A ray of sunshine to light a gloomy day

Dr Mark Pegg

In the dark days of winter, the odd ray of sunlight cheers us all.  Not to get too overexcited, the warm days of summer are long off, but take it while you can. 

So where did this ray of sunlight come from?  Prime Minister David Cameron has been globetrotting, taking the lead and returns bearing gifts for UK universities.  An entourage of Vice-chancellors, including Eric Thomas, Colin Riordan and Don Nutbeam, joined the PM on his recent trade mission to India.  Hot foot off the plane, Minister David Willetts rushed to tell Vice-chancellors and of course the Leadership Foundation his ‘good news’.  

The sound bites, rhetoric and mood music have changed. The PM announced on the trip that Indian students were welcome in the UK after all. He repeatedly stressed there was no cap on the number of Indian students who could come to the UK, and they were welcome to work in the UK after their degrees if they found graduate-level jobs. His positive messages means he has decided to end the stalemate in the trench warfare between BIS and the Home office over student migration,

There was more.  Mr Willetts told us the PM had brought back yet more good news from his visit to Brussels the previous week.  The EU budget cuts pushed through with the UK in the vanguard, did not apply to the science research budget.  It has been protected, even boosted and the UK’s excellent universities can expect to gain a large share.

That was not all.  The minister reminded everyone UK spending cuts are much worse for everyone else and universities should count themselves lucky.  He recounted the scene from the film ‘Crocodile Dundee’, where on a visit to New York, Aussie outbacker Mick Dundee is held up by a mugger with a knife.  He laughs – reaches into his belt and pulls out a huge hunting knife – ‘call that a knife, this is a knife!  

Applause was muted, around the room faces barely twitched into wan smiles. There is still a feeling amongst VCs that we should not be here in the first place and we’ll believe it when we see it.  But take it while you can.  The PM shows he is now willing to give the sector the leadership it craves from HM Government.  He spoke publicly of his admiration for the work of UK universities and their importance in overseas trade, getting the UK out of recession and in taking on the really big issues the world faces.  Actions speak louder than words, but the ray of sunshine may point to sunnier days ahead.

Mark Pegg is the chief executive of the Leadership Foundation

23 February 2013