Universities are vital for the country's economic and social regeneration

Professor Glynis Breakwell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bath, has told a national summit of politicians, business and education leaders that the 'health of our universities is vital for our economic and social regeneration'.

Speaking at the CBI higher education summit in London, Professor Breakwell said that the crucial question is how to pay for university provision in the future with limited expansion of public funding for higher education planned.

Following on from the recent launch of the CBI's higher education taskforce report, the summit provided an opportunity to explore the relationship between business and higher education.

Other speakers at the event included the Rt Hon Lord Mandelson, Secretary for State for Business, Innovation & Skills, and David Willetts MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Universities & Skills.

Professor Breakwell told delegates: "The latest figures show that the UK invests 1.3% of GDP in higher education, compared to 2.9% in the US.  For that 1.3%, UK universities generate 2.3% GDP which equates to £55 billion.

"Universities are significant wealth-creators - not just through their own business activity, although they do employ one per cent of the UK workforce and are often the biggest employers in their region, but through providing highly-skilled graduates, and providing through their research and its application the life-blood of other businesses.

"The current funding models need to be reappraised. If the number going to university is to be maintained, let alone increased and quality of education maintained, new money will be needed."

Professor Breakwell added that the goal must be to keep the cost of a university education within an affordable range for all students.

She said that universities already invest heavily in bursary support for students from low-income households but felt this was an area where business could provide more support.

But Professor Breakwell pointed out that universities are not just asking for this money without seeking to improve their own business practices.

"Most universities are very large businesses and have a very complex mixture of activities," she said. "Enormous strides have been taken in recent years to optimise efficiency but more is being done and still needs to be done."

Areas highlighted for improvement included: 

  • Controlling costs through methods such as sharing services.
  • Rolling out new models of teaching delivery.
  • Optimising the use of the university estate.
  • Diversification of income generation activities.

Professor Breakwell acknowledged that business already does a lot to support students and fund research but echoed the findings of the task force report by urging them to engage and invest more effectively.

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