The President and Vice Chancellor reflects on giving evidence to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee on the financing of higher education.

Dear colleagues,

This week I gave evidence to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee on the financing of higher education. They had many questions about how universities function, pressing me and colleagues from Cambridge, Imperial and Brunel about everything from 'value for money' to whether a so-called market in higher education will lead to a better quality of education for students.

As I answered the committee and tried to help them understand the realities of higher education, it made me reflect on my 45 years at university. This is such a different academic world to the one I entered in 1972. I’m sure it is different from the world that many of my colleagues joined too.

How to convey the value and purpose of what we do to the scrutinising Lords? I certainly never expected to stay at university after my degree. I had presumed I would leave Oxford, most likely to work in some professional job or another. Indeed, I very nearly did work for Royal Dutch Shell in London or as one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Taxes. The selection procedure for both of these posts was fascinating!

But my teachers were encouraging, as well as occasionally and quite rightly brutal, and said that I should be thinking of going on to doctoral studies. And so I did, with the strong encouragement of my wife-to-be, Anne.

It wasn't easy. But as my doctoral work progressed, my supervisor and firm supporter Professor Derek Stacey encouraged me to do a Postdoctoral Fellowship in the United States. By that time I had caught the research bug which meant I could work tirelessly for months on a technical issue that intrigued me. When I look at my notebooks from that time I am shocked at my determination. I certainly needed it as I quickly became an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado.

My first years as an academic were tough but rewarding times for me as a scientist. I found though that I could be a success as a teacher and researcher and in many ways it set me up for my future career. My colleagues in Boulder were inspiring and challenging with their ambitious research programmes. I even remember discussions about gravitational wave detection in the early eighties, never imagining what breakthroughs we would see!

I also learned the crucial role of science in driving innovation, technology and commerce. In the USA, I saw first-hand how new experimental laser systems became products sold to institutions - technical and medical - around the world. I learned how scientific prowess led to international reputation. I understood PhD students doing research were the fundamental powerhouse of innovation.

Those lessons have stuck with me and are surprisingly relevant in my unexpected later role of Vice-Chancellor. I've worked now in many different places and as part of a wide range of universities and organisations, and in every one it has been clear that there is no structure or policy that can be effective without the most crucial of all ingredients - brilliant people.

Strangely the Lords didn't ask about the scholars themselves, and perhaps that was one reason I felt a gap between their questions and the reality of the universities I know. Teaching and research don't exist apart from the people who make that effort their life's work.

How do you describe what makes a university what it is without naming names? Last week I had dinner with my dear colleague Eric Cornell in London. It is decades now since we first met, but I remember him as a brilliant young scientist coming to work with Carl Wieman, who I had helped come to Boulder in 1984. After our meal together, he took a picture of me with his daughter Eliza who I had once looked after as a baby, now herself a student. To me, Eric is not only an academic and Nobel Laureate, he is a fellow physicist and a friend. I know that the web of relationships such as these is what underpins our best work.

Of course, scholarship and talented people also need dough.

Back in the UK, first at Imperial College and then at Oxford, I saw an academic system with poor funding compared to what I had left behind in the US. Funding in particular for doctoral students was meagre compared to Boulder. People didn’t seem to understand they were the true researchers, not simply students. The academic life sometimes hits times of deep frustration. To be blunt I did not see how I would be able to do the science I wanted to and in my early thirties I started looking for jobs outside academia.

But my scientific life was changed by a windfall. I can claim no credit for the money that the University Grants Committee gave to the laser bunch at Imperial, apart from the fact that Pete, Henry and I did have a dream. That vision was sketched on a few sheets with rudimentary costing. That turned out to be enough and we started the Laser Consortium that still does superb research in the Quantum Optics and Laser Science group at Imperial College. After that my career turned up and became a wonderful life in science that I could never have dreamt of.

What followed were, we now realise, golden days of funding under the Labour government’s enlightened Science Minister Lord David Sainsbury. He has just celebrated his foundation having given £1 billion to science and education. He knows what is truly important in building people’s lives through investment in things that can improve them.

Will scholarship once again be saved by a decision to fund talented people? I hope so. Surely the UK needs it, though at the moment it also risks losing some of the very academics and students it will need most.

It is hard to convey to a committee the frustrations and accidents of scholarship, the chief of these being people. I was reminded of several of the true blessings of being a teacher this week. The first was speaking to a brilliant woman who did her D.Phil in theoretical quantum statistical physics with me in Oxford and is now at the European Central Bank, after working at the Treasury and Bank of England. The second was planning a visit to China with another of my Oxford students who is having a phenomenal career in the science and technology of virtual reality and artificial intelligence in the People's Republic. He is working with me to help us develop our University's Chinese industrial partnerships and was back in Sheffield talking to people in the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre. I am as proud of his achievements in his own companies as he is of now being a Sheffield professor.

These are just two of the gifted people who made my own scientific career a magical one as well as making me proud as a teacher. Our relationships are affectionate with lots of memories of shared challenge and success. I am proud of the science we did together. But they have also brought knowledge and ideas to worlds as diverse as banking and virtual reality.

And that is what university is to me - a world in which scholarship transforms individual and collective lives. And, of course, measuring its impact on those individuals and society is really hard. So as we talked in the House of Lords about the present system of funding higher education, I realised how tough it is to reconcile different world views. One is a vision of customers and competition and the other of scholarship, affection and shared adventures in knowledge that can change the world or how we understand it.

As their Lordships questioned about students in the abstract, I looked over to the corner of the room where I could see one of last year's Sheffield sabbatical officers who has landed her first role supporting the committee. I thought of the heartfelt conversations we had together about fees and the Teaching Excellence Framework. I remembered principled concerns and deep frustration at a direction in HE policy which alarmed our students. I thought of all the colleagues who make up a university.

I know that the rewarding experience of scholarship I have had is not universal. I recognise I have been truly blessed. But the forces now bearing down on my colleagues are harsher than I have known. I see that the great and life-changing public good of education I once took for granted is now being questioned.

We need to find ways to better explain what we do at universities. I will do my best on that front. But it is not only the pressure from a government committee that reminds me that we shall need to change, as we always have. We already want to be the place in which young people can learn well, where knowledge can thrive and its applications can transform industries and the health and wellbeing of society. I know this commitment is shared by my colleagues, and I thank you once more for the great effort you put in to make this a reality in sometimes frustrating circumstances.

I am wary that not all see just what effort goes into our work, sometimes a whole lifetime of a labour of love. So I also pray we do not make a better world for our students by making a worse one for their teachers.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett CBE FRS FLSW
President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield