Vice-Chancellor comment: Glints of light in the post-referendum fog

The job of university leaders is to help create prosperity and unite the country, says our Vice-Chancellor Sir Keith Burnett.

Comment: Glints of light in the post-referendum fog

by Professor Sir Keith Burnett, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, 18 July 2016, published in The Times.

Post-Brexit, we have a choice as a country. We can either make this a prosperous place to be proud of - a nation that is productive and generous and can hold its head high in the world. Or we can slump into recession and intolerance.

Who doesn't want a proud, prosperous country? Perhaps this is the one thing that unites our sorely divided nation. The people who want it most have often felt that their job or their comforts were threatened by immigrants from the EU. Whether true or not, it was honestly felt - and it hurt.

We must now work hard to make all our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, north and south, more prosperous. If not, the ugly alternative of prejudice may grow. That is our job as university leaders.

All agree that the economy and work are at the core of our future. But are there proper jobs, not made-up ones, that could set our country on a better course? There can be if we really want there to be. But first, ask yourself: what is a "proper" job?

A proper job comes from a proper need. A proper job is one that you are willing to pay for, either through your taxes or to a company that provides the goods and services you want. It is something that contributes to society and to the nation, and in doing so creates wealth for the individual.

Our first obvious need is the infrastructure that makes a great nation and without which we will always be dragging our heels. We have seen our country triumph in this before in a way that really did make us proud - in our industrial revolution and the great projects that followed.

Now we need to do it again. We know we must mend our railways and power stations and other modern-day infrastructure such as roads, digital connectivity and defence. We also know we have to pay for this, one way or another. So if there is proper need, can't we turn it into a proper job for someone in our own country?

We can, but it won't happen by announcement or by creating thousands of apprenticeships. Trained people need work to go to, as the hordes of unemployed graduates in Greece and Spain can attest. Wasting talent and potential should be a crime, but it will take more than colleges and universities to avoid it. We really need to change the world, not just the classroom.

We must now work hard to make all our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, north and south, more prosperous. If not, the ugly alternative of prejudice may grow. That is our job as university leaders

Professor Sir Keith Burnett, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield

I have seen this for myself. At Sheffield, we have degree-apprentices with 600 young people from both sides of the tracks, working and studying in a state-of-the-art industrial research environment. But we recruit companies, not students. We give opportunities to apprentices only on the condition that a job awaits them at the end.

And there is more to it than that. If there is no purpose, there are no orders for products and no jobs. Can't we just reduce the cost of borrowing for private companies so they will build bigger businesses that employ people? No, they need customers.

When it comes to grand projects and national purpose, that is why the state is there.

The first duty of the government is the defence of the realm, and that includes more than armies and tanks. Forget anxiety about state aid; what is the point of the state if not to be useful to the nation? Sometimes the country needs to be the customer of last resort on your behalf, driving purpose and meaningful employment.

In the past, this has got stuck when someone asks where the money is coming from, but here I think we have some possible movement. Theresa May is saying that she will not be restricted by existing spending limits.

There is another helpful glint of light in the post-referendum fog. If the government borrowed the money now, it would be at a miniscule interest rate. They could then buy the things we need from private UK companies that employ our own workers. We could procure with purpose.

This has been a hell of a few weeks, but the seeds of Brexit were planted over the course of decades. We have seen the near destruction of communities leading to the break-up of our "one nation". Now we need to put that right - with jobs, with the skills of the future and with a people who can once again be not prejudiced, but proud.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett CBE FRS FRSW is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield and an adviser to the UK government on infrastructure and skills.