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Department for Business, Innovation and Skills: David Willetts delivers first keynote speech as Minister for Universities and Science

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David Willetts - University of Birmingham - 20 May 2010

Good afternoon.

There was only one place I could choose to give my first speech as a member of the new government and a minster in the Department for Business Innovation and Skills – and that was here in Birmingham.

This great city and this excellent university matter to me for many reasons. My family comes from here. Many members of my family worked in the craft jobs – as silversmiths, gun barrel makers, and glaziers – which made Birmingham the city of a thousand trades. And a few weeks ago you hosted the third of the leaders' debates in the great hall of this university, a key moment in the Election campaign. Like so many people I was of course following the debate closely, but not so closely that my eyes did not wander to the backdrop of the massive stained-glass windows of the hall; I reflected that my great-grandfather was one of the glaziers who installed them. Indeed my grandfather remembered being taken as a boy to the grand opening because Joe Chamberlain, the university’s first Chancellor, believed that the working men who helped build it should have a role at the event. That confident celebration of the craftsman, as well as the academic, is one of the values I associate with this city.

This city and the whole West Midlands also matter enormously, given my new position in the Government. It is at the heart of British industry. That is why, after visiting this university, I am off to visit Whale Tankers, a classic Midlands SME. The Midlands will have a crucial role as we rebalance the economy. That goal is at the heart of the coalition agenda. David Cameron is committed to it and so is my excellent new colleague Vince Cable – and what an honour it is to be working with him. Winston Churchill put it very well as Chancellor of the Exchequer, saying he wanted a country where "finance was less proud and industry more content".

Birmingham is not just a centre of manufacturing and commerce. It is also home to excellent schools, colleges and universities.  We can only hope to rebalance the economy by meshing enterprise and manufacturing with training, learning and research. That is of course what my own Department is all about. And we know we have to do better at this.

This is the challenge which has dogged our country for decades. In fact, one of the most vivid examples of the challenge goes back much longer than that, to the experiments of Joseph Priestley, a member of the great Lunar Society  which met by the light of the full moon over 200 years ago. Priestley famously conducted experiments to separate out oxygen in air, and also discovered a way to dissolve carbon dioxide in water – the carbon dioxide incidentally coming from a local brewery. But it was the great French scientist Lavoisier who appreciated the scientific significance of Priestley finding oxygen. And it was a Swiss businessman who spotted the commercial significance of using carbon dioxide to make fizzy drinks. His name was Johann Schweppe.

More than a century later, Joe Chamberlain founded this university so that science and craft could come together and contribute to the local economy. He was, of course, the archetypal Liberal Unionist, who joined a coalition with the Conservatives. His was a radical vision. When Birmingham University came into being in 1900, it offered departments of brewing, mining and commerce as well as law, medicine and theology. It was a bold departure from the Oxbridge model. People were immediately suspicious of such utilitarian courses and critics dismissed this place as a "Bread and Butter" university. But this is a perfectly legitimate role for a university – after all more than half of all students are obtaining a degree which is, in effect, a license to practice a trade or profession.

Such scepticism endures, however. It's all too easy to scoff, say, at golf course management courses – to regard them as just a "Mickey Mouse" degree. But think of golf management as business studies applied to a particular industry – an industry that's important to this region – and then look at Birmingham's Applied Golf Management Studies degree. Last year, it had 109 applications for 25 places. It requires minimum A-level grades of ABB. Its graduates from 2009 all secured jobs at an average salary of £22,000 – higher than the average starting salary of Birmingham graduates as a whole.

To me, the only Mickey Mouse degree is one that's mediocre, or sloppy, or lacking rigour and depth. Beyond that, I'm not going to judge what people study or what colleges and universities offer. Diverse provision of a high quality can only be a good thing. My aim is to make sure that students have all the information they need to make a well-informed decision about the value of a course.

But that's by no means the whole story, and I would never make the mistake of presuming it was.  For there is enormous value in further and higher education which cannot just be captured by utilitarian calculation– benefits which are not readily measured as patents registered or spinouts floated.

I recognise the importance of all those courses and degrees which – through their rigour – increase the intellectual capability of the nation and its skills base.

I'm all in favour of curiosity-driven research whose applications may take time to emerge, if at all. Intellectual enquiry is worthwhile for its own sake – whether it's devoted to engineering or to Shakespeare, two strengths of this university.

This university's excellence in Shakespeare studies has probably contributed to the tourism industry, as so many lovers of Shakespeare come here from around the world. But boosting the tourism industry is not what inspires an academic to study Shakespeare. Too often, politicians have taken the economic value which flows from much academic research and then treated it as the only possible motive for the research. I am not going to make that mistake.

There is another trap I wish to avoid as well – privileging theoretical over applied, cerebral over manual. Rigour and excellence are not confined to intellectual pursuits. They're just as evident and necessary in craftsmanship, in technical spheres, in manufacturing. In fact they require many of the same qualities, which is why they so often flourish together. This argument is put most beautifully by the great David Hume – one of my heroes – in his essay "Of Refinement in the Arts". Forgive me for quoting him at some length.

"An advantage of industry and of refinements in the mechanical arts is that they commonly produce some refinements in the liberal; nor can one be carried to perfection without being accompanied, in some degree, with the other. The same age, which produces great philosophers and politicians, renowned generals and poets, usually abounds with skilful weavers and ship-carpenters. We cannot reasonably expect that a piece of woollen cloth will be wrought to perfection in a nation which is ignorant of astronomy or where ethics are neglected."

When you go to the Cavendish laboratory at Cambridge, you can see historic exhibits which celebrate the great physicists who have contributed so much to our understanding of the world and still do. They have preserved there the finely made cloud chambers which made the early physics experiments possible. That depended on highly skilled glass blowers. I am told that glass blowers are still at work on this campus.

Another reason such distinctions are artificial is because we know that learning and practice of any kind – and at any age – makes us healthier and happier. Learning – be it studying a subject or mastering a physical craft – promotes personal fulfilment and well being. Richard Sennett's excellent book, The Craftsman, makes this clear, as does the exciting new book by Matthew Crawford, The Case For Working With Your Hands, which has had such an impact in America.

This is a brief outline of the thinking that lies behind my responsibilities at the department where universities and colleges, science and skills, business and innovation come together. The entire department was energised by David Cameron making it his first port of call as prime minister, and I've been impressed already by the determination of civil servants to get on with the task of rebuilding our economy.

Vince and I are determined to avoid clunky, bureaucratic controls as we support excellence and rigour in HE, FE and our research base, and foster partnerships between universities and business. My favourite account of some of these initiatives is David Lodge’s great comic novel Nice Work, set in a city – Brummage – not so different from this one. He explores the absurdities of a government initiative to help academics understand the workings of industry.

I believe that the strength of our universities derives in large part from their autonomy. That autonomy is the envy of other nations – as I discovered recently during a visit to Humboldt University in Berlin. I was very impressed by a line of portraits in honour of all their Nobel Prize-winning physicists – among them Max Planck and Albert Einstein. But the portraits end abruptly in the 1930s, when the Nazis came to power. After the war, the Institute came under the Communists, and 60 years without freedom did such damage. In France, meanwhile, academics count as civil servants. Under such a system, is it any surprise that so few French universities figure among the world's best?

That is why governments must respect the autonomy of universities. We can strengthen this by giving them the widest possible range of diverse funding streams and institutional arrangements. We must place greater faith in the serendipitous paths that researchers take. Paradoxically, that is the best way of ensuring they make the fullest possible contribution to our economy and our national life.

It is important that university research has a positive "impact" on our economy and our society. Impact, after all, is often what motivates academics, whether they're researching medicine to improve patient care or conducting research in the archives that can transform understanding of our country's history.

However, there is a crucial difference between impact and the impact agenda. I have doubts about the impact agenda proposed for the Research Excellence Framework. It is at risk of being over-managed and over-driven. I'm sceptical as to whether it's methodologically robust, and I'm not clear that it commands the respect of academics. That is why I will be discussing this as a matter of urgency with HEFCE's Alan Langlands and representatives of the academic community.

At the same time, an autonomous system is one that needs to innovate continually. Its provision must be diverse. It must empower its students. It must adapt to competition from new providers. This is the context for Lord Browne's review of funding and student finance – and I'm as keen as everyone else to review the evidence he is presently gathering and the conclusions he draws.

My position is similar regarding government oversight of science. I support the Haldane principle and a stable framework for the science and research budget. They give freedom to academics and make this country a prized destination for international talent. Together with the dual support system, these policies have created the environment for a high-performing research base. And I pay tribute to what has been achieved by previous science ministers, particularly David Sainsbury. We are not going to tear up the good things we inherit.  In fact, I want to learn from the wisdom and experience of people from all parties who care about science – people like Ian Taylor, Evan Harris, and Ian Gibson.

Rigour and excellence must also be the watchwords when it comes to further education, where I'm particularly concerned that heavy-handed interventions by successive governments have undermined vocational qualifications.

Young people, employers, and colleges themselves have endured regular changes in the structure, content and titles of vocational qualifications. There is at least a row when people see a threat to GCSEs and A-levels. But governments have been able to mess around with vocational qualifications without any campaign in the media to protect them. And as a result, we have let down generations of young people who can find that their vocational qualifications are not valued by employers. I am a believer in rigour and excellence in vocational qualifications just as much as in academic ones. So I am committed to qualifications like City and Guilds and BTECs, HNCs and HNDs. They have been around for years and are highly valued by individuals and employers. The new Qualifications and Credit Framework must not  weaken them. Of course, that is why we also value apprenticeships, which should – wherever possible – be equivalent to A levels and linked to real employers. These can be the route to that elusive technician level of skills which is one of our economy’s great weaknesses.

An example. While in opposition, I was fortunate to visit the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Two impressions have endured. The first is that I met some fantastic UK particle physicists. Yet, the second impression relates to the technicians I encountered during my visit – the people who actually assembled the greatest contemporary scientific experiment. On this score, the UK was clearly under-represented.

It is crucial to the national interest that we develop a technician class in Britain, the skilled workers without whom we can't succeed in such fields as clean tech, nanotech or advanced manufacturing; without whom the new technology businesses in the West Midlands, who are steering this region towards a brighter economic future, are unable to grow.

There's one final challenge I want to touch on today: ensuring as many young people as possible have the opportunity to benefit from education and training. Figures published today show that there are 837,000 18- to 24-year-olds who are not in employment, in education or training. We cannot afford that waste of human potential – it is bad for our economy and blights the lives of individuals. That is why we must provide a wide range of routes into further and higher education, including through high-quality apprenticeships.

That is why it is so important we offer much better careers advice – as this week's report by Martin Harris rightly insists – so that children and young people understand the importance of the choices they make in school and college. No more medical careers failing to materialise because a student was never alerted to the importance of taking individual science at GSCE. No more stories like that of Emily Cummins, the award-winning inventor of a refrigerator that runs on solar power, who didn't read engineering at university because her school gave her poor pre-A level advice.

Let me conclude by bringing this back to Birmingham and the West Midlands. The economy of this region is beginning to harness existing strengths to exploit emerging markets in low-carbon vehicles and construction, in composites and digital technologies. Spin-out companies from Birmingham and Aston have gone global. Centres of research expertise at Coventry, Birmingham City, Warwick and elsewhere are forming partnerships with business.

Progress, however, has been halting. The recession has hit this region especially hard, and unemployment rates are the highest in the country. The city continues to experience out-migration of more highly skilled residents to the neighbouring shire counties. The new government is committed to tackling these issues in the West Midlands, with an economy driven by high-tech innovation and new enterprise.

Birmingham has a good claim to be the crucible of the new coalition – and a trailblazer for the new politics we are forging. Since 2004, there has been a Liberal-Conservative coalition here. It has not been without its problems. But I observe that the critics said it would collapse within months, and it is still going strong six years down the line.

The coalition has made real efficiency gains and held Council Tax down, while delivering a new focus on better housing and climate change. One of the most successful areas has been Adults and Communities, which has a Lib Dem cabinet member and a Conservative second-in-command. I am told it works very well. I am going to hear from the council how they make coalition work. I hope we can achieve as much at the national level. For my part, I am hugely excited at the prospect of this national coalition and at the chance to oversee policy on universities and science.


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