Universities are central to economy, but cannot stand still, Blair says

Former prime minister Tony Blair has called for UK higher education to be seen as “a major export” – but warned that universities risk being “left behind” if they do not adjust to change, including public-private partnerships.

April 29, 2012

Mr Blair was speaking in an interview with David Blunkett, who served as his education secretary from 1997 to 2001, for the London School of Business and Finance. Mr Blunkett is a visiting lecturer at the private provider.

Mr Blair said that on taking office in 1997, he was told that it was a “waste of money” to invest in higher education. However, he said, a global need for skills meant that education and a knowledge-based economy were now “central to prosperity”.

“A lot of those skills are globally marketable, so that means that your education system – if it’s done properly – becomes a major part of your economy; it doesn’t just serve your economy, it’s a major part of your economy,” he argued.

Although Mr Blair did not comment explicitly on any of the higher education reforms proposed by the coalition government in its White Paper, he did stress that higher education was a valuable export and he noted that the value of international students should not be underestimated.

“The truth is that we’re up there now with the best in the world at attracting students from all over the world to come and study here,” he said. “Those students will go back not just having studied the English language but [having] some tie to our country.”

Asked about public-private partnerships, Mr Blair said: “If you look at the world today, the one thing that is absolutely clear is that there is a permanent revolution going on of change, and this is very discomfiting for some people at one level.

“It’s also very exciting, by the way, on another level. It offers enormous opportunity, but only for people who are prepared constantly to reassess, to re-evaluate and to adjust. And that is as true in higher education as it is if you’re in the financial sector or manufacturing. Anyone who stands still gets left behind.”

sarah.cunnane@tsleducation.com

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