only about broadening horizons and unlocking talent, but that it also provides very real and tangible contribution to the industry and prosperity of a nation.

This is not just a story from history.

It is a compelling case for the value of the University Alliance and its members today.

Every challenge is an opportunity

It’s true that we live in interesting times.  Many of you will have seen the great article in the THE last week which quoted a classic telegram: “Start worrying.  Details to follow.”  That may well be apt.

A key theme for the Summit will be how we adapt to a seismic shift in our market.

You’ll hear some of the Welsh context to that discussion.  The Encyclopaedia Britannica once memorably stated “For Wales, see England.” Whether it was right then, it isn’t now.  We have a different fee regime, we have a different government, and we have a different perspective, but ultimately we compete in the same market.

I will simply say that today we will all be taking a cold, sober assessment on how we engage with the new Government and the changes in the HE market.  After the election result, we have certainty.

Now, it is true that every challenge is an opportunity.  We may well hope as UK universities that our current challenges do not become an insoluble opportunity.

However, as the University Alliance we have a narrative that works.  The Alliance is at its heart Britain’s industrial universities, the universities for the professions, a flexible, entrepreneurial coalition of some of the most productive and challenging forces in higher education.
We need to be making the case for our contribution as the Alliance universities.

Like many of you I have this discussion in the business organisations, such as the CBI Wales Council.

The challenge for us in London is for our voice to be not “me too”, but us front and centre in the economy debate in government and in the media on our own merits.

We will be asked “what is the point of your universities” and “what is the value of your degrees?”

We will of course need to keep saying that in companies and professions across Britain, and in hundreds of countries around the world, there are graduates of our universities managing businesses and developing their professions.

We will need to keep telling those sceptics that Alliance universities are not simply an economic generator of wealth, or a cog in the governmental growth machine, or a link in the economic chain.

It’s true that we offer a new route into the jobs market and equip our graduates with the specific skills to build and develop your careers in a particular field.  We are a huge contributor to the productivity of the UK’s economy.

But we have a deeper function too.

Whether they’ve studied the arts or business, humanities or sciences, Alliance graduates enter the professional world with the healthy scepticism and flexibility of thought that we hone through a university education.

We remain right at the heart of our region’s economy and right in the heart of its civic life

And to make this point I’d like to finish by telling another story.

In 1839, two years before a group of far-sighted citizens were considering the birth of higher learning in this City the Chartists held their first convention.

I want you to imagine the scene of the great rising of the Chartists which took place within sight of where we are now.

Thousands of people marched for universal suffrage, for the right of subjects to be citizens and have an influence on the decisions that governed their lives.

They met the Mayor of Newport.  Unfortunately for the Chartists he was accompanied by the militia, who also met the Chartists.  And shot them.

But I think that the Chartists would be proud to see this gathering today.

We often reflect on the foresight of their contemporaries, the leaders of business and society who founded this university.   They needed colleges of higher education for some of the brightest young minds of their day.   They wanted to fit them for the world of industry and their professions.  For some it was about combining the academic rigour of an engineering school, with the practical, vocational knowledge of their day’s greatest industries.  For others it was about shaping their skills to enter the world of teaching, or the arts.

Now, the world has moved on.

We have all come a long way since those early roots here in the City Centre, where our forefathers laid the foundations of Wales’s first industrial, technical university and where the Chartists marched.

Like many of you, we remain right at the heart of our region’s economy and right in the heart of its civic life.

Like many of you, we’ve built new, state of the art, campuses over the years.

All of this is to respond to changing demand and needs of our students.

But as our universities have grown and evolved over the years and centuries,  as courses have come and gone and buildings have seen progress, one thing, however, has not changed.

It is what my Chancellor, Rowan Williams, calls the timeless values of a University itself.

Rowan often says that there is a great deal being said and written about the public responsibilities of the university these days

That is usually in terms of how universities demonstrate public ‘impact’, as well as how they reach out to local and national communities.

Some people, he says, are scornful of certain subjects offered for study by newer universities like ours.

They talk of an erosion of intellectual seriousness; but we believe that there are no inappropriate subjects, only inappropriate or inadequate methods of teaching.

In every sense, we all have work to do

As universities, our deepest function is universal:

It is not about buildings and it is not confined to one subject or another.  It lies fundamentally in educating citizens who will ask constructively critical questions in public life,  who will understand the forces that shape our society, and who know how seriously to take the confused mass of propaganda and fashion that swirls around in the overpopulated information culture of our age.

The most important bit of ‘impact’ any university can have is to help people to become intelligent citizen.

That that means helping them to see what critical argument looks like, to see what genuine thinking is, and to explore great issues in an atmosphere of respect and positive expectation.

Our role as universities is to give our graduates, as one of our colleagues in the US put it recently,  “acutely sensitive antennae for knowing when someone is talking rot.”

These are the timeless values of a university itself, and they need to be available to people of every background and every origin.

This, for me, is an educational Chartism that we represent in the Alliance.

When the forces of xenophobia close our borders and close people’s minds to the rich potential of our shared bonds with other nations and other cultures, there is work for us to do.

When people in our own communities are denied the opportunities to hone their intellect through education, there is work for us to do.

So for us as a University, having you with us today is business as well as pleasure.  In every sense, we all have work to do.

Friends, colleagues, on behalf of the University and my colleagues, may I close by saying that you are most welcome.  Please enjoy the summit.

Further reading