Im­por­tance of keep­ing faith in higher ed­u­ca­tion

Yorkshire Post - - OPINION -

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.

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