Industry against the creation of private universities

Posted on 5 Jan 2012

Although the initial response to the announcement by the Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts, urging private companies to fund new science-based universities was positive, a number of industry figures have told The Manufacturer that the government should focus on improving the system we already have in place.  

Colin Brown, director of engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), was pleased that Mr Willetts reminded the nation that science and technology is important to the UK economy.

However, Mr Brown was concerned as to the direction of the higher education system if privately funded universities were to be set-up. “If we move our university sector towards the rich and famous, the UK’s large SME sector is not going to be able to play that game. It relies on a good public university system that provides graduates it can take advantage of.”

Brown asked, “What problem is he [David Willetts] trying to solve? We need to keep focused on what it is the problem might be, and I’m not sure the private university is solving any problem.”

“We’ve already got a world class university system,” said Brown. “Rather than tinkering with the higher education system, we should look at the ways we get people from that system into useful engineering employment in the UK”

“The people who can take advantage of this are wealthy individuals and businesses. But if a UK company wanted graduates, they could find them from our existing universities.”

Asked about the government’s target to increase in private funding by 10%, Brown responded: “It’s interesting that the government can set targets for private funding. That’s not the way it works. Instead, the government should encourage industry to develop and become profitable.”

“IMechE prefers looking at the way we use our existing resources rather than inventing some new scheme of private university to develop something,” he concluded.

Andrew Esson, managing director at Quick Hydraulics, who set up a company-run degree at his former company ContiTech Beattie, said: “There is going to be a lot of time and money invested into this new project, and there is no guarantee that it is going to be any better than what we already have.”

“What’s wrong with ensuring that the existing academic institutes are fully supported and ensuring that those institutions are properly connected to business?” asked Mr Esson.

Esson, who won the title of North East Business Executive of the Year for Tyneside and Northumberland in 2010, said the main problem between academia and industry was that universities are impacted by the academic year so “work to a different timescale to manufacturing.”

Esson commented that he would like to see central funding to improve the system because of the uncertainties of working with academia.

Esson was wary as to whether businesses would want to invest in the new science and technology universities that Mr Willetts proposed. He pointed out that small businesses are limited financially and bigger businesses already run their own schemes.

Mr Esson said that “businesses tend to invest funds internally because they have a high degree of competence and can control and manage the processes.” The only reason he could foresee companies investing was for the positive PR.