As we approach the second quarter of the 21st century, we know society faces tough challenges which strain human ingenuity. We want to de-carbonise the economy – but how do we do it whilst securing standards of living which people take for granted? We want people to exercise more – but how do we achieve this when we have designed physical exertion out of day-to-day life and work?
We want an efficient and effective transport system but without appalling environmental destruction and – linked to the first two problems – without increasing carbon emissions and embedding sedentary lifestyles. I could go on: the challenges of this century involve sophisticated relationships between technology, innovation and society, and with difficult trade-offs. There are no simple answers.
It would be really good if we had institutions designed to address these complex challenges. It would be even better if those institutions were not only set up to solve these problems but geared to passing on the answers to future generations. Fortunately, we do have these institutions. They are called universities.
Their potential for helping us to get deliverable answers to complex problems is enormous. Universities, probably, represent our best hope for the future. Even better, we have 11 of them in Yorkshire. At my own university, Sheffield Hallam, the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre is a world-leading research and development facility for examining ways to promote population health and wellbeing through exercise.
My colleagues there are working out how, exactly, we can address the linked problems of sedentary lifestyles and long-term conditions not simply by encouraging people to move more but embedding changes in their lives – with huge impacts on individuals and long-term health costs.
In Leeds City Region, the universities collaborate in an excellent medical technology (med-tech) cluster providing a world-class asset that is finding solutions to health challenges and spinning out high growth businesses in digital health. As a result, Leeds has more digital health companies than Oxford and Cambridge combined.
Research is important, but so is the dissemination and implementation of results: making a difference for cities and regions. Again, at Sheffield Hallam, the university’s degree apprenticeship centre is improving higher-level and technical skills of local people across the region.
In total, 180,000 students study at Yorkshire’s universities. These institutions support 56,000 jobs in the region – 30,000 are directly employed by the sector and a further 26,000 jobs are supported in the supply chain. Universities contribute £3bn per annum to Yorkshire’s economy. I’ve focused on health and science so far, but equally important are contributions to the arts: the outstanding work of Leeds College of Music and Leeds Arts University in shaping the future of the creative economy, or the rapid development of a digital sector in Sheffield with strong links to the two universities.
Whatever happens on December 12, we face extraordinary challenges as a nation. There are difficult choices ahead, and those choices involve complicated decisions. They need hard thinking. That means they need support from organisations which are geared to do hard thinking and, as important, to prepare the next generation to do even harder thinking.
Around the world, nations are investing in their universities. Almost half of all Chinese young people now go on to higher education, as do over half of Americans and a remarkable three-quarters of South Koreans. This is not a luxury for those countries: it’s a hard-headed investment in the future.
Here, we’ve made progress on widening access to universities, but by comparison with these other nations we are still lagging: in the UK only two-fifths of 18-year-olds progress to higher education. The figure in Yorkshire is about one-third. In an ever more complex world we need to develop all the talent we can. Whoever forms the next government needs to continue to invest in and improve access to higher education.
Universities matter to all of us, because being able to answer hard questions matters.
Professor Sir Chris Husbands is Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University.