Comment: Can a university education still guarantee prosperity?
Professor Sir Keith Burnett, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, writes for The Telegraph on whether a university education can still guarantee prosperity.
Can a university education still guarantee prosperity?
by Professor Sir Keith Burnett, 20.12.17, published in The Telegraph
More than 1.6 million undergraduates are now taught full-time in British universities each year, and that figure is rising. Student numbers have doubled over the last decade and a half. But are they getting a good deal?
This is not just a question for the UK, driven by student debt and executive pay. Around the world, politicians and families are wondering how we got here and if university is a good thing as the impact of personal and private debt from education grows.
Middle class doubts about the long-held aspirations of a better life for their children have grown from Baltimore to Beijing.
Those fears are well-founded. A university system built on the backs of a growing middle class needs to adapt in a world in which the nature of opportunity and work are changing beyond recognition.
My own story goes back to the smoke from coal fires of the Rhondda Valley in 1953. As the young Keith learned his three Rs, my parents saw a child with an ability which meant he may never to have to work at a coal seam deep under the valley floor.
University for me was another world. My Physics tutors at Oxford had worked on the generation of microwaves that detected the German bombers. They had developed the nuclear technologies of the Atom Bomb and helped win the war. Their discoveries would power industries and reveal the mysteries of our universe.
The dramatic expansion of science in universities – a four-fold increase at places like Oxford – was driven by a belief that the future was full of science and technology. That’s the mission I joined.
By the time I left university, it was obvious I'd made my move just in time. The pits in the Rhondda were closing and jobs in industry of any kind were getting scarce. I became a teacher at a university and travelled to the United States – the country that had sent men to the moon.
As a scientist in the US, I saw that universities can be the source of ideas that generate wealth and jobs. This combination was so powerful that it drove a rapid expansion of careers in finance, IT and other services. It seemed as though we had found the magic route to social mobility.
But it was never education alone that guaranteed secure jobs and prosperity. Elite universities were as much the finishing schools of this new meritocracy as they were generators of ideas. As the industry of the UK faded in its dominance, graduate premiums inevitably faded too.
Economic growth was moving East. As Japan, Germany, then China stood up, it was hard for the UK to accept that the Western middle class could not keep growing at a rapid post-War pace.
Later, the heritage industries of the US and even China turned into rust belt as Vietnam and Indonesia offered cheaper labour and South Korea rose as a manufacturing giant.
For parents who still wanted a middle-class life for their child, the graduation photograph became a symbol of success in itself, a visa into the middle class. They would condemn any government that denied it.
So, political manoeuvring began. Expansion was matched with a shift towards student loans and compound interest to attract private provision. Numbers of students were uncapped.
Politicians claim we can access the graduation photo by faster and cheaper means, but the product itself is not quite the same. They say, let the market decide.
We could not be honest and say that a prosperous life depended not just on education, but on a prosperous economy. Can we change course?
Companies looking to localise their manufacturing in the UK and put new production alongside research are collaborating with universities to revolutionise production and win orders. This is transforming teaching, too.
After teaching at Oxford and doing research with some colleagues who reached Nobel status, I moved to Sheffield and my view of what a university could be was transformed.
At Orgreave, previously an industrial graveyard, is an advanced manufacturing research campus where over 100 companies were developing the very latest ideas for aerospace, automotive industry, next generation healthcare and nuclear energy. The robotics and virtual reality enabled companies like Rolls-Royce, Boeing and McLaren to adapt to a new manufacturing environment.
What really signalled change was that, alongside traditional engineering degrees, almost a thousand apprentices were gaining skills of the future, sponsored by the elite industries who need them to be innovative.
This is not the only way to dismantle old divides of apprentice vs student, FE vs HE, technical vs academic which have plagued our culture and our national life, but what works on Orgreave can and does work in other places – in the North West, in Scotland, the USA, Oman, South Korea and China – and even in South Wales, close to where I grew up.
I honour the scholarship of Oxford where I was taught, and where I taught for 20 years. I am glad that brilliant teaching exists in the UK but we have to be honest that an expanded system is not delivering all we hoped for; it is costing the country and graduates a lot.
Dare we abandon our prejudices and make vocational routes the gold-plated aspirational path to future prosperity? It is time to rethink our ideas of success and measure scholarship and teaching in better ways.