Asking More of Our Universities
I would like to contribute four areas where both government and society ask things of universities in the United Kingdom, and I would like to start with some challenges set during the last two years by the British Ministry of Education. The title is the Department for Education and Skills – and I hope Mme Ruggeri will welcome the use of the term skills alongside the Department for Education and Skills – and then turn to what society expects of universities, particularly in the areas of culture, the arts, and cultural exchanges with European and other countries of the world.
A major priority for the British Minister of Education is that of widening participation and unlocking the potential of the poorer sections of society in British universities. A target has been set that 50% of those aged between 18 to 30 should be in higher education (HE) by the year 2010. At the moment, according to OECD figures, the UK has one of the highest HE participation rates amongst OECD countries, and its graduation rate of 35% is also one of the highest. But there are many problem areas still to be tackled, including inequalities in access for women students, for mature students, and those coming from ethnic minorities. Universities are seeking to increase the number of students who come from poorer backgrounds, and those who come with non-traditional qualifications.
Another major challenge to the British universities set by the current UK government is to make sure that universities work better with industry and with the wider community. There has been, in the last two years, quite an increase in sponsored research income coming from industry. 12% of that research income in the UK university sector is now coming from business, which is a higher percentage than in the United States. In the past year, 200 spin-off companies have been created. Many universities have science parks, and these have helped to contribute to cooperation with local industry. Indeed universities are a large and prominent part of the local economy. It is estimated that London’s university higher education institutions represent 5% of the gross domestic product of Greater London. If we add in the health sector, it is even larger. The local university should be at the heart of the local economy – in some university towns in Britain, the university is the largest employer in the town.
We have an expression in Britain about “Town and Gown.” Professor Roderick Flood, the President of Universities UK, the umbrella body, said a fortnight ago “the age of town and gown is long past.” However, there have been, and there still can be, difficulties from the sense of isolation created by universities and the towns and cities in which they are located. British universities are trying very hard to break this down. Universities seek to contribute to the cultural life of their community, and are working particularly hard in the arts and culture. Examples of this include schools of art and drama, and music conservatories which attract students from the whole of Europe and the Far East, as well as the UK. University museums and art galleries are another area of excellence, on a par with those supported by local authorities and the National Ministry of Culture. The Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia is a major centre for contemporary art with a substantial permanent collection and a centre for exhibitions from Britain, France, Germany and Italy. The University of Warwick also has an arts centre, which is primarily used by citizens of Warwick, the nearby town of Coventry, and the county of Warwickshire. Other art fora – art galleries, theatres and dance centres – are mainly used by people from the area where the university is located. Universities have held an honourable role in encouraging writers, artists and poets in residence, located initially within the universities, but now often out-posted to commercial centres and popular centres in towns and cities.
Some recent developments may be of interest to people attending this Europaeum conference. The new French Minister of Culture is conducting a survey of the degree to which France welcomes artists and creators from other European countries, and from Africa, Asia and the Americas. One aim of the survey is to establish what the obstacles are to people coming to study at the Conservatoire, and the schools of dramatic art and dance in France, as well as to longer term writers and artists in residence.
Student representatives mentioned the importance of exchanges and we are committed in the British Council to supporting the efforts of Erasmus, other European schemes and bi-lateral schemes, to encourage two-way exchanges and cultural dialogue within the European Union, as well as between the European Union and the other regions of the world.
The British and French ministers of education have been working on a wide range of projects to strengthen educational partnerships between teachers, pupils and heads at primary and secondary levels, and we are hoping to introduce two pilot projects later this year: one between Greater Paris and Greater London, and another in the area of ICT between a rural region of England and a rural region of France. These are intended to help the teaching of French in England and the teaching of English in France at both primary and secondary level. And finally, in what I think is a very imaginative project, partly influenced by the experience of the Franco-German and the Franco-Italian universities, there is a project called the University of the Trans-Manche. This university is intended to contribute to economic and human development in the region. The partners for that project are the University of Kent at Canterbury, the three Lille Universities, and a very interesting university, the University of the Literal, which exists on three sites at Bologne, Calais and Dunkirk. Such academic collaboration can happen with state-of-the-art video-conferencing and distance learning between sites: the Vice-Chancellor of Kent says he often feels as if he is already in France. That is one very concrete proposal, which I hope will get the blessing of the Ministries of Education, heads of Government of Britain and France, and contribute in a helpful way to both economic and social and intellectual development, in those two regions.