Mandelson’s mission to build knowledge and creativity

Setting out his stall as head of the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, government First Secretary Lord Mandelson answers a series of written questions put to him by Times Higher Education.

June 16, 2009

Times Higher Education: What benefits will the new “super ministry” bring to higher education, and what should universities conclude from the decision to put them in a department alongside business rather than alongside schools? What should subjects that are less obviously “economically valuable” (such as the arts and humanities) infer from the new set-up in Whitehall?

Lord Mandelson: Nobody would disagree that our universities and colleges are as much about the cultural bedrock of our society as the competitiveness of the economy. So why bring them into a department whose core remit is Britain’s economic development?

The simple answer is that the mission of the new department is to build Britain’s resources of skill, knowledge and creativity. These things drive our competitiveness both directly, but also indirectly by reinforcing our cultural awareness, confidence and sense of our past and future. Character and competitiveness are not mutually exclusive. They should not be regarded as alternatives. Higher and further education underwrite them both by enabling people to make the most of their talents and their lives.

Our society is enriched through learning. Supporting our universities will always mean valuing knowledge, inquiry and understanding for their own sake. In everything from Classics to advanced physics, we remain committed to academic excellence. Our higher education system forms a core part of not just the UK’s but the world’s intellectual and cultural landscape – and that must continue.

THE: There has been a lot of debate about quality and standards in higher education recently, including a select committee inquiry into the issue. Do you have concerns about standards, and would you like to see the Quality Assurance Agency being given a stronger role?

Lord Mandelson: Our universities have an international reputation for excellence, which is why there are record numbers of students attending them. We should remember that UK universities are the second-most-popular destination for international students after those in the United States.

This reputation for excellence has been maintained at a time of a rapid expansion in student numbers.

Taking this into account, and as John Denham has said previously, while there is not a systemic problem with quality and standards, the system needs to be better at dealing with the comparatively small number of allegations calling those areas into question. To do nothing would risk undermining the world-class reputation our institutions enjoy, and that’s why work is under way with the QAA and others to ensure we can move forward productively.

THE: With demand for higher education greater than ever, and in a time of recession when much is made of the need to “upskill” the nation, what will you be doing to address the cap on the expansion of university places imposed last year?

Lord Mandelson: With the creation of BIS we will continue to invest in a higher education system that is committed to widening participation and access and equips people with the skills and knowledge to compete in a global economy and to secure and enhance Britain’s existing world-class research base.

Next year, there will be more students going to university than ever before, taking advantage of the record number of funded places on offer. There will be 40,000 more accepted applicants than just three years ago – and right now, there are 300,000 more students in the system since 1997.

This is good news for British society and our economy, especially in a recession when it is more important than ever before that we build a highly skilled workforce to create a strong future and deliver cutting-edge research and world-class products and services.

THE: What are your personal views on tuition fees –should students be expected to make greater financial contributions in the future and, if so, should universities be expected to offer students more (in terms of contact hours, for example) as a quid pro quo of their paying for their education? Will the Government make clear its position on fees before the next general election?

Lord Mandelson: Later this year, we will carry out an independent review on tuition fees so I am not going to pre-judge its outcome through detailed comment ahead of that.

What I will say is that with record numbers of students, there is no evidence to suggest people are being put off going to university because of fees.

We need to continue working to ensure our higher- education system remains world class at a time of rapid change. But, as John Denham said before me, the issues at hand are broader than simply the debate about putting fees up and by how much. We need to have a long-term approach, which is why we will publish a strategic framework for the future of the sector which will set out a vision for higher education over the next 10-15 years before the review of fees.

THE: How would you respond to the suggestion that your remit as First Secretary is so wide that higher education is unlikely to get the same attention from you as it did from John Denham, as a dedicated universities secretary?

Lord Mandelson: Universities play an absolutely key role in building a stronger future for Britain based on its resources of skill, knowledge and creativity, but also in enriching the character of our society.

I am very proud of this Government’s exceptional record on higher education and the hard work to support our universities at the heart of Government will be continued in BIS by Higher Education Minister David Lammy and the wider ministerial team that I lead.

THE: Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, introduced the idea of increasing funding to areas of research that match the UK’s industrial base, leading to the reallocation of £106 million within the ring-fenced science budget. Will you be looking to redirect more research funding to areas of industrial strength?

Lord Mandelson: Alongside the rest of Government and the public sector, it is right that the research community plays its part in the drive to make the most of taxpayers’ money. That is why they were asked to secure efficiency savings of just over £100 million.

Importantly for science, and unlike in other areas, the savings the research councils will make will not be used elsewhere but ploughed back into research spending.

It was for the councils themselves to decide how they will generate the savings, and they will decide how to apply them.

THE: You told journalists at the science museum last week that applied research “will obviously receive greater emphasis”. Can you elaborate on this?

Lord Mandelson: Alongside the Prime Minister and Lord Drayson, I am fully committed to the ring-fence around the record science and research budget and the principles that govern scientific independence.

The research councils have themselves highlighted five priority areas on which they will be focusing more in the coming years, and that includes funding for basic research in certain areas such as regenerative medicine or energy.

On top of all of this, organisations such as the Technology Strategy Board are successfully investing in technology and innovation in key areas where there are major opportunities for future growth. Indeed, the £50 million allocated as part of the Strategic Investment Fund for the Technology Strategy Board, will enable it to expand its support.

Life sciences and low-carbon business support projects will be brought forward in the months ahead, and I expect these will draw on the Strategic Investment Fund, too.

Anyone who thinks that an emphasis on economic impact needs to take place at the expense of fundamental science is wrong. Any research base that does not include a substantial element of fundamental, curiosity-driven research will not be relevant economically in anything but the short term.

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