In praise of teaching
13 May 2011
Last night the Union of Students held a wonderful and very powerful event. In their first ever Academic Awards – complete with homemade `Oscars´ sprayed gold and sporting tiny mortar boards – our students honoured those who have been their teachers, personal tutors and lab assistants. With 17 categories, the Union invited students themselves to say who had inspired them, who made them understand or supported them, who deserved to be recognised.
The 360 nominations the Union received make powerful and moving reading. Each told a story of the dedication and commitment of staff across the institution, to help given, careful feedback and personal support. It also honoured that most important of academic titles – `teacher´.
When I worked in America, I was struck by how even the most senior academic would introduce him or herself by saying `I teach at the University of Colorado´ or wherever the institution happened to be. I wondered why in the UK we had become perhaps more coy about this central flame of learning which is at the heart of our University and what matters most to many of us in Higher Education.
After all, the academic staff union used to be known as the Association of University Teachers. If I had to define my own career in a single word, `teacher´ would surpass all the others, for even research is not to be kept in isolation. We learn, we seek to understand, not to keep that knowledge to ourselves but to share it, use it, to make a difference. As our crest shows in the balance of `disce´ and `doce´, we learn in order to teach.
Time and again these days I find myself in meetings of academic staff or our graduates where this subject of teaching is right at the forefront of people´s minds, and they are passionate that it should be valued. Here I sense in a shift in the plates of Higher Education. In the face of shared student and academic frustration at changes in policy and funding which remove large amounts of the state´s funding of teaching, the value of teaching and the relationship between students and teachers has a new prominence.
The Union´s Academic Awards reflected what is at the heart of this University. These very personal honours were not the judgment of a committee or even a peer review panel. The recommendations came from those whose lives had been touched and whose horizons had been broadened, students themselves. The boisterous good humour and affection of the event overlaid something deep and lasting.
In many cultures of the world, the title `teacher´ is the ultimate respectful form of address. We all have stories about the teachers who have inspired us along the way. Perhaps some of them never realised quite what they meant to us, and at the time we may have been unable to say. What was most powerful about the Academic Awards was that appreciation and esteem was not being left unsaid.
The award ceremony itself was opened by David Blunkett, who noted that he had never before been to any student led event which celebrated the works of academics. While he noted his own life-changing teachers, it was a first for him. I hope it won´t be the last.
Despite great pressures to be downhearted, our students in Sheffield have not given in to despondency and have chosen to celebrate what is best in our University. They are not fighting us, they are working with us to celebrate what we all value. To take this approach despite all that has gone before in this year in particular says something wonderful about who they are, but it also says something important to us. Teaching is crucially at the centre of what we do, and we are increasingly focusing on this. This is indeed a cause for optimism.
Professor Keith Burnett, Vice-Chancellor
What I believe it means to be a student at Sheffield
18 March 2011
My most intense memories of childhood come from seeing the coal mining valley I was born in decline as a place that gave jobs to a confident community. I was lucky, I had an inspirational father and went to University at a time of full public funding. I was, in fact, the first person in my family to attend University. When I visited my mother for her 80th birthday recently, and talked to school age children in my own extended family, I was reminded again of the negative impact of the prospect of higher fees (even when these are offered as a loan and paid back only once graduates are earning a certain level). I have great concerns that opportunity should remain available to those most able to benefit from it.
Over recent months scarcely a day has gone by without a news headline in some way relating to students and universities, and particularly to the cost and price of what we do. In recent weeks we have begun to hear various UK universities announce how much they expect to charge undergraduate students from 2012. So far most are talking about fees of £9,000 a year, and many are asking, what will we do here in Sheffield?
I want to reassure students that this University will do its utmost – even in the face of deeply unwelcome Government cuts to higher education – to maintain its outstanding reputation for opening its doors to people of every background. Our standards are high, but we hold them without prejudice and believe diversity is also a source of learning. A final decision on fee levels will be made by the University Council in April, but we will keep students at the heart of our discussions about what we provide. We are keenly aware that students making such an investment will care greatly about the quality of what they receive.
Over recent months I have thought long and hard about what it really means to be a student at The University of Sheffield – about the value, rather than simply the price tag, of being a student. What is it that a student is paying for? Simply a degree course? Access to expertise and research-led teaching? Facilities? A passport to future employment? I believe this is a narrow and dangerous definition of what it means to be a student.
I have spoken in depth to both staff and students about what we value most. Again and again issues such as volunteering, widening participation and social enterprise are high on the list of what matters to our community. So, despite the heavy cuts which mean that higher fees are inevitable, if we are simply to replace what has been lost from public funds, I refuse to look on students as simply a cheque book, as people who are `passing through´. I refuse to be rushed to an announcement of fees without first considering with our students and staff fundamental questions about who we are and the purpose of what we do.
I am also determined that we will value the student experience across the full range of subjects and beyond for the transformative, awakening time it can be. A time of discovering not only your subject, but also your potential. A time when you build relationships which will last you a lifetime, and begin to understand how you personally might take your place in life. We will continue to pride ourselves on offering to future generations of students our friendly community approach to improving the world which combines critical thinking with a down-to-earth attitude.
This University was built as a Civic University. It was funded by generous local donors, but also by local factory workers who wanted a first-rate education for their children and all the benefits of well-being and economic growth they knew would go with a strong university. Today our students are not only from the city of Sheffield, but from around the UK and indeed around the world. Many are from families and communities who are horrified by the increase in fees. Yet the motivation to access education though is the same as those early workers who made penny donations to build this institution. The investment is for something of real worth, something life-changing.
I also have a final word to say to our treasured international students. We are all especially concerned for students whose families and friends at home are facing tremendously difficult times. This includes our students from Libya and from Japan. The University is working hard to ensure that support is available to them at this time.
However, we also have wider concerns. It is deeply troubling that the current national debate about international student visas has resulted in many overseas students feeling that they are not appreciated or even welcome, that they are undervalued in the great contribution they make to University life, to our education and to our economy. In Sheffield, this is categorically not the case. International students are a visible sign of our global excellence and the shared world of scholarship in which learning transcends national boundaries. International staff and students are our teachers, our students, our mentors and our friends.
At the University of Sheffield we have students from over 130 countries taught by academic staff from 87 countries. We are a truly global community who learn from one another every day. At every opportunity I am lobbying hard for the Government to truly appreciate the powerful asset of its international staff and students, and I hope that message is beginning to be more widely understood. Our recent appointment of a Pro-Vice-Chancellor for International, Professor Rebecca Hughes, underlines our long-term commitment to our identity as a global university. It is, at the very least, enlightened self-interest to appreciate that our international community of students and staff are key to our growth in the most powerful sense – yes economically, but also culturally, socially and as a generation who will face some of the biggest challenges imaginable.
As your Vice-Chancellor, my commitment is to the values which founded this University and to ensure that they are defended even in the face of significant cuts. I believe this view of education is vital to our future in developing meaningful citizens who make the world a better place in a thousand ways. As our students participate in an education which – to my sincere regret – will inevitably come at a higher cost to them and their family, my role will be to ensure that what they experience is more than worth the cost.
Students at the heart of Sheffield's future
22 February 2011
Whatever we think of league tables, Sheffield has shown its real mettle once again in coming number two in the UK in the Times Higher Education survey of the student experience. This result, which follows an enormous amount of thought and action by the whole University, and by the Students´ Union, should also make us confident that our plans that we are developing as part of 2012 will be effective. My greatest wish is for us to continue to inspire future generations of young people to come to Sheffield and develop into the people that they can be. I am determined that we should not be put off this mission by the very real concerns of the day.
So much of the media attention we get at the moment is so negative and focused entirely on financial issues. We need to think more about what we are as people, rather than solely viewing students as rational economic machines making investment decisions. Knowing the economic consequences of what we do is important, without doubt. But knowing why we do something is even more important. In saying this, I don´t want to make light of the very real problems for families thinking of the cost of higher education. I have to remember that there were no fees to be paid when I went to University and so it may be a lot easier for me to focus on the higher issues.
How can we inspire young people to come to University?
In fact, I think this is not such a difficult task once they actually see who and what we are. This may sound over-confident, but if you had seen all the wonderful things our students and staff do throughout the year – as I am able to do as Vice-Chancellor – I don't think you would find it hard to say the same.
Disraeli said universities were, at their best, places of "light, liberty and learning". Our children need all three in their future. What we need to do in the months ahead is give that insight to a group of young people who have had a negative blast of media attention about their futures. "Loaded with debt, you won´t get a job, you won´t get a visa."
I know that our Open Days are critical in this. I see the optimism of our future students as they look around this great place, and think of the wonderful things they will do in the future. But we have a considerable communications challenge ahead. We need to broadcast just as powerfully about the life changing experience of being a student as some will be speaking about the financial difficulties of coming to university. We know it is difficult, even more so that it was. Yet a paralysing fear that those difficulties are insurmountable is even more corrosive.
We all need to be communicating to students what we know about the financial deal they will have as students at Sheffield. The fact that we have not yet been told how the government intends to run the details is, of course, a serious difficulty for us at the moment!
We often return to the fact that our University was, in part, founded by penny donations made by working people in Sheffield. These people made those donations from their very limited resources, not because giving was easy but because what they aspired to was so very important. Today and for the foreseeable future, our students will be making that same type of choice. They will be doing something hard, but fundamentally worthwhile and life changing. Our job is to help them understand why this commitment is worth making.
One of my favourite books is A River Runs Through It by Norman McLean. In it McLean looks back on his family and remembers his father, a hard-working Scottish minister with a passion for life and fishing.
"To him, all good things - trout as well as eternal salvation - came by grace; and grace comes by art; and art does not come easy."
Being a world-class University and giving (and receiving) an outstanding education is indeed an art. It will not come easy. But it is without any doubt a good thing, and worth the struggle.
I thank you all again for all the thought and work that makes us such a success and has given us the platform for our future plans. I am delighted by the way the University is approaching the changes ahead of us. We are being serious, thoughtful and ambitious, just as our Strategic Plan to 2015 says we will be. We will continue to be ambitious and confident in the years ahead.
Your ideas are vital to prepare for 2012
20 January 2011
Towards the end of last year, barely a week passed between each significant announcement impacting on UK higher education. First the Browne Review with its intimations of a fundamental shift in the balance of funding for higher education, followed by unprecedented reductions in government funding of teaching, and increased tuition fees. Wider changes, such as the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance for 16-19 year-olds, may affect applications to university. Even now the Government is consulting on proposals impacting on non-EU nationals studying and working at UK universities.
Each of these has major implications for us. There are, for example, almost 5,000 students from outside of the EU attending the University of Sheffield, almost a fifth of our students. International postgraduates and staff form valued members of our research groups and academic staff. Together with representatives of British business concerned for the impact of decisions relating to visa controls on the economy, we are making a strong case to local and national government about the importance of international students and staff to a global university such as our own, and to our city and region.
In the face of such issues, I have found myself writing frequently to University staff, and I have been grateful to receive a number of emails in response. Yet I am conscious that nothing can take the place of meeting a wide range of staff and students face to face. Particularly at times of change, it is essential to listen as well as speak.
Earlier this month I began a new series of open meetings with staff, and, as ever, I found these invaluable in helping develop our thinking. It is in this kind of honest and creative discussion that we often uncover the best ideas, and we would not be much of a university if we were closed to fresh thought and new application.
It was clear though – how could it be anything else? – that staff at all levels have many concerns about how changes ahead could affect the University. The pace of change has left many reeling and the consequences of such fundamental restructuring for the wider work of the University may only become fully clear over the coming years. However, necessity and difficulty can also be the unlikely context for creativity and innovation. The willingness of people around me to think creatively under pressure reinforces my genuine confidence in our future.
Those attending the open meetings did not underestimate the impact of recent decisions. Despite the fact that payments for tuition fees will not be upfront – an important fact still unclear to many and which we will need to emphasise to concerned students – young people and their families will be aware of the debts they are building up through their course. Staff were conscious of these issues, but still willing to think long and hard about how we respond.
Project 2012 was also mentioned frequently. The initial documentation is now available to all of our staff for their input, either via Faculty PVCs, line managers or online at www.sheffield.ac.uk/ueb/project2012. The draft University proposition (www.shef.ac.uk/ueb/project2012/proposition/draft) provides an important summary of key aspects of our provision. It is not written yet in a language designed for students. How best to express this in a way which really speaks to students and their families will come in later, and will take full note of our research with these groups. You will need your University log on details to download the proposition document available from the link on the right of the web page.
The best organisations capture ideas from all parts of their operations before they finalise decisions, and, as a creative and caring university, we should do no less. For this reason, I am urging staff and students here in Sheffield to put forward for consideration the ideas and issues crucial to their own areas of operation. Now, more than ever, we must draw upon the good ideas of those closest to the experience of students. I encourage you all to be involved with this. Use the draft proposition as a foundation for discussion about how departments, faculties and professional services can build the very best provision.
Many ideas are already being passed through to me directly and via emails sent to our Project 2012 mailbox, firstname.lastname@example.org, as well as through departments. Suggestions and radical thinking abound. Should we reconsider semesters and the length of degrees? Could some lectures be open to a wider audience? How can we better reflect our links with business and industry in our undergraduate degrees? What are the options for a greater international element in our teaching and learning? How can we foster greater interdisciplinary work in our undergraduate courses? How do we formally add the kinds of skills in negotiation or cultural agility which would be of real interest to employers? How might we address concerns for those worried by the costs of living and the need to undertake part-time work?
Some of the ideas suggested so far could be implemented in the short term, others may take more development. All are welcome as we consider our development in coming years.
Now is the time to put in your proposals, to think radically about what we do and how we do it. Whether you make your contribution through your own team or departmental meetings, direct via email@example.com or submit your ideas through an open forum, the success of the University depends on the contribution of each of us and a shared belief in our future.
The motto of the University is taken from Virgil, who understood the value of shared confidence in our ability to succeed. In The Aeneid he wrote: "Possunt, quia posse videntur" – translated "they can because they think they can". This thinking is all the more powerful because we do it in the open, inspired by our shared values. What´s more, we do it together.
Professor Keith Burnett
Working together to face the challenges of the future
6 December 2010
We now know that the Government plans to hold its controversial vote on the level of a cap for tuition fees on 9 December, and this coming week will be marked by fierce opposition to those proposals. The uncertainties of university fees and funding, and the understandable anger of our students and many staff is deeply unsettling. Most of us profoundly wish we were not in this situation at all, with unprecedented cuts pitched against steep increases in fees for students.
What we are witnessing is a revolution in Higher Education many of us never thought we would see in this country. If the Coalition's proposals go through, we shall be more `private´ than most universities in the United States. What will this mean for our students and for the University of Sheffield? Can we thrive in this new world? And at such a time of change, where do I personally stand on these issues?
Before the Browne Review and Comprehensive Spending Review announcements I would occasionally feel somewhat guilty that I had not been one of the Vice-Chancellors agitating for higher fees. Even though I was concerned about how UK universities could maintain their international quality, my fear was that an increase in fees would simply be used to substitute for some, or all, of the government funding. To a large degree this is what has happened.
I was not one of the VCs who complained about HEFCE and QAA either, despite the imperfections of these bodies. I sensed that change would most likely be for the worse. I thought this was evident from many statements from politicians. Unfortunately, it looks like I was roughly right again: QAA will be replaced by a potentially more intrusive `OffUni´.
Initial responses from student representative bodies indicate that students, shocked by the proposals for fees, may well be driven from a feeling of shared enterprise to a radicalised consumer view of Higher Education.
Last of all, I expessed a heartfelt view that all of us in Higher Education needed a common line; to work together for the good of the whole sector. I believed tough talk on institutional autonomy would quickly be buried by political pressure to keep "local institutions" open and serving towns and cities all around the country. I am sure my conscience is correct on this too.
So what should, and will, we do in this new world?
Despite the challenges of our wider context, I am determined that we shall be working in the way that we believe we should, according to the values of the University of Sheffield, in partnership with our staff and our students. It sounds so simple, yet in this new world it is radical. We are not a vending machine for course delivery, we are an academic community of staff and students with mutual goals and ambitions. Working with our students and staff through the coordination of Project 2012, we will take joint control of the agenda, using all the advantages we have as an institution in vigorous pursuit of our shared values and goals.
I believe the brightest and best will want to be at a University that has reflected on this new world, and thoroughly reviewed how to create a dynamic environment for staff and students, and what it means to be a place of deep and broad scholarship. Given the level of investment individuals may well be making, it is even more crucial that what they receive is of the highest quality.
If we do this right, far from being passive in the face of change we will lead the sector on a path away from distrust and regulation to trust and values. We will mark a real distinction between consumerism and cooperation, rejecting the opposition of "us and them" for the possibilities of "we"! We will do all of this with our staff and, crucially, with our students.
I believe passionately that Sheffield is in a good position to take this approach. The culture of our University is one of blending the highest standards and ideals with personal warmth and pragmatism. Like our home city, we pride ourselves on being accessible and down to earth while creating quality. As one of our student officers said to me, Sheffield´s alternative motto might well be, `not scruffy, not stuffy´! We are ready and willing to work positively together to address the challenges we face.
Two thousand years ago, Cicero wrote to his son who had been taught by Gratippus while living in Athens. He wanted to convey to him what it meant to live a good life, and how to fulfill his potential and his responsibilities in the world. He knew that both an outstanding scholarly teacher and the learned atmosphere of the city in which he was being taught would be vital to his son´s education: "the first will enrich you by his knowledge and the second by her examples".
As he considered his son´s education, Cicero found himself asking wider, searching questions about what is honourable and what is expedient. In the end, he believed that there could be no conflict between the two. Doing what was right in the end was also what was necessary, and the former must guide the latter. He is still right.
As a University, we will need to communicate this open vision of our University as a place of scholarship in a supportive environment. We will have to make this case in a tough new commercial environment. But we can have real and deserved confidence that we are doing so on the foundations of outstanding achievement and our profound benefits in the lives of our students and graduates.
Pride in our inspirational students
15 November 2010
Over the past week, two events have inspired me and affirmed my sense of what the University of Sheffield is all about.
Last Thursday evening, the Sheffield Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) made their presentation to the Council for Industry and Higher Education. For those of you who don´t know their work, Sheffield SIFE is a University society in which 117 students are involved in 20 life changing projects in Sheffield and around the world. Sheffield SIFE estimate they have made an impact on the lives of 1,631 people and, through their revenue-raising businesses, raised over £28,000 in funds. Their work includes helping a group of visually impaired children to run their own company, giving practical aid to the homeless across Sheffield, and supporting impoverished communities in rural Ghana and Lesotho in South Africa. This year, they were UK SIFE winners and reached the world finals in Los Angeles.
Sheffield SIFE's video presentation was stunningly good and truly inspiring, allowing those they have helped to say what their work has meant to them personally. The senior industrialists who saw it were deeply impressed. Richard Lambert, Director General of the CBI, was fulsome in his praise, as were many other leaders from international companies in the audience. When business leaders say that what they see in our students gives them faith in the future of our country, you know that they see the need for more than an effective economic model for higher education. Our country needs a future which is fuelled by passion and the determination of talented young people to positively impact on the world around us.
The second event which moved and inspired me may surprise some. It was the peaceful protest of our students in London on 10 November. They should also make us proud. Our students care deeply about the whole University community and future generations. The headline grabbing images of the illegal actions and damage to property at Millbank by a few – some of whom may not even have been students – in no way represent the majority of those we are privileged to teach. Along with our students, we support the right to peaceful protest and condemn violence. We will continue to listen to and work with our students through these fraught times.
Despite a depressing media stereotype of young people caring little for their impact on others, we know different. It is right that on her visit this week to our outstanding research centres, the Queen will also meet Sheffield students who volunteer in this city, working with local children with brain injuries or establishing Lego clubs to engage families in educational play.
Some see the future of UK universities as pitching scholars and students against one another in a purely economic model of supply and demand, provider and customer. We believe in something more – the profound connection between teacher and student. It is this that will be at the heart of how we go forward in coming months.
It is right that we hold our students in respect. This weekend, before attending a Remembrance Service in Weston Park, the President of the Union of Students, Josh Forstenzer, joined our Pro-Chancellor Kathryn Riddle together with members of the Sheffield University Officer Training Corps to lay a wreath on the memorial to students and staff who died in two World Wars. The memorial sits outside the Chancellor's Room in Firth Court and contains two Books of Remembrance. There are 200 names in the World War I book alone.
Students have been crucial to our country in times of peace and prosperity as well as times of national crisis. They will continue to be so. Working with them makes me proud to be Vice-Chancellor in Sheffield.
Professor Keith Burnett
Priority Subjects and the Browne Review
19 October 2010
In the last few days I have been thinking about how I would feel if my subject - Physics - had been identified as fundamentally unimportant to the UK, or at least unworthy of its investment, in the way that many of our colleagues' subjects have been. I would be gutted.
I would be thinking of the many years I spent worrying about:
- getting a good enough degree,
- getting support for my Ph D,
- getting a postdoctoral post,
- getting a job that would enable me to have a sensible family life.
I would think of the hard graft on the roller coaster ride it took to become an academic. I would think how tough it is to do world class research, even in the good times. I would be wondering why I did it and whether I misunderstood the importance of my work in the broader course of our society.
I would hope my Vice-Chancellor would be saying that I was not mistaken, that my work is deeply important and that my University would do everything it could to keep the faith.
I would hope this could come from colleagues across the University too, and that they would also remain committed to the broad educational mission of the University. I would also hope that it would inform decisions about how the University chooses to spend its money, and what kinds of activities it tries to support, even in these more difficult times.
In these times, I would need respect and belief in the value of what I do, but I would also need honesty, about what would now be possible. False reassurances would not help. I would want to know too that students would understand the value of my work. That they would see the importance of my discipline to life, to work and to culture - and that it could be a valid choice for them too. I would want to make that case with conviction, knowing that my position was supported by my University.
I would want to voice my anger without making things worse. I would want to know what happens next. I would want to help shape that future, not just be a victim of it. I would want to understand developments in a clear and transparent way.
I would want some control back, so I could use my creativity and skills. I would want to hold my head high as part of a University - that world where knowledge is multi-faceted, not divided by impermeable walls. I would want to know I had a future.
As Vice-Chancellor I find myself on the brink of a different era. My response is, 'So let's start building that future, and we have to start with principles.'
A good starting point would have been one of my Dad's sayings, "Man shall not live by bread alone." It is true for our lives, and it is true for our University.
When I see what richness the work of our colleagues around this great place have brought us, I am reminded of how their research sustains us. Sir Ian Kershaw's books on Hitler are on sale in every bookshop in the world, and his collaboration with the BBC Timewatch series on the Nazis shed a unique light on how fascism emerged, sometimes most tellingly in the testimony of its ordinary participants. It offered insights and judgement which can´t be ignored.
Mike Braddick's new book on the Civil War brings together a social and political history which helps us understand how we came to be who we are as a nation, who we are. Focusing on a period when fundamental questions were being debated before a public audience in a new and radical way, Mike´s work casts new light on the transition of Britain´s passage from one era to another, from the world of reformation to the world of enlightenment.
Leafing through Bob Stern's new book on Kant, an outstanding academic is considering in detail issues of autonomy, moral realism and ethics. In an age which constantly challenges our ethics and morality in new and demanding ways, are we in any position to think less about issues such as these?
And there is so much more. If we look behind the office doors of our own departments, there are treasures of insight and analysis which demand worldwide respect for their quality of thought, for the new ground they continue to break.
These are some of the many reasons why we want our children to be taught by people who have been tested in the fire of research. As Oscar Wilde knew, it is not enough to know the price of everything, we need to understand its value.
One of our most powerful resources as a country, and as a University, is our cultural insight, our deep questioning of our own society and ideas – perhaps we have never needed that analysis more as we consider how best to go forward. We have genuine reasons for confidence in this regard, and I have been heartened by the positive response of staff from all subject areas who are determined that we will continue to proclaim the strengths of this magnificent university.
In a world of global competition and profound change, we want our children to have more than just bread to live on. And to do that, they will also need to appreciate the value of the full range of knowledge, and why our good colleagues do need, and deserve, some bread.
Professor Keith Burnett
Public funding of UK Universities
26 September 2010
Last week Lord Krebs' letter to the Lords' Science and Technology Committee warned in stark terms about the potential impact of both real and perceived cuts on UK Science and a `brain drain´ away from the UK in favour of environments with better funding, not just for laboratories and research but for the best and brightest PhD students so vital to successful research. The letter was in response to a challenge in the Lords´ Committee from the Science and Universities Minister David Willetts to "give us the evidence" for predictions of a loss of excellent scientific research and researchers in the UK.
The thoughtful plea earned Lord Krebs a place on The Daily Mail´s `Whinge Watch´, while the Department for Business, Industry and Skills reminded the academic community of the need for economic scrutiny. There is a sense that many in the government and the media believe that academia is crying wolf over loss of UK prestige and performance.
We must, of course, take this on board, and be open to people wanting to know why expenditure on Science should have priority in competition for funding of many crucial areas in peoples´ lives. One way for me to do this is to think of my children. I want them and their generation to have opportunities in a growing UK economy. Can I justify to myself as a parent spending money on science and technology? The answer is an industrial strength yes!
When someone asks, "what's the point of universities?" I am tempted to give reply with "a job for your children and a planet for your grandchildren". Jobs are created by growth in the science and engineering based industries that funding drives. Moreover, our research, the work funded by the science vote, is made up by a great many students working at the cutting edge of technology. Why isn´t this apparent to the general public? Perhaps because we scienists talk about the big exciting picture, rather than the nuts and bolts of our work? A good example is Astronomy where people may think of it in terms of black holes and remnants of the Big Bang, but in reality it is based in cutting edge photon detection, image processing and computer simulation.
Yet for me like many other scientists of my generation, the current situation has an unhappy sense of deja vu. We have seen what could happen because we have already lived it.
As a young physicist in the late 70's I found myself in a UK Science environment which was bleak and under-resourced compared to its transatlantic peer. So like many of my peers, I headed for America and the University of Colorado. The US was investing heavily in Science and provided the land of opportunity for a young academic with ambitions in their field. I might never have come back, other than for a `new blood´ scheme introduced by the then Conservative government. (Well.. they did have a Chemistry graduate as leader at the time.)
The decades that followed saw a renaissance in British Science that has rightly ensured its global reputation for being at the top of its game, making impressive use of comparatively moderate investment by government. British Universities have worked hard to build the place they have as international leaders. We have in turn become a magnet to other young scientists from around the world, international hubs of global excellence working on the great challenges of our time.
Of course, UK universities are world leaders beyond the fields of Science and Engineering. The scope of our reputation reaches into Medicine and Social Sciences, the Arts and Humanities. Perhaps it is here that we need to have an even bigger vision of what we want to be as scholars and teachers as the argument moves beyond the purely economic. In fact, we know that the social, cultural and creative worlds also have substantial but less obvious, economic impact. Even without this I would still have a strong personal commitment to a vision of a broad academic base for our country. I think my conviction of the importance of the humanities in particular was started by my father who pushed me to read poetry and literature as a vital part of being alive. His life had been changed-he was working for Hutchings Butchers in the Rhondda-by reading the Edinburgh review in the local Library. It can be harder, but no less important, for us to convince our fellow citizens about the importance of keeping these areas vital in the years ahead.
Three decades on I find myself Vice-Chancellor of a UK research-led university rated internationally as within the top 100 institutions in the world, and I see at first hand British government investment bearing real fruit.
Next month we will formally open a new state-of-the-art research institute set to make Sheffield a world leader for research into Motor Neurone Disease (MND). The Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN) will bring together scientists and medical specialists from around the globe dedicated to finding the causes and cure for MND, as well as other degenerative conditions such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer, Spinal Muscular Atrophy and Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
Building work has also begun on a Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre. The 8000 square metre facility will be home to a strategically vital collaborative project between industrial partners such as Rolls-Royce, specialist manufacturers and University Science to support the production of the next generation of civil nuclear energy. It develops a model for industrial and academic collaboration which began with our work with Boeing, and which is now copied all over the world.
The focus on alternative energy sources also includes renewable energy sources for our country. Engineering colleagues work with Siemens on a national Wind Power Research Centre, and our ambitious Project Sunshine is an interdisciplinary focus on solar energy. Less than a month ago, the Deputy Prime Minister opened the University´s Solar Farm with its research on photo-voltaics, commenting:
"As we face the huge challenges of climate change and energy security, it is vital the UK moves away from its reliance on fossil fuels and onto low carbon technologies. I am proud that the University of Sheffield is at the cutting edge of renewables research... it could prove to be a vital tool for developing the technologies that will meet our energy needs for decades to come."
Inspiring words. Yet while we now work with commercial partners, none of these projects would have been viable without strong initial support from government through the funding councils and regional government.
Such success requires ongoing support. What matters is that short-term economic measures don´t cause us to undermine for a generation the vital Science strength that will fuel our economic growth, and our sustainability as a high-wage and technologically advanced nation.
When Lord Krebs appeals to the government, he is doing so as an eminent scientist and the son of the Nobel Prize winning Sheffield scholar Hans Krebs. He has an international perspective and has a history of being unafraid to speak difficult truths. Any government would be foolish to ignore his advice.
I want the next generation of outstanding young scientists - both British and international - to focus their research collaborations in the UK. If they do, we will all benefit. If they do not, we will be a long time restoring what has been lost.
Professor Keith Burnett
Vice-Chancellor, The University of Sheffield