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Higher Education and the Economy

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 19th April 2007.

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Photo of Lord Wilson of Tillyorn Lord Wilson of Tillyorn Crossbench 3:45 pm, 19th April 2007

My Lords, I should first declare an interest as master of a Cambridge college and as chancellor of the University of Aberdeen.

What does one say towards the end of a debate such as this one when there have been so many cogent and powerful contributions? Perhaps I could concentrate on two things. The first is what can be achieved by a major centre of research excellence such as Cambridge—not because Cambridge is unique in this, but just as an example. The second is the value of what one might call the community of scholars. Last year, a consultancy did a study called The Impact of the University of Cambridge on the UK Economy and Society. It is a mine of information on precisely what this debate is about. It would be quite wrong, and I think tedious, to quote extensively from that study, but I should like to pick out one or two points.

First, there is the astonishing fact that the University of Cambridge has been the home of 81 Nobel Prize winners. That is more than the number for any other country—country, not university—in the world except for the United States and, of course, the UK itself. Incidentally, four of those Nobel Prize winners came from my own Cambridge college albeit it is the smallest one, so size is not the only thing that matters.

Another point arising from Cambridge is the great story of the unravelling of the structure of DNA by Crick and Watson. The study which I quoted reckons that, worldwide, that has produced more than $100 billion of investment in biotechnology. That is some economic achievement. Then more recently, in February this year, there was the opening of the Li Ka Shing Centre, a splendid new facility for research into cancer. It has made Cambridge the largest cancer research facility in the whole of Europe.

What is so instructive in addition to those developments is how a great centre of research expands outwards into its surrounding geographical areas. Due to the "Crick and Watson effect", as it were, Cambridge now has 200 biotech companies, the largest concentration in Europe. There is also the cluster effect in the larger area, 15 miles around the university, with 900 high-tech companies employing some 27,000 people and producing a massive annual income.

There is another cluster effect which I think is just as important: the cluster effect of having a community of scholars, or in the case of a university such as Cambridge—a collegiate university—a college community of scholars. I mentioned Crick and Watson and the unravelling of the structure of DNA. I was told earlier this week, by somebody who was there, about a dinner in my college, Peterhouse, where Crick and Watson were both present as young men. So too was a less well known Australian biochemist, Irwin Chargaff. During conversation Chargaff told the two of them about work he had been doing on DNA. It was the vital clue. The rest of what happened following that dinner in Cambridge is not just history; it is the double helix and everything that has changed our lives since. That is the value of a scholarly community.

The scholarly community applies also at the other end of the spectrum—among students. Young people from all sorts of social and economic backgrounds and from many different nationalities live and operate together and talk across the barriers of different subjects and different cultures. All of this gives these highly talented young people, brought in simply because they are talented, a chance to develop their true potential.

Perhaps it is not possible to measure the direct economic impact of all this, and perhaps, as the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, said, one should not do so. The important point is that they make a great contribution to society here and around the world. I pick up on another point made by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens. I hope that the role played by great research institutions will be affirmed by the Government. That is not to undermine what my noble and right reverend friend Lord Carey was saying about the role of newer universities; just to affirm what is being done by research universities.

Perhaps I may conclude by quoting Confucius. After all, he has been around a great deal longer than even the oldest of British universities. That great Chinese classic, the Analects of Confucius, starts, freely translated:

"The Master said: 'Is it not a great joy to study, and, in a timely way, to make use of what one has studied?'".

I believe that the universities of the UK, all of them in their different ways, provide the opportunities for just that.