New report highlights the need to strengthen relationship between business and universities

A new CBI report has been published today (Monday 21 September) into the relationship between business and higher education and how it can be strengthened.

Professor Glynis Breakwell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bath, was a member of the CBI Higher Education Task Force-comprising both business and universities-which has spent the last year discussing and developing the report.

The report, entitled 'Stronger together-businesses and universities in turbulent times' outlines the need for business in the UK to do even more than it currently does to work with universities and the Government to help maintain the UK's international competitiveness in the current economic climate.

It also states that the rapid rise in student numbers, coupled with a severe strain on public finances, makes current public funding levels unsustainable.

Professor Breakwell believes the report makes an important contribution to the debate on Higher Education.

"It makes it clear that business must play a greater role in supporting our universities and students, and what is more it provides practical examples of how it can do so," said Professor Breakwell.

"I think the most important recommendation in the report stems from the recognition that, in order to maintain the world-class quality of our Higher education activities in teaching and research, we have to find ways to continue to invest in our universities and that this investment will not simply come from public funds."

The UK's HE sector is one of the most successful in the world, and the report acknowledges that universities are a "vital public good". Business needs excellent universities to produce the graduates, postgraduates, research and innovation that are required to drive economic growth and prosperity.

The UK compares quite favourably with similar countries on how many young people go to university, and undergraduate numbers have risen by 35 per cent since 1997. However, the proportion of UK graduates taking science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) degrees has declined by 20 per cent since 1999-2000, and the CBI wants to see more young people to continue with these subjects after the age of 16.

Sam Laidlaw, Chairman of the CBI HE Task Force and CEO of Centrica, said: "The UK has a world-class higher education sector. But it faces some urgent challenges including the changing needs of business, intensifying international competition, and constrained public sector funding. Universities and government cannot deliver a world class service alone.

"Effective collaboration between the higher education sector, business and government will be critical to the UK's economic recovery and sustainable international competitiveness. Business must also make a sustained effort in supporting higher education. To this end, I am pleased that as a Task Force we have made a strong commitment to provide the support needed to help students build the employability and technical skills that are so important."

The report proposes that more businesses should work with universities to: 

  • Sponsor students studying subjects relevant to business, such as science and technology.
  • Provide financial support to new graduates, through bonuses when they sign on with the firm.
  • Offer more opportunities for internships, placements, work experience or projects.
  • View working with universities as part of core innovation activity.

The report also warns that the expansion of Higher Education and the state of public finances is putting an increasing strain on resources.

Richard Lambert, CBI Director-General, said: "The economic downturn makes cuts to public funding for HE inevitable, so new sources of funding have to be found. Universities and business must work together to preserve the quality of teaching and research, waste in the HE system must be cut, with universities sharing more of their services and consolidating to make efficiencies.

"On funding, our Task Force considered - and rejected - three options open to the government: cutting research funding, slashing teaching budgets and reducing student numbers. Instead, we say that savings should come from the student support system. Of course, it's never easy to ask students to pay more, but the UK's student support is on a par with some of the most generous in the world, and the priority must be to preserve quality as well as assisting those unable to pay to ensure that higher education remains open to all."

Professor Breakwell added: "This is obviously an area of the report that will generate lots of debate with opinion on both sides. What is clear is the need to maintain the quality of the UK's universities through enhanced funding.

"I believe the Government should reform the student loan system - making it financially viable while securing the support for those most at need."

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