Willetts urges companies to fund postgraduate institutes

Companies keen to recruit more British graduates were called on today to help create science and technology postgraduate universities.

Universities minister David Willetts said in a speech that Britain’s research base was its greatest hope for future high-technology economic growth and called for proposals for institutions that wouldn’t be funded by government money.

He also announced plans for a ‘Catapult’ national research centre that would focus on satellite applications and provide businesses with access to orbit test facilities to develop and demonstrate technologies.

‘Local economic partnerships, universities, businesses and international partners can come together to put forward proposals for new institutions,’ said Willetts.

‘There will be no additional government funding. This time we will be looking to private finance and perhaps sponsorship from some of the businesses that are keen to recruit more British graduates.’

As well as the ‘Catapult’ (the fourth such research centre announced since 2010), more leadership councils will be created to bring together key figures from industry, government and academia in the areas of e-infrastructure and synthetic biology.

Other ambitions outlined included encouraging universities to increase funding from external sources by 10 per cent over the next three years and pushing more universities into the top-100 world rankings.

‘If properly nurtured, [universities] can ensure that Britain will be up there as a leading location for research in the physical and life sciences and beyond,’ said Willetts.

‘Britain can be the preferred location for companies’ R&D [research and development]. We can have world-class industries using cutting-edge technologies. We can have a prosperous future with a role in the world.’

Willetts also highlighted Britain’s position as the most productive country for research in the world, based on the number of academically cited papers compared with the number of researchers.

But Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), said: ‘We should aim to be the best place in the world for science, but we’re currently way behind nations such as Germany, Japan and the US in terms of business and industry investment in research.

‘Today David Willetts reiterated a whole series of positive measures the coalition is taking to incentivise more private-sector investment — but no political party has yet outlined a clear alternative vision for the UK economy.

‘The government should spell out what it thinks a “rebalanced” economy looks like — what would really count as “success” for its innovation policies?

‘We’ve got a clear opportunity to jump-start economic growth in the high-tech sectors this year, with the sale of the 4G mobile spectrum set to raise billions of pounds for the Treasury — that cash should clearly be reinvested in science and engineering to help create the UK’s platform technologies of tomorrow.’