Neil [Neil Carmichael MP*] has spoken about the skills and productivity challenge facing the UK. There are aspects of it that Alliance Universities are particularly well-placed to meet.
We are sometimes described as “new” universities. But we are not new in the sense that we exist where before there was nothing. We have a proud history.
Most of us come from institutions that were formed at the time of the first industrial revolution. We were created specifically to serve the needs of the new industries and the cities that grew up around them. Our creation recognised that these needs could not be met by the traditional universities alone – or by educating only the social elite. The new economy needed both more skills and different skills.
We are rooted in our cities – not local or parochial – but connecting them to the wider world, bringing the benefits of research, business, culture and investment. From this, you can infer our views on the EU referendum.
Our next transformation was forged in what Harold Wilson called the “white heat of the technological revolution.” During the 1950s and 60s most of our founder institutions evolved to become Colleges of Advanced Technology or polytechnics – specialising in technical and professional education, business-facing and accessible.
It was also at this time that the Open University was formed to provide the opportunity to study at degree level to those for whom traditional university study was not practical.
So we have a proud history. But we are not fossilised within it. It made us practical, innovative and pragmatic. Ours is an excellence that has been tested not only in academia but in the real world. The real world changes and so do we.
What is required by industry and the professions now is not the same as what was required in the 50s and 60s – or even the 70s, 80s and 90s.
We still work with employers to ensure our courses deliver what they need. 37% of our courses are accredited by PSRBs, many of our courses involve work placements or sandwich years. We are embracing the Degree Apprenticeship agenda. We educate around 25% of the nation’s undergraduates, 25% of nurses, 25% of teachers, 24% of engineers.
For this alone, the country could not do without us. But we do more than just provide the highly skilled professionals and technicians who form the backbone of our economy and society – important though this is.
We are a group of universities who hold it as an article of faith that a university should carry out research as well as teach. Every member of the Alliance strives to increase its research power. Our research is not a separate activity carried out by staff that students never see – rather it is integrated within our teaching activity – bringing both innovation and rigour to both undergraduate and postgraduate courses.
For example, Coventry’s “Faculty on the Factory Floor” gives engineering students the opportunity to work on real-world problems for companies in the automotive supply chain.
And at Portsmouth University, a Reader in Structural Biology is supported by post-graduate and undergraduate students to work out how enzymes made by gribbles can make the biofuels industry more efficient.
Our research not only serves existing industries – it creates new ones. For example, the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and Bristol University’s robotics laboratory has created a vibrant robotics cluster in the South West. And LJMU and Liverpool’s Sensor City will become a leading innovation centre – a place where commercially viable high tech businesses working on sensor systems and applications are supported to grow.
Today, we are particularly focusing on innovation. We will be launching our report on the importance of universities like those in the Alliance for healthy innovation ecosystems later today. Our universities educate their students to be entrepreneurial – providing knowledge and talent for business. They provide access to Research & Development facilities as well as a wide-range of business consultancy. They support start-ups and have facilities for both incubation and acceleration and act as physical hubs where entrepreneurs and investors meet. Through all these things, Alliance Universities are well positioned to power what Sajid Javid has described as the second industrial revolution.
Alongside this industrial revolution, we have a policy revolution. The Government is legislating to make it easier for new providers to enter the market. Where we were once the snappy challengers, some now see us as the incumbents. We will not react with any sense of outraged entitlement. Instead we will seek out the opportunities – for new partnerships, for innovative forms of delivery – rather than fear the threats. Indeed, some of us are already doing this overseas and in relation to Degree Apprenticeships.
We thought that HEFCE holding responsibility for both research and teaching worked well. But we know when a ship has sailed and will make sure that even if teaching is administered by the Office for Students and research by UK Research and Innovation, within our universities the two activities will be integrated for the good of our students, our business and civic partners.
Like others, we have concerns about the increased bureaucracy of the TEF – but we also see it as a way to demonstrate not only that our teaching is excellent but that our mission – providing the technical and professional education – informed by research – made relevant by engagement with business – open to people from all backgrounds – the high wage, high skilled and fairer society that Neil has talked about – is fundamental to building both the knowledge economy and a fairer society.
Opening plenary speech given by Chief Executive Maddalaine Ansell at our Annual Summit 2016 – Leading the way in our cities and regions.
* Chair, Education Select Committee and Co-Chair, Sub Committee on Education, Skills and the Economy