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Liam Byrne invokes Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ to save UK universities

Liam Byrne invokes Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ to save UK universities

🕔28.Aug 2014

It’s 50 years since Harold Wilson promised to unleash the ‘white heat of technology’ in a famous speech before the 1964 General Election.

Now the phrase has been dusted off and resurrected by universities, science and skills minister Liam Byrne who today produces options for reforming Britain’s further education sector.

Byrne, the MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, sets out options for reform of Britain’s universities to boost the country’s knowledge economy and open high paying technical and professional jobs to the “forgotten 50 per cent” in his new pamphlet Robbins Rebooted, published by the Social Market Foundation (SMF) think tank.

Warning that Britain’s university system “could go bust” without major reform, Byrne details options drawn together following hundreds of conversations he organised with university and college leaders, academics and students over the last six months in Britain, Europe, India and China.

Invoking the white heat message of Harold Wilson’s government, Byrne argues that reformed universities are now key to fostering more high paid jobs in the “light speed” global digital economy.

He sets out “the big five ideas” which he says university and college leaders, students, teachers and researchers want to hear debated:

  • Technical Universities, a collaboration of employers, major university science and engineering departments and colleges, offering students the chance to study a new ‘earn while you learn’ ‘Technical Degree’
  • A revolution in links between colleges and universities based on the US-style community college movement.
  • Reform of research funding to support British universities in creating global ‘Star Alliances’ of the world’s best scientists with longer term research support.
  • A big increase in university enterprise zones to better link universities to regional growth.
  •  A new revolution in access to higher education, with a new national advice service to support young people into higher academic and technical education, support for university-school trusts, an expansion of the Open University’s Massive Open Online Courses and a new partnership between the Workers’ Education Association and UnionLearn.

Mr Byrne said: “The choice in higher education is now clear. Watch the university system slowly go bust and lose its place as a global science leader, or choose a different path. To escape this government’s cost of living crisis we’ve got to build a bigger knowledge economy, home to better paid jobs and open to anyone with talent no matter whether they want an academic or a technical path in life.

“It’s clear this government has no interest in leading a new debate, so we’re determined to act. Today, we publish the fruits of hundreds of conversations with students, scientists, and university and college leaders to show there’s a more ambitious future that’s there for the taking.

“Unless we get smarter as a country, we will get poorer. But withbig reform of our university system, not big spending, we can build a richer, fairer country.”

Commenting on the pamphlet, Social Market Federation Director Emran Mian said: “A strategy for higher education is a vital part of any wider economic plan especially if we are to tackle long standing problems with productivity.

“In this pamphlet Liam Byrne picks out some of the very best research, innovation and teaching practice in our higher education institutions and suggests how a Labour Government will support and expand it. This is a critical part of what Labour describes as ‘winning the race to the top’.

“The Coalition has already taken steps to create a more active industrial strategy – and use higher education in that effort. Byrne’s proposals suggest that Labour will go yet further, for example by expanding the role of universities in working with business to bring new products and services to market as well as adding to the skills of apprentices and bringing them up to degree level.”

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