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Higher Education and the Economy

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:14 pm on 19th April 2007.

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Photo of Lord Sutherland of Houndwood Lord Sutherland of Houndwood Crossbench 3:14 pm, 19th April 2007

My Lords, in my youth an Australian comedian called Bill Kerr used to open his radio routines by saying in droll tones, "I'm only here for four minutes". I now know how he felt. I want to use my four minutes to take noble Lords through two examples of lateral and innovative thinking in the university sector that boosts UK plc and contributes significantly to our economy.

On the first example, I had thought that I might be the first to mention in this debate the place of music and music colleges. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, has been there, and I follow him enthusiastically. The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music is a charitable company established for the benefit of music education by the four UK royal schools of music: the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Music, the Royal Northern College of Music and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. I declare an interest: it is my privilege to chair that board.

You might not think that this charitable company was a natural clone of the spin-out companies that we have seen elsewhere. It is not, but 600,000 candidates are examined annually by that board in the furtherance of musical education. The revenue coming into this country from overseas constitutes over half the board's earnings; roughly £25 million is earned from examining, roughly half of which comes from the 90 different countries in which the board moves and examines. Those 90 countries boost the numbers of candidates each year—by 4.3 per cent last year.

The same board is involved in not only musical examination but taking the business of music education further in innovative ways. It has been nominated by Webby, which the techies among noble Lords will recognise as the organisation that internationally gives awards for the best websites in the world. The board has been nominated as one of five finalists internationally in the category of education for its website SoundJunction, which combines high technology and music. It is a classic example of niche institutions not simply staying in their small corners but expanding their range of capacity and interest in ways that benefit them and the cause of music education in this country—with all the consequences to which the noble Lord, Lord Geddes, pointed—and creates income for Great Britain plc.

My other example is that of a different form of innovation and involves my old stamping ground, King's College—I was delighted to hear such a positive story about the college from the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings. I declare an interest as an educational adviser to the Malaysian company YTL, one of the major companies in that country's stock exchange. The company was exploring ways of benefiting education in Malaysia. Conversation focused on improvement of schools through the devolution of increased autonomy, a theme to which the Minister might warm. The outcome was that three weeks ago I was in Kuala Lumpur at a ceremony hosted by the Malaysian Minister of Education, where representatives of King's College, London, signed an agreement to provide training for future headteachers in Malaysia—initially up to 150 over the next three years. The impact of that in terms of Britain's influence is significant. The earnings come back to this country, and a great deal of the training will take place in this country, although clearly some of it will be based in Malaysia.

Different factors came together: the wish of YTL to enhance Malaysian school education; the Malaysian department's recognition of what was happening in this country in terms of pushing out the boat of education autonomy; and the reputation and excellence of King's College, London, in the joint fields of education and professional leadership training. Without that excellence, the other bits of the jigsaw would not have fitted together. It is a marvellous story and a niche story, and I simply hope that, as the Government and the funding councils consider the impact of universities and colleges, they allow for such lateral practice and thinking to have a very high impact.