Shadow says to put industry first

September 28, 2007

A new type of university dedicated to serving industry needs has been proposed by the Conservative Shadow Minister for Higher Education.

Rob Wilson told The Times Higher in an interview ahead of the party's annual conference next week: "There is an opportunity for a group of universities, which are neither research-intensive nor focused on widening participation, to develop a new model - that of a business university, with employer engagement and employability of students as the main mission."

While some universities were putting effort into "employer-facing" activities, none had this as a main aim, said Mr Wilson, who is a director of Pocket Group, a telecoms company, and MP for Reading East. "The focus would go way beyond what universities are currently doing, to truly bridge the gap between academe and business," he said.

This type of university would attract more investment from the private sector, he added. "They should be looking to the businesses they are involved in to provide a substantial element of additional funding."

Business universities would address industry's need for confident, well trained graduates with work experience under their belts, Mr Wilson said.

He also expressed doubts about whether the quality of degrees was being maintained at some universities. "As I talk to businesspeople they tell me - and in universities it is acknowledged privately - that there are extremely wide variations in the quality of degrees. The public line in the sector as a whole is that all degrees are the same, but business differentiates between degrees from different universities."

Increasingly, companies are using postgraduate qualifications to differentiate between students, he added. "We are going in the direction the US has travelled in terms of the way exams are perceived and the level of academic rigour that is required," he said. "It can be argued that this gets more people into university; on the other hand some argue that falling standards are never a good thing."

Hertfordshire University has already positioned itself strategically as a "business-facing" university and this week confirmed that its income from business has exceeded its government grant income for the first time.

Vice-chancellor Tim Wilson said the university's next accounts would show an income of £42 million from commercial business and £15 million from contracts with the National Health Service, compared with £49 million in government funding.


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