Comment: The importance of keeping faith in higher education

University of Sheffield President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Keith Burnett reflects on the difference universities can make and when they should know their limitations.

The importance of keeping faith in higher education

By Professor Sir Keith Burnett, 15.11.17, published in the Yorkshire Post

As I sat with a concerned group of educators, each wondering how best to secure the future of teaching and research, I was asked the classic interview question. “What is the greatest challenge that higher education will face over the years ahead?”

Possible answers swirled around my mind, but only one came out of my mouth: “To keep faith in higher education.”

You might think that was a strange answer. After all, who wouldn't want an educated workforce, trained doctors and scientists, or the innovation and investment by companies in towns and cities across the UK directly linked to universities. In fact, as one person said, if you want a city to thrive, found a university and then wait a hundred years.

Only not everyone is a fan. And there are real challenges now almost half of young people enter higher education, all too often in the absence of good alternatives. So I wanted to be as honest as I could. Of all the worries about universities at the moment - from fees to free speech, from radicalisation to relevance, why did I say what I did?

To believe in the public good of higher education does not come hard to me. All my life I have seen and believed that universities - the knowledge they create and the students they teach - can be a powerful force for good.

I was the first in my family to enter university, and my journey to Oxford from the mining valleys of South Wales was one of discovery in more ways than one. What I've learned since then as I have taught students in the US and the UK is how they can lift many into better lives and jobs.

Universities can and do make young people better citizens of our country and of the world as they mingle with friends from many different backgrounds and as their horizons widen. They drive innovation in industry and make our land more prosperous. Just look at the recent announcements of manufacturing investment in South Yorkshire or work on agri-science and industrial biotechnology in York. The UK's leading research-intensive universities alone generate over £34 billion each year for the UK economy - three of those great universities are in Yorkshire.

But now higher education itself is experiencing unprecedented criticism. While many around the world look to us with admiration, even envy, questions are asked about whether higher education is a force for good at all. Was I wrong to have this faith?

No, I was right and all those who gave through their taxes and efforts as teachers and researchers have worked to make breakthroughs in science and engineering, in the understanding of history or in the realm of computer science were right too. So were those who patiently trained doctors and teachers, architects and social workers. Who ensured some of the most admired assets Britain still has globally are our wonderful universities.

But as Dirty Harry famously said, we have to know our limitations. And the citizens we support must know them too!

For after all, what use is preparation for higher-paid jobs if there are no more of them? What is the use of clever ideas without factories to make them into products? And when half of all our children go to University, we shouldn't be surprised that we see all the problems of a society on our campuses?

You know them well. How to keep our children safe from those who would lead them to violent acts. How to give them confidence in themselves to face an uncertain world. And for me as a leader of a university dedicated to learning and teaching for over a century, how to keep our staff morale high in the face of a welter of criticism.

These are noble tasks and I’m lucky at Sheffield to not prepare for the future alone. It isn't just our work with the world's great companies and a network of graduates around the world ranging from Nobel Prize winners to teachers and landscape architects. We have an extraordinary Students’ Union with whom we partner to do the very best for our precious charges. They completely share our goals of making a University community the very best it can be. They know the world is changing but that education still matters.

So I think we can all keep faith in higher education as long as it is faith in what is at our core, what we can actually do. So what is that? We should learn about the world and teach our students what we know.

I have been sustained by my love of science and the experiences of 45 years that have shown me that it is worthwhile learning and teaching physics. In my area of lasers and atoms, I’ve seen the application of science range from supermarket bar code scanners to computers that will crack terrorists' codes.

But doing real good isn't easy. It demands rigour, challenge and the very best minds from around the world. It takes dedication, sometimes over decades. And the value for students depends on that teaching being based on the very highest intellectual standards.

Some of our critics may think universities are only an elite finishing school tending a rosy path for the privileged, but I do know it is possible to give the best to all our children who can benefit from a university education. Indeed, my own university was founded specifically to make the best quality education available to 'the child of the working man'.

Education is a precious force and a society which invests in it invests in its own future. As an educator, while others may look to us to perfect every social ill, I believe knowledge is the only thing true thing that we have to give. And that is what must sustain us. Our love of that learning, and of teaching it to our students.

Universities can do great good, but they cannot change the world alone. If we promise what is not ours to give, we will only disappoint. Health, housing, a productive economy, a harmonious society - we can play our part but we cannot guarantee what will require hard choices and efforts by others too.

What we can do is what we do best. Learn. Teach. Share insights which will allow society to change itself. If we dream it must be with our eyes open. We must hold fast to what we are, scholars and teachers. Those we teach, and sometimes rightly challenge to their part, must do the rest.