Interview: Universities and Science Minister David Willetts

Posted on 8 Apr 2013

The message is clear – government support will stand fast, but more private sector investment in skills and facilities will be needed to maintain competitiveness.

When recession struck, Conservative ministers were taking office with a pledge to reduce government spending. Against this backdrop, Universities and Science Minister David Willetts says his biggest achievement has been “protecting the science and research budget so that universities and the research base comes out of the recession in reasonable health.”

Science escaped the big cuts that some researchers had feared from the government’s spending review in 2010. Instead, the UK science budget, which covers everything from medical research to engineering and arts, was fixed at its 2010 level of £4.6 billion for the next four years. But this is still a reduction in real terms, and while research funding has been safeguarded to some extent, funding for facilities investment has declined since being moved outside the remit of the science budget.

Luring private investment

With 45% of UK GDP coming from knowledge intensive services, cutting research budgets might be considered the economic equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot. But Government is relying on private investment to fill the gap, dangling a carrot in front of business through the UK Research Partnership Investment fund.

In June 2012 it made £100m available for R&D facilities at universities on the condition they find £200m from business partners to augment the investment. Businesses obliged, with Jaguar Land Rover investing £77m in a new automotive campus at the University of Warwick and Rolls-Royce investing £40m to establish a metals research centre at the University of Birmingham. These investments account for 84% and 67% of the respective project costs.

Following this success, Chancellor George Osborne increased the UK Research Partnership Investment fund by £200m in October last year in order to extract another £600m of private funding.

Commenting on the success of the initiative, Willets says it relies on government showing it has its “skin in the game”. In other words, a feeling of risk sharing is as important to many as the lure of financial support. Large businesses have, in effect, outsourced some of their R&D departments to universities in order to reduce the risk they are exposed to.

This model will work while the UK is home to the best universities in the world. But competition from abroad is starting to challenge this long held assumption. This year Britain has nine of the op ten universities ranked by Times Higher Education, but this is one fewer than in 2012, with the University of Leeds falling off of the list. Meanwhile, China increased its science budget by 12.4% in 2012, seeking to transform its reliance on low value production.

Short on skills

Skills are an essential part of ensuring that research translates into British jobs, rather than the country becoming a design hub for goods made elsewhere before finally fading completely form the life cycle of tomorrow’s products.

A study by the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2012 found that British industry will need 100,000 new graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects every year until 2020 just to maintain current employment numbers in industry.

“The old route map [into university] has been torn up and no new route map has been drawn up”

The UK currently produces just 90,000 STEM graduates a year, with many choosing not to go into manufacturing and a large proportion being international students who cannot obtain work visas. In the academic year 2011/2012 62% of non-EU domiciled students came from Asia – a competitiveness conundrum in itself.

But despite engineering skills shortages in the UK, Willetts says he is against cutting university fees, now capped at £9,000, in areas where there are skills gaps.

“It’s not how the system works,” he asserts. “It’s a partnership between the taxpayer, the student, and, increasingly, business as well.

“It’s not the volume of engineers and scientists you produce it’s what kind of education they have,” adds Willetts. “Businesses say ‘German graduates can take charge of a plant overnight but you can’t risk that with a British graduate.’ Even in physical disciplines, university has become very class-based without sufficient practical experience.”

“Even in physical disciplines, university has become very class-based without sufficient practical experience”

The universities and science minister is a firm believer in industrial placements and, tasked with trying to do more with less, Willetts hopes that business will support him in building the practical skills needed by industry. Don’t “count the cost down to the last £1,000 but offer young people the chance to develop,” he urges.

The need for practicality is met with practicality from the minister. While supporting campaigns to bring more diversity into academia and industry – in terms of gender and ethnicity – Willetts is keen that universities and their partners should do as much targeted communication with white, working-class boys.

This is “a group of under-represented people in universities” he says, and a segment which makes up a large proportion of Britain’s million-odd unemployed 16-24 year olds. But entry routes to university for this, and other demographics, are changing says Willetts. “The old route map has been torn up and no new route map has been drawn up,” he states while promoting the contribution of high quality apprenticeships in raising skills sets to graduate and post graduate levels.

The minister’s recognition of new, alternative avenues to higher level skills, coupled with his emphasis on investment partnerships between government, academia and industry, suggests a new vision for UK universities. Perhaps one which is more in tune with the needs of globalised industry and calls for parity between vocationally applied skills and academic know how.