Top academic says Britain lags behind the US in research and innovation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 April, 2014, 3:25pm
UPDATED : Monday, 14 April, 2014, 3:26pm

Britain ranks among the top study destinations for students from around the world, but it has much catching up to do in driving innovation, says a leading academic.

Michael Arthur, president of University College London (UCL), lauds Silicon Valley and the east coast of the United States, where Harvard and Yale universities are located, as the world's leading centres of research and innovation.

There are so many collaborations between both universities in the fields
Michael arthur, president of university college london

"In sheer student number terms and quality of students, we might be first in the world, but there is more to it; in terms of relationship between research, innovation, spin-off companies and economic growth we have a way to go to catch up [with the US]," says the professor.

Increased support for innovation is crucial to Britain's competitiveness in the long run, he noted during a recent trip to Hong Kong to foster ties with alumni.

The latest figures from the British Council show that 5,460 Hong Kong students have applied to British universities for the coming academic year, an 8.11 per cent increase over the same period last year. There were a total of 10,550 Hong Kong students enrolled in undergraduate courses in Britain in 2012-13.

Many of those who made the grade are likely to have chosen UCL, a member of the Russell Group of 24 top research-led universities in the country. The Russell Group produces around one-third of all postgraduate students in Britain.

Arthur says it's very important to nurture undergraduates' research skills. These include problem-solving and communication skills, which he believes will benefit graduates for the rest of their lives. "I think we should try to produce graduates who are capable of contributing widely to society," he says.

A medical doctor by training, he has taken on different roles in his career, having served as the chairman of the Universities Worldwide Network and the Russell Group, before taking the helm at UCL last September.

To bolster its capabilities, UCL is poised for a merger with the Institute of Education in London to tap its pedagogical expertise and research in education and social sciences. The institute was ranked seventh in the world for education studies in last year's QS World Rankings. Arthur expects the merger to take place in January next year.

"It is important to move quickly, because then it will be more certain for staff and students. There have been a lot of positive comments from institute staff; we guarantee there won't be any job losses for at least a year. Actually, the number of jobs will increase," he says.

Arthur expects UCL to benefit further from the research already being undertaken by faculty from both institutions in areas like population health sciences and psychology. "They have good science education, and we have good science, so joining together strengthens our science," he says.

"It'd be very helpful to have education research - we have run UCL for nearly 200 years without a faculty of education, but now we think, as with combination of education and social sciences, it's the right thing. There are so many collaborations between both universities in the fields."

In terms of research income, UCL was in second place in Britain last year, after Oxford, having seen an 11 per cent rise in income, according to Arthur.

Earlier this year, the Russell Group joined with other global universities to sign up to the Hefei statement, named after the city in which it was first signed. It outlines 10 characteristics of research universities, including the pursuit of excellence.

The statement urges that "all relevant policies recognise the broad, pervasive and long-term benefits of university research and education and provide the support and environment that will ensure that these institutions continue to flourish; sustaining the foundational characteristics that make research universities an invaluable part of any national infrastructure."

Other signatories to the Hefei statement include top mainland institutions such as Peking, Fudan, Tsinghua, and Shanghai Jiaotong universities; the Association of American Universities; the Group of Eight Australia; and the League of European Research Universities.