January 04, 2017

Relationships matter

As we enter 2017, still seeking to understand what the UK’s relationship with the EU will look like post-Brexit, I can’t help but reflect – like many of my higher education sector colleagues – on relationships more generally.

Relationships matter, and I can’t help but worry how the government’s continuing failure to reassure people like EU migrants, for example, that we remain committed to them as they already support the UK so effectively, will have a long-term negative impact on our relationships with these individuals, as well as with the countries they’ve come from, whatever legislative framework for the UK’s future engagement with the EU eventually emerges.

Arguably, in the higher education sector at least, we start the new year with a raft of national policy challenges of a scale, complexity and level of uncertainty I don’t believe we have seen for decades: the Higher Education and Research Bill, the Teaching Excellence Framework, regional devolution, the development of a national Industrial Strategy and the government’s schools, immigration and widening participation agendas...

So it may be understandable for some to simply forget the importance of relationships – be they with other universities, with other sectors, with Government and policy makers, with other countries, with our communities, whilst we focus our attentions this year on survival, or at least navigating this challenging period.

This would be a huge mistake. Relationships matter now more than ever. They matter because, if we do not nurture these relationships, we will not retain the expertise and global connectivity we have. We will not be able to attract a global and inclusive community of the best students and staff from all walks of life to drive genuine innovation in education and research. We will not be able to collectively provide solutions to global challenges.

I remember a particularly compelling argument on why universities, government and industry must work together – across sectors and across nations – if we are to make a true difference to society.

Gordon Waddington, the Chief Executive Officer of the Energy Research Accelerator (ERA), made the case for a collaborative effort to solve the global energy crisis in a speech at the European Energy Research Alliance conference. ERA is a key programme within the Midlands Innovation university partnership, of which our University is a part. It’s a cross-disciplinary hub which brings together our capital assets, data and intellectual leadership to foster collaboration between academia and business to develop new products and services, and highly skilled people and jobs, to ultimately transform the UK’s energy sector. I’m sharing Gordon’s comments here.

The reason the seven founding partners in the Energy Research Accelerator came together is exactly the same as the reason over 170 institutions are represented within the European Energy Research Alliance. We know that there is a massive problem in delivering the scale of transformation to the global energy system that is essential to reduce, stop and then reverse the global rise of CO2 from the current dangerously high levels. 2016 is well on course to be the hottest year ever. We are all aware of the extraordinary difficulty in delivering the climate change obligations of Paris.

We need to deliver solutions quickly, and the way we do this has to be acceptable to people, communities and nations all over our interconnected planet. The challenges of reducing our carbon footprint will not be met with one technology alone, or by one company or by one nation. Energy efficiency; energy storage; carbon capture and storage; renewable energy; nuclear energy; smart and integrated systems and many others all have their part to play in reducing our carbon footprint. So do economics and human factors. We know we must not focus solely on the clever and complex engineering challenges that inspire us; we must also focus on affordability and ease of use.

Technologies that are just too expensive or too difficult to use will always struggle to gain mass appeal. They will only ever play a specialist role in the market. Mass adoption needs mass appeal, and without mass adoption many of the best technological ideas will not make any significant difference to the global carbon agenda. This means we have to put as much effort into demonstration, cost reduction, incentivizing the market to take our ideas up as we do into making further improvements to the technologies themselves.

Researchers, industrialists, policy-makers: none of these groups can achieve this in isolation. Our chances of success in meeting the climate change obligations of Paris are far greater when we work together; we are so much more than the sum of our parts when we have a common cause.

Making us behave in the right way has many factors. Just one of them is the need for us all to see that relationships directly impact our capacity to meet a challenge effectively. The scale of the energy challenges we face as a planet go well beyond the Midlands or the confines of one sector, one country or one region of the world. I am a committed European because, simply, there is no choice but to work with each other for the common good.”

Gordon received a spontaneous outburst of applause when he told his audience that he was a committed European.

As challenging as the continuing uncertainty of Brexit and other policy changes undoubtedly feel to many of us in higher education as we kick off 2017, collaborative initiatives like ERA, designed for the purpose of addressing the global energy challenge - are an excellent and active demonstration of how our determination to work together will actually help us respond in the most creative and effective way, and will enable us – collectively - to find solutions which will genuinely improve our global future.

With best wishes for 2017

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