This piece first appeared in Times Higher Education on 18.07.2016
Exactly a year ago, our new minister, Jo Johnson, gave his first major speech since being handed responsibility for universities, science and innovation. In it, he gave his commitment to “One Nation Science” – but not in a conventional lab, or in the great hall of an established university. Instead, Mr Johnson came north, to Rotherham.
What he found there may surprise you. The University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research District is a high-tech collaboration between research and industry, focused on aerospace, automotive, medical tech and nuclear energy.
His the team, who came ahead of the visit, weren’t sure at first. This didn’t look like a typical university. But Jo knew that science and industry needed to be joined at the hip.
Did he know then that making a link between science, industry and skills would be his key role in a new administration? I think not, but he is clearly up for it.
What Johson saw was a technology centre of the future. A senior colleague from Rolls-Royce explained how university scientists and engineers worked side-by-side with industry in a high-tech skunk works designed to solve live problems and create value. This was the place where we drove up the productivity for aerospace manufacturing in the UK.
But what of the other side of Johnson’s new brief – teaching?
Describing the newly expanded Department for Education, a government statement this week spoke of the benefits of bringing together schools, further education and universities to improve access for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. A new prime minister stood on the steps of 10 Downing Street and talked about the educational prospects for poor white boys comprar viagra sin receta en madrid.
Overseeing this work will be a new secretary of state for education, Justine Greening – who herself went to a comprehensive school in Rotherham.
We know something about the prospect of poor white boys in South Yorkshire, and we have done something about it. When Johnson had finished looking at the technology being developed between university and industry he saw the missing part of the puzzle.
Alongside research and companies is our University Apprentice Training Centre. Here, 600 bright young people from the other side of Sheffield – most of whom would never consider university any other way – are employed by companies and gaining an education in one of the best industrial research contexts in the world.
Why did we do that? How is that the business of a university?
When I started at Sheffield University, I looked back at my own career and thought: how did I get from being a comprehensive school boy in the Rhondda Valley to Oxford and America? Who helped me understand what was possible?
I remembered that it was because my father, after leaving school at 14, had “got on” through a mix of national service and correspondence courses. His new life as a cost and works accountant meant he could ask middle-class colleagues how it was done. Just like a black cab driver, I now had access to vital advice – the “knowledge” of the university world.
Then I looked at our ability as a university to attract boys like me, but who did not have the luxury of asking a friend. Our institution was doing well compared with many, but the prospect of debt and the need for a job in communities that may have generations of low employment made university another world. It seemed damned difficult to get into communities with no previous links to university education, however hard we tried – and try we did.
I saw that the landscape of education from housing estates to university to job was simply too rugged and complex. Not just long and winding either, there also were lots of broken sections for those without the knowledge.
So I asked an expert on local structures to think of a “Sheffield system” – a sort of sat-nav to get you from home to school and to whatever was needed to get a job. I have worked many years in the US and knew that some rates have a system of this sort.
I thought it was great idea. I was also hearing from the local city region how crucial advanced skills would be to expanding our economy and attracting new investors.
Yet as I talked to local schools I realised that, while there was a great deal of goodwill for this come about, without a policy framework of some kind to guide, it was not going to work. I also found real surprise and suspicion. Why was a research university so interested in such matters?
The reason was simple – money. Funds were tight and sharing the education of students may mean sacrificing resource. It felt to some as though we might starve them of cash.
I was on the verge of giving up when I talked to the UK’s advanced manufacturing guru, Keith Ridgway. Like me, he came from a working-class background in an industrial area and still had family for whom universities were a world apart. He explained to me that an important opportunity had come up. Rolls-Royce was building a new turbine blade factory alongside our AMRC in Rotherham, and local companies were concerned they would mop up the skilled people.
Keith said the university could build a new apprentice centre to train a new generation of “Top Gun apprentices”. This new generation, trained in the most advanced environment of its type, designed with the future of advanced manufacturing in mind, would have jobs with local and global companies.
They would not be students, taking on debt. They would be employed – but with the scope to go further. It would be true access.
Why would a university do this? Because we can.
And in the new era of education and industrial strategy, of a country divided in its opportunity, we simply must. We can link the future careers of young people with the real demands of present day companies to be part of the future of industry. We who have the advantage of drawing on world-class scholarship, and can link apprentices to a “Russell Group of companies” and their supply chains. I thought it was our duty to get in there. So we did.
I love to invite people to visit Rotherham and see this transformation for themselves. Again and again, people are surprised at the quality and potential of what lies before them. This is not a second rate future. It is aspirational and flash. Apprentices with talent can go on to degrees and beyond. It is truly allied to world-leading research and it attracts the best.
We do need a joined-up education pathway that links education to jobs, jobs that come about because of a joined-up industrial strategy that is nothing without world-leading research. Jo Johnson has a big task ahead to link the work of two departments and of different communities.
It is vital for young people and for the future of the UK that he succeeds.
This piece first appeared in Times Higher Education on 24.06.2016
So now we know…
After the debates have been had and all the votes have been counted, Britain has decided. After a lifetime in which I have felt part of a European project born out of conflict and hopeful of peace and trade, the majority of voters have decided they no longer have faith in the European Union. We are setting our course in a new direction, sailing into uncharted waters. I am not alone in wondering what it might mean.
These last few weeks have left me wondering what I should think of our country. I’ve been shocked at the opinions that some have been voicing. I have felt at times that I am not in the place I grew up. Had I misunderstood what this land of my birth really is?
I have reflected on the fact that I have nearly always been a student in a university. I have had the blessing of living in a community of scholars in Boulder Colorado, in London, in Oxford and now in Sheffield.
But I have also worried that our oasis of intellectual and societal tolerance is threatened by the storm that swirls around us. Could we even suffer a ‘Stockholm syndrome’ and start sharing the emotions that live and breathe around us? Could we lose the centre of our lives as scholars?
In a democracy, one person’s vote counts no more and no less than that of another’s. Most of us would not have it any other way, even though we may sometimes feel that it does not keep us safe from error. But what next for all we treasure together in universities?
We who have made universities our life’s work know we cannot be completely independent of the world around us and we don’t want to be. Our scholarship is deeply based on collaboration and a sense of education which owes so much to our continent.
Yes I am gutted that this is the decision which has been reached, and certainly not only for myself. I think back to the great teachers and scholars from across the continent who inspired me, but far more of the staff and students from other European countries who are with us now. I wonder what they must be feeling, and think of what they have already said to me – practical questions about what this means for their daily lives, work opportunities and residency.
Academics engaged in projects with other EU universities drawing on EU funding wonder about the future of their work. What of Erasmus and other kinds of educational exchange? Brexit may have other consequences too, on our economy or on the investment choices of our major commercial partners. It could mean further tightening of immigration rules.
The answer to such questions will no doubt take a while to become clear. In my life I have seen a number of significant votes (in this country and around the world) and the consequences have taken a while to understand.
But I am sure of one thing. A parting of ways in a political union must not mean a separation of scholarship or scholars, and we must do all in our power to ensure this is so. We are part of a tradition of teaching and scholarship which is centuries old and which cannot be constrained by national borders. Now as never before it matters that we keep that flame alive.
My overwhelming sense is that we must keep damn close together as a community, remembering our purpose. I also think we will need to preserve what matters most to us now by proceeding with a common sense approach to the changes and adopt the old method of ‘suck it and see’. Democracy may have presented me with the future I did not choose. What is in my power and yours is how we respond to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Over the referendum campaign we heard it said that the British people were tired of ‘the experts’. Others responded to our concerns by saying we were part of the elite that doesn’t care about the common man.
Well I believe that we do care, and that our work matters. Not just for ourselves but to all those individuals and communities who will need our medical breakthroughs, the impact of our science and innovation, and the profound insights of our social sciences, arts and humanities.
This country is home to many of the world’s great universities and they will continue to be global in outlook and in their impact. It is my fervent hope that UK universities will continue to offer a place of welcome to scholars and students from across the continent and our world. Together we must drive innovation in science, technology and medicine; understand our society through the ages and what we can be in the future; and protect the food we eat on this planet.
We know that our home is a speck in a vast universe. But on that speck we have built observatories where we see the ripples in space time from the truly violent events of far, far away.
We’ll do our best to learn and inspire future generations, and to be a refuge – a refuge for those who seek a place where discovery and debate over ideas are its king and queen.