Why universities need to become cornerstones of our society

PUBLISHED: 09:57 14 February 2020 | UPDATED: 09:57 14 February 2020

Universities like the UEA need to offer courses with employment iin mind says former Norwich MP Charles Clarke

Universities like the UEA need to offer courses with employment iin mind says former Norwich MP Charles Clarke


Rt Hon Charles Clarke argues that universities need to offer more than just a three-year degree course, they need to design courses with employment in mind and strengthen links with the communities around them

Norfolk has two successful universities. UEA was founded 57 years ago while NUA started life as Norwich School of Design in 1845 and gained full university status seven years ago. They make distinctive important contributions to post-school education both in the county and nationally.

They are part of the national university network which addresses the major challenges that our society faces in a rapidly changing world. They are well known in fields such as climate change, food security, creative arts, design and writing and they educate students across a wide range of disciplines.

Their contribution is needed because every week brings new and often dangerous challenges, with events as disparate as the coronavirus, intense fires in Australia, the Brexit disruption of international trade and the spread of 5G, with its implications for artificial intelligence and our systems of manufacturing production.

Universities such as UEA and NUA are best placed to offer ways to address these puzzles. They do the research that analyses what is happening and tries to identify solutions to the problems which change creates. They educate about half the young people in this country. They create the intellectually engaging culture which promotes the virtues of understanding and science which are the best antidote to the threatening "fake news" culture. And they are best placed to regenerate those communities which have been the biggest losers from globalisation.

But are universities across the world making enough of the powerful contribution we need? Despite their already remarkable achievements, they need to do a lot better. That's the way for them to recover the public confidence which sometimes seems to be ebbing away.

University education needs to engage better with employers to ensure that graduates are better equipped for the world of work. They should design courses with future employability in mind. The shelf-life for the traditional front-loaded education model, focusing upon 18-23 year olds, is limited. The traditional three-year degree is only one pattern: new modes of study - part-time and online - should be available throughout life. Universities could provide their alumni with lifelong education products.

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University research needs to give greater priority to overcoming the world's toughest challenges. Universities have already had an enormous effect in areas such as health, benefiting us with longer and better lives and success in contesting appalling afflictions such as cancer. In fields like climate change, research has enormously increased our understanding of what is happening but has so far been less successful in pointing to how we can deal with it.

Universities' local economic and social impact is immense and can transform the prospects for communities otherwise left behind by globalisation and redundant or uneconomic technologies. Universities need comprehensive strategies to strengthen their relationships with their local communities.

The value of universities, demonstrated by their contributions to better education, more productive research and to stronger communities, shows how wrong are those vocal opponents who decry "experts" or argue against university expansion. On the contrary, we need to continue to extend university education and encourage access for those from disadvantaged communities, as both UEA and NUA seek to do.

Universities need to be independent and sustainably financed. Governments should contribute because society benefits. Individual students should contribute because they benefit personally. And employers should contribute because they benefit from a highly educated workforce.

Despite the concerns that some raise now, this is not the time for universities to retreat. Now is the time for universities to transform and then promote themselves as the best means by which our world can overcome the challenges which it faces.

Universities need to take the lead. Each university needs a clear mission that reflects its real strengths and identifies its real opportunities, strongly supports and develops university leadership and promotes the diversity of the academic community.

We need to have confidence in the contribution made by our universities and universities need to demonstrate why they deserve that confidence.

Charles Clarke was MP for Norwich South from 1997 to 2010 and is a former secretary of state for education and skills. He is the author, with Ed Byrne, of the University Challenge, published last week

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