He's a jolly good fellow

A new fellowship scheme aims to bridge the divide between the world of politics and the ivory towers, writes Lucy Hodges
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It is a sad but true fact that universities punch well below their weight when it comes to political lobbying. They may be educating ever-growing numbers of young people and conducting groundbreaking research, but you would never know it from the impact they have on the public consciousness.

That could begin to change with the announcement last week of a university fellowships scheme whereby politicians will be seconded to universities to learn how they function; and university staff will spend time in Parliament, gaining insight into the political process.

"MPs don't know enough about higher education," says Barry Sheerman, Labour chairman of the Education Select Committee. "Universities are phenomenally powerful organisations. They dominate the towns and cities in which they sit. Yet they punch so much below their weight, no one takes any notice of them and they have no power to frighten anyone." That is in stark contrast to organisations in the schools sector – for example, the trade unions – which have been able to wield considerable clout over the years.

The first fellow appointed by the Industry and Parliament Trust, the organisation that is running the project, is Alistair Burt, the Conservative higher-education spokesman whose first hand experience of university was reading law at St John's College, Oxford. "Universities are about much more than they used to be," he says. "They are converting research into front-line products and commercial ideas. This is a wonderful opportunity for me to gain in-depth knowledge about my brief."

The scheme is the brainchild of Professor Drummond Bone, principal of Royal Holloway, who is shortly to become vice-chancellor of Liverpool University. His feeling is that MPs don't know enough about how universities function today and the key part they play in economic regeneration and development. "Every MP knows that universities educate students fresh out of school and carry out some obscure blue-skies research. They probably also think that universities are public institutions almost entirely funded by the government.

"We do educate undergraduates but we also take in a formidable number of graduates who are returners to universities. We do a great deal of continuing professional development, teaching and training people, but we also have a very big research business operating in a competitive market, handling projects for Channel 4, British Aerospace, Vodaphone, and various banks, including the Asian Development Bank in Vietnam. And that's only a bit of what Royal Holloway does in that respect."

In the old days – up until Mrs Thatcher's time – universities wielded power behind the scenes through a quiet word in the ear of top civil servants and ministers. They made their case. It was perfectly reasonable. And, like as not, it was heard. That era has more or less gone – though Oxford and Cambridge are still able to whisper in the Prime Minister's ear.

In today's noisy democracy, interest groups have to gain attention through lobbying openly. Universities, although engaged in the information business, are not used to this. The former Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, now renamed Universities UK, tries to make its voice heard but it is a bureaucratic organisation and finds that difficult. Time and again, schools win in the battle for more money. They are higher up the political agenda, their interest groups make more fuss, and they are, after all, educating the whole population.

The new fellowships are an attempt to change that. MPs and peers signing up will spend time in four universities. The first group contains Royal Holloway, Bristol, Kingston and Imperial College, and the politicians will visit each university for five days.

Announcing the fellowships last week, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, president of the Industry and Parliament Trust, said: "From the country's point of view, it is essential that Parliament understands the way a modern university runs," he says. "Universities are substantial businesses in their own right, some routinely turning over in excess of £200m a year. Their output is vital to a modern economy."