Let’s hear it for our universities

Call it a knowledge economy, call it a high-value economy, call it a technology-rich economy. Call it whatever you like, but few people would argue with the fact that an economy with these virtues represents the chance for the UK to prosper.


Call it a knowledge economy, call it a high-value economy, call it a technology-rich economy. Call it whatever you like, but few people would argue with the fact that an economy with these virtues represents the chance for the UK to prosper in an increasingly competitive world.

For the moment let’s call it the knowledge economy. And, as this is The Engineer, let’s focus on its engineering and technology element. In our knowledge economy, where are the knowledge, the value, the skills and the innovation to be found?

First, in the many large companies, whether UK or foreign-owned, with significant R&D or high-value manufacturing operations here.

There are examples in every sector — Ford in automotive, Rolls-Royce in power engineering, BAE Systems in defence and aerospace and Dyson in consumer products are just a few.

Then there are the thousands of innovative smaller businesses, some only employing a handful of people but with the power to generate products and ideas that can change market sectors and lives.

There is another source of knowledge and innovation, however, that sometimes gets less attention than it deserves, even though it potentially represents the single biggest concentration of experience and expertise in a particular region of the country.

We are talking about the UK’s universities, where some of the best examples of innovation in action can be found, often in collaboration with industrial partners both large and small.

Unfortunately that work, and the wider role of universities, often goes unrecognised — until now. This week The Engineer launches a new awards scheme designed to reward the work underway in universities, and the partners from the commercial sector who help bring technology from the lab and into the marketplace.

We believe such a national awards scheme is long overdue, and hope many of The Engineer’s readers will enter, or suggest that others do so.

On a related but far less happy note Blair, Brown and the rest have talked endlessly about the knowledge economy since taking office in 1997.

Strange, then, that the DTI should last week announce £68m worth of cuts to the budgets of the UK’s Research Councils, which between them support some of the country’s most significant projects in engineering, science and technology.

The reductions were apparently necessary to ‘ease financial pressures elsewhere in the DTI’. Well, whatever needed £68m worth of propping up must be very important to justify the diversion of cash from the nation’s technology research base. Very important indeed.

It would be unthinkable, for example, for the money to be spent maintaining an army of consultants. Absolutely unthinkable.

Andrew Lee, editor