In the final months of 2010, the subject of student tuition fees dominated our political discourse. What originated as relatively civil and contained acts of protest quickly mutated into angry and ultimately violent conflict at the heart of Britain’s capital city. The bellowing voice of extremism had once again drowned out the silent minority and images of discord and chaos dominated our television screens. At the zenith of the violence, the London headquarters of the Conservative Party was attacked, destroying the building’s main lobby and seriously injuring one female police officer in the process. Indeed, given the sheer ferocity of opposition to the rise in tuition fees, one would be forgiven for thinking that the days of Britain’s students were numbered. More sensible voices have long known otherwise.
Regardless of whether anyone entirely understands the concept, David Cameron has been relentless in his championing of the ‘Big Society’. Near the end of last year, the Prime Minister spoke to the business community directly. “As Business in the Community shows every day Britain’s great businesses are not just a force for good in our economy. You are a force for good in our society too”. Investing in skills, jobs and indeed new support for new graduates is undoubtedly central to this vision. And if this is the benchmark, then there is it seems some room for optimism.
Earlier this month the UK drugs giant GlaxoSmithKline announced a groundbreaking and progressive new scheme for graduates, whereby from 2012 the company will offer to reimburse in full the university tuition fees of the entirety its future graduate intake. In the most generous of examples, this could result in payouts of up to £36,000 in total, for those students paying uncapped fees of £9,000 and studying on four-year courses at some of the country’s top academic institutions. Far from being limited to those within the sciences, the new scheme will target graduates from all disciplines, including economics, law and computer science. The price of this considerable act of generosity? £3 million a year for a company that in 2010 reported 28.39 billion pounds in revenues and profits of £1.63 billion . This is, as Jeff Randall observed in the Telegraph, ‘less than one thousandth of its research budget’. Make no mistake, while both a generous an intelligent investment in the future, this is not a figure to break the bank.
Indeed to interpret this gesture as blind charity would be to miss the point entirely. Instead, this announcement signals the intelligent observation that investment in the future talent of an industry is an essential component of prudent long-term strategy. Particularly for any companies in the pharmaceutical sector, for whom research and development represents the sometimes elusive, but essential key to growth. In announcing the scheme, GSK’s CEO, Andrew Witty, unsurprisingly echoed this message, asserting that“…the biggest reason we are doing this is that we want to get the absolute best possible graduates we can to work for GSK. This is a great way for us to try and ensure we get that next brilliant scientist.”
Conclusively, while it would be naïve to consider this announcement by GSK as a silver bullet for the financial challenges facing higher education, it does set a promising and progressive precedent. Indeed as Randall observes, “If replicated by its peer group, [it] could help transform the funding of degrees and ease the burden of student debt that comes with university fees of up to £9,000 a year”. Both meeting the moral rallying cry of the government and developing the next generation of gifted research scientists. Once again, the pharmaceutical sector should be proud to lead the way.
Last updated on: 17/03/2011 14:37:34