Vice-Chancellor speaks in defence of British universities 

Professor Sir Keith Burnett used the annual lecture of The Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) last night (Wednesday 27 January 2016) to call for the UK to value the powerful contribution of universities to society.

He also urged universities themselves to defend the values of scholarship which allow them to make a difference in the world, rather than succumb to a narrow vision of education limited by metrics, rankings and ever-greater marketisation.

Sir Keith spoke of his scientific career which took him from the mining valley of the Rhondda to the USA, Oxford and most recently to our University, to ask what is worth defending in British universities, and what needs to change.

Considering the mission of universities today, Sir Keith reviewed how universities measure success and who they are for, and particularly urged the UK's research-led universities to take up the challenge of offering the high-quality vocational education linked to research, including degree apprenticeships in key areas of science and engineering.

Highlighting work to develop 600 industry-sponsored high-tech apprentices at our Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) with Boeing, a national research facility in which we work with more than 100 companies, he said: "Industry and the economy need more than research. They also need the skills of the future.

“Recent changes in our universities and polytechnics mean that highest quality vocational routes into education have in many cases withered and died. That has had disastrous consequences for the UK and for real student choice."

Sir Keith also challenged the idea that the needs of students and society will be met by greater marketisation of higher education, particularly in the areas of greatest social need ranging from vital medical research into conditions such as Motor Neurone Disease and Alzheimer's, or new forms of vocational education essential to the UK economy.

He said: "The other barrier is money. Our apprentice training which draws companies to invest in our region is subsidised by other work. We know this training can’t be done on the cheap. We don’t do it because of a market. We do it because it is right."

Speaking to an audience of eminent academics and student leaders, Sir Keith said that what is most precious in British Universities is threatened by “narrow intent, lack of resource, money – but most of all, forgetting what matters: people".

He also made an impassioned call for the role of universities in liberating the talents of staff and students of all nations. He underlined that, on Holocaust Memorial Day in particular, the UK should recognise the vital contribution to British universities of academics fleeing persecution from Nazi oppression under the Reich to today's asylum-seeking scholars from Syria and Iraq.

He said: "For all the discussions about free speech and Prevent, the fact that our great British universities allow for friendships to flourish and ideas to be shared by academic colleagues and students who also teach one another is one of our greatest causes for hope. We are a community made of many traditions and nationalities. We are British by birth and adoption, and we help give back to this country."

The Council for the Defence of British Universities

The Council for the Defence of British Universities was founded in 2012 following concerns that the values of UK universities were threatened by a marketised view of higher education which neglected the value of scholarship and its contribution to society as a whole, rather than primarily as a personal investment. Its sixty-sex founding members included eminent academics, Nobel Prize winners, the poet laureate and the Presidents of the Royal Society and British Academy.