Blue-skies thinking back in business

In his maiden keynote speech as universities and science minister, David Willetts backs curiosity-driven research…and ‘competition from new providers’. John Morgan reports

May 20, 2010

Politicians should value the “serendipitous paths” of curiosity-driven research and “respect the autonomy of universities”, the sector’s new minister has argued.

At the University of Birmingham today, David Willetts, minister for universities and science, delivered his first keynote speech since his appointment.

Contrary to indications of Conservative policy prior to the general election, he pledged support for a ring-fenced science and research budget.

The speech also sought to put clear blue water between the coalition government’s higher education policy and Labour’s, which was criticised by many in the academy for overemphasising the demands of the economy.

But Mr Willetts’ message on the need for increased private provision will heighten anxiety for many, and there was no detailed discussion of higher education funding.

The speech played up to Mr Willetts’ reputation as an intellectual, touching on the experiments of Joseph Priestley, the philosophy of David Hume and the campus novels of David Lodge.

He told his audience: “I’m all in favour of curiosity-driven research whose applications may take time to emerge, if [they do] at all. Intellectual enquiry is worthwhile for its own sake – whether it’s devoted to engineering or to Shakespeare, two strengths of this university.”

On relations between universities and government, Mr Willetts argued that the lack of world-class universities in France was no surprise given academics’ status as civil servants there.

“That is why governments must respect the autonomy of universities. We can strengthen this by giving them the widest possible range of diverse funding streams and institutional arrangements. We must place greater faith in the serendipitous paths that researchers take,” he said.

Mr Willetts said he was sceptical of the “over-managed and overdriven” impact agenda proposed for the research excellence framework, and would “take soundings from Sir Alan Langlands [chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England] and representatives of the academic community”.

But he added that an autonomous system must “adapt to competition from new providers” and empower students.

“This is the context for Lord Browne’s review of funding and student finance,” Mr Willetts said.

There were also pledges of support for the Haldane principle, which states that governments should not unduly interfere with how research councils spend their money, the dual-support system of research funding and “the adoption of a multi-year, ring-fenced science and research budget”.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com

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