This is a surprising book. It sets off innocuously enough as a diary, a confession even, from the chairman of the judging committee of a significant academic prize, named after Hannah Arendt, set up to promote innovation in central Europe after 1989. It ends by speculating on the reforms needed to create an open and democratic civil society: yet it is also an essay with searing revelations for all universities, as they say goodbye to Humboldt and Newman and face up to the new "ragbag" learning age.
That is the key lesson to be learnt from the 1989 revolutions: they were never going to be just about the former Soviet bloc. Those thrilling winds of change were bound to hit us all.
Ralf Dahrendorf sees this right away. He is exceptionally well qualified for the task, after 40 years of reforming and running universities, first as a professor of sociology in the 1950s, then in Germany in the 1960s, as European science commissioner in the 1970s, as director of the London School of Economics in the 1980s and as warden of St Antony's College, Oxford, in the 1990s.
His report reveals a patchy story - high crisis, fairly low yields. There is no doubt that the historically great universities have made great strides since the demise of the Iron Curtain. Yet, as Stefan Amsterdamski, head of the Graduate School for Social Research in Warsaw and one of the five annual Arendt prizewinners, noted in his 1995 speech, his team was "still constructing the scaffolding".
His is, though, one institutional model, along with the Invisible University in Budapest and the New Europe College in Bucharest, recommended by Dahrendorf for replication in the former East Central European (ECE) region. The other two are the southern Czech University of Olumouc and the Prague Institute for Contemporary History.
Amsterdamski identified two ingredients for success for the (re)emerging universities - quality and openness. These take time, yet ten years on we must ask, with Dahrendorf, why has progress been so slow? Why do ECE universities shun access, fear diversity and keep their borders closed? This despite Tempus and Phare programmes, cheap travel, the return of energetic emigres, the internet and generous sponsorship. George Soros alone provides some $300 million (£200 million) in higher education support a year.
Dahrendorf answers: too much political interference, too little funding, too many staff of the wrong sort, poor libraries, outmoded infrastructure, too much demand, a brain drain, rigid curricula and poor leadership. Add too little help from better-placed counterparts?
This is an important book because it challenges us to do more to help ECE universities in returning to Europe. It also asks us to look at where our British universities should be heading.
Paul Flather is secretary-general of the Europaeum and a fellow of Mansfield College, Oxford.
Universities after Communism
Author - Ralf Dahrendorf
ISBN - 3 89684 017 7
Publisher - Körber-Stiftung
Price - €12.00
Pages - 176