The importance of keeping faith in higher education

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As I sat with a concerned group of educators, each wondering how best to secure the future of teaching and research, I was asked the classic interview question. “What is the greatest challenge that higher education will face over the years ahead?”

Possible answers swirled around my mind, but only one came out of my mouth: “To keep faith in higher education.”

You might think that was a strange answer. After all, who wouldn’t want an educated workforce, trained doctors and scientists, or the innovation and investment by companies in towns and cities across the UK directly linked to universities? In fact, as one person said, if you want a city to thrive, build a university and then wait 100 years.

Only not everyone is a fan. And there are real challenges now almost half of young people enter higher education, all too often in the absence of good alternatives. So I wanted to be as honest as I could. Of all the worries about universities at the moment from fees to free speech, from radicalisation to relevance, why did I say what I did?

To believe in the public good of higher education does not come hard to me. I was the first in my family to enter university, and my journey to Oxford from the mining valleys of South Wales was one of discovery in more ways than one.

What I’ve learned since then as I have taught students in the US and the UK is how they can lift many into better lives and jobs. Universities can – and do – make young people better citizens of our country and of the world. They drive innovation in industry and make our land more prosperous.

Just look at the recent announcements of manufacturing investment in South Yorkshire or work on agri-science and industrial biotechnology in York. The UK’s leading research-intensive universities alone generate over £34bn each year for the UK economy – three of those great universities are in Yorkshire.

But now higher education itself is experiencing unprecedented criticism. While many around the world look to us with admiration, even envy, questions are asked about whether higher education is a force for good at all. Was I wrong to have this faith?

No, I was right and all those who gave through their taxes and efforts as teachers and researchers have worked to make breakthroughs in science and engineering, in the understanding of history or in the realm of computer science were right too.

So were those who patiently trained doctors and teachers, architects and social workers. Who ensured some of the most admired assets Britain still has globally are our wonderful universities. But, as Dirty Harry famously said, we have to know our limitations. And the citizens we support must know them too!

For after all, what use is preparation for higher-paid jobs if there are no more of them? What is the use of clever ideas without factories to make them into products? And when half of all our children go to university, we shouldn’t be surprised that we see all the problems of a society on our campuses.

You know them well. How to keep our children safe from those who would lead them to violent acts. How to give them confidence in themselves to face an uncertain world. And for me, as a leader of a university dedicated to learning and teaching for over a century, how to keep our staff morale high in the face of a welter of criticism.

I’m lucky at Sheffield to not prepare for the future alone. It isn’t just our work with the world’s great companies and a network of graduates around the world. We also have an extraordinary Students’ Union which knows the world is changing but that education still matters.

So I think we can all keep faith in higher education as long as it is faith in what is at our core. So what is that? We should learn about the world and teach our students what we know.

I have been sustained by my love of science and the experiences of 45 years that have shown me that it is worthwhile learning and teaching physics. In my area of lasers and atoms, I’ve seen the application of science range from supermarket barcode scanners to computers that will crack terrorists’ codes.

But doing real good isn’t easy. It demands rigour, challenge and the very best minds from around the world. Universities can do great good, but they cannot change the world alone. If we promise what is not ours to give, we will only disappoint. Health, housing, a productive economy, a harmonious society – we can play our part but we cannot guarantee what will require hard choices and efforts by others too.

What we can do is what we do best. Learn. Teach. Share insights which will allow society to change itself. If we dream it must be with our eyes open. We must hold fast to what we are, scholars and teachers. Those we teach, and sometimes rightly challenge to their part, must do the rest.

Professor Keith Burnett is chairman of the White Rose Consortium of universities