The Times Higher 's first foray into the world of awards has been encouraging and eye-opening. The response has not only demonstrated the extraordinary range of high-quality work taking place in UK universities and colleges, it has also shown that its value is more widely appreciated than many academics might suspect. Sponsors have been keen to become involved, busy people have given their time to be judges and the Prime Minister has added his support. None of this will compensate for low pay or poor funding, but it indicates that higher education is recognised as playing a vital and successful part in the forging of modern Britain. The same could not be said of all parts of the public service.
Tony Blair filmed his message for the awards dinner the day after his Government had been defeated on the Terrorism Bill. The timing was ironic because the last issue to bring him close to the parliamentary abyss was top-up fees. Whatever view one takes of this reform, few would have expected Mr Blair to risk his administration over it. That he was prepared to do so speaks volumes for the growing centrality of higher education in society and in the building of economic prosperity. When the Prime Minister says that "developed and developing nations alike all understand the crucial importance of higher education", these are not simply platitudes.
The Times Higher 's awards celebrate the diversity as well as the excellence of UK universities and colleges. Salford University's "community reinvestment trust", for example, shows what academics can do for local people; Central England's Breakthrough to Learning project opens the door to higher education for students who would never have benefited in the past. From the innovative distance learning scheme of the nascent University of the Highlands and Islands to the ground-breaking research of University College London's National Cancer Research Institute, the quality of the winners is undeniable. Indeed, some categories were so closely fought that the judges would gladly have made four awards. A case in point was the Higher Education Institution of the Year, the award that will inevitably attract most attention. Dundee's achievements, particularly in the life sciences, have been outstanding; Leicester's all-round progress represented a serious challenge; while the scale of Winchester's achievement in winning university status speaks for itself. But the success of Manchester University's merger with the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and the impact of its 2015 Vision constituted an unanswerable case for the inaugural award. It is early days for the merged institution, but the signs are that its ambitions to break into the "golden triangle" of London and Oxbridge are realistic.
One predicted downside of the Manchester merger was the prospect of a damaging effect on neighbouring universities. But the ambitious plans announced this week by Manchester Metropolitan University suggest a much more positive outcome. The investment of £200 million to unify the university and cater for 25,000 students on what would become the UK's largest campus is predicated on success breeding success. The city's growing reputation as a higher education centre, serving every level of teaching and research need, leaves room for more than one leading institution.
The awards were designed to highlight success in all types of university and college, and to focus attention on the efforts of the men and women who work in higher education. Planning is already under way for next year's honours, with proposals for more awards and the likelihood of increased entries and an even bigger event. There is an appetite within and outside higher education for a celebration of an often understated success story.
We hope that the awards will fill this gap and become a regular date on the academic calendar.