Universities are an underused resource and should play a “much bigger role in society”, particularly with regard to widening participation, according to Brian Cox.
The physicist, who has a chair in particle physics at the University of Manchester and is well known for presenting television programmes such as BBC Two’s Wonders of the Universe, said that it was now incumbent on academics to encourage their institution to work with other local service providers such as schools and the National Health Service.
“What is the job of an academic? I think we get paid by society to do research and to educate and also, increasingly, to get universities to play a wider role in society. That’s what we’re paid to do,” he told Times Higher Education.
“I think universities are gold mines, and their value is not extracted as well as it might be.”
Professor Cox was speaking during a science summer school at St Paul’s Way Trust School in East London, a secondary school that counts the University of Warwick, the University of East London, King’s College London, Queen Mary University of London and the Institute of Education, University of London among its partners.
The school, he said, was an example of secondary and higher education institutions working together effectively – something he would like to see happening more widely to help encourage more students to consider higher education.
“There’s an enormous skills gap, which is not some sort of theoretical problem – there are well over a million new engineers needed in the economy by 2020,” he said, adding that more graduates were needed across all the science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects.
“But how do you do that? It is very hard to have big overarching initiatives. One thing you can do is have focused initiatives where everyone gets on and does it with bigger goals in mind,” he said.
Last month, data from the Higher Education Funding Council for England showed that demand for STEM subjects had increased, with the number of students accepted on to physics, chemistry, biology and engineering courses all up over the past three years. In the same period, modern foreign languages saw an 18 per cent decline.
“Nobody in a university position, other than ridiculously tribal people, thinks the health of a university is based on its science output alone,” Professor Cox said. “And nobody is suggesting that there should be a competition between science and the arts or science and modern languages.”
He added that universities were places of “education, knowledge, aspiration and what I call redistribution of opportunity”, adding that “it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about science, or modern languages, or English or history”.