TWENTY years ago this month a far-reaching Government Act came into force. Overnight it enabled the UK’s polytechnics to become universities.
Since then the “new” – now more often called “modern” – universities have proved to be successful and popular, spearheading innovation, international links and accessibility in UK higher education.
Modern universities such as Sunderland have helped to create life-changing opportunities for many thousands of people.
In the 1980s only 15% of school leavers went on to university – now more than 33% enrol.
Strong partnerships with businesses and international colleges have transformed the way in which courses are taught and how students are prepared for a career.
The global dimension of universities is perhaps the most dramatic change of the past two decades. The number of overseas students at UK universities has more than doubled in the past 20 years.
Modern universities have actively created international partnerships throughout the world, and many have built their own campuses to increase access to UK higher education for students studying in their home countries.
Universities UK believes that export earnings from international students totalled £8bn in 2009 and could grow to £17bn by 2025. The UK is in competition with many other countries to host international students, so visa concerns and economic conditions are increasingly important considerations.
The open, flexible approach of modern universities has undoubtedly helped links with businesses blossom. Universities such as mine are part of their local communities, and work with them to boost prospects for residents and businesses. Sixty percent of all contract research and development for SMEs and almost two-thirds of all graduate start-up businesses come from modern universities.
Pioneering new ways of carrying out higher education and research is part of the DNA of modern universities. It is exciting to see bold new initiatives continuing 20 years on from the Further and Higher Education Act.
The main policy drivers of high-quality teaching and learning access that hallmarked the polytechnics, continue to brand modern universities.
There is real energy and an appetite for embracing change within modern universities. That enterprising spirit nurtures innovation in teaching. They are coming of age having achieved a great deal globally, nationally and regionally.
Professor Bernie Callaghan is dean of the faculty of business and law at the University of Sunderland