An MIT of the North? We’ve heard this before

How will renewed calls for a science and innovation hub in the north of England be any different from similar attempts that have failed in the past? asks G. R. Evans

January 10, 2020
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It’s the start of a new year, a new government is settling in and the calls to address inequalities in the geographical disadvantages in UK higher education have begun. Jake Berry, the northern powerhouse minister, recently set out a goal to establish a “world-leading institution in the north to rival Oxford and Cambridge”. This intention to establish an “MIT of the North” was echoed by UK2070, an independent inquiry into city and regional inequalities in the UK.

What exactly is this proposal to create a whole new government-led research entity “to sit outside UKRI”? It seems to be modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, but (it is to be hoped) without “defence” at its leading edge. The common ground is proposed direct government control of the research to be done there. Governments find it hard to resist the temptation to interfere with academic freedoms. They have been held off more or less for the past two centuries by the dogma that the academic autonomy of higher education institutions must be respected. But what happens when the proposal is to create a new kind of institution somehow independent of these expectations?

DARPA claims to depend on a “vibrant ecosystem of innovation” but the UK has a very different “ecosystem”, in which the freedom of academic research has strong protections and the academic autonomy of institutions may not be interfered with. This new UK entity will not be able call itself a “university” or grant degrees without jumping through the necessary hoops. Possibly the Office for Students may ease all that through. If not, without powers to grant research degrees, how will the new entity attract and train young researchers? And what happens if there is a rush of “freelance researchers” hoping for personal benefit?

Shall we hear of politicians choosing the topics for research and selecting the researchers to explore them? And is government intending to fund all this outside the “dual support” system that still separates infrastructure from competitive “project” funding? Can it attempt that without risk and without the scaffolding of the new structure of UK Research and Innovation, which is still finding its way? After all, UKRI has existed only since new legislation of 2017 created a unified structure bringing together the research councils, infrastructure funding and Innovate UK.

But keen observers of UK higher education policy will know that we’ve been here before. In 1963, then shadow education secretary Richard Crossman was calling for “a great national plan” under which “a real minister of science” would take direct charge of relations between “institutions of higher education” and “industry where the science must be applied”. There was even a proposal to have separate ministers for education and higher education, science, research and technology – not unlike the present division between the OfS and UKRI.

Twenty years ago Gordon Brown, then chancellor of the exchequer, announced an ambitious project to create a new kind of “institute”. This was announced as a done deal on 10 November 1999. The University of Cambridge and Massachusetts Institute of Technology were to create a “Cambridge-MIT Institute”. It was to support “programmes of education for business” and “an annual business-government-university summit focusing on the competitiveness and productivity of UK industry” with research to “focus largely on fields that have potential to influence substantially the future evolution of technology”. Government funding of up to £68 million was to be made available over five years. This was an enormous sum of money, representing several times the total annual income of a number of other universities at the time. Concerns were raised. Cambridge was indignant about the lack of consultation.

But what kind of entity was this to be? That quickly proved to be a problem. It was intended to be a company limited by guarantee as an exempt UK educational charity until it was realised that that could not be done under US law. It had to be set up as CMI Ltd. Much remained unclear about the extent to which the constitutions of Cambridge and MIT could be made compatible with their involvement in this joint venture.

It was not long, however, before the press began to ask what was actually being achieved. It was suggested that “if CMI hadn't exactly stalled, it had become becalmed and lacking in direction”. The first two directors of CMI Ltd suddenly resigned. New directors were hastily appointed and produced a “new mission statement”. But examples of projects, let alone successful projects, remained few. In 2008 CMI Ltd issued a “final report” describing its activities from late 2000 to 2006, stating that CMI Ltd had now “evolved into the CMI Partnership Programme”. There remains a cautious note on the university’s website. Its Final Report suggests that CMI at least developed “a series of effective practices”.

CMI Ltd was a politically driven idea backed by public funding and rushed into existence without the planning it needed. What will be different this time around? There is a risk that this new venture will prove equally abortive. And questions remain about how it can create a research base to compete with the Oxford-Cambridge-London triangle, so as to rebalance the research status of universities lower in the league tables. Is this really the solution we need to the social disadvantages between the north and south of England? Really?

G. R. Evans is emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge.

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