Master of our Universe

Oh Lord - what a change. But let's not freak out just yet, says Kevin Fong

July 2, 2009

The deck shuffles again and Lord Mandelson pops out at the top. The new Master of our Universe is to oversee great change. We now have a handpicked team covering Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS); references to "universities" and "education" have disappeared entirely from the title of any government department. The trusty starship Enterprise, too, has gone by the wayside (along with the USS Regulatory Reform); their five-year, seven-million-quid mission to boldly go where no department has gone before cut cruelly short. The focus shifts, more realistically for this Government, to the next 12 months.

To many within the world of academia, there are only two ways of looking at this: glass half empty and beer glass smashed into your face. It appears to be yet another lost beachhead in the war to protect the needs of the academy against those of Arthur Daley and his business mates.

We have since received assurances that this doesn't mean the end of all things scholarly. We are told that this, unlike the last effort, represents a sensible reorganisation and that we shouldn't read too much into the title of the thing. What, after all, is in a name? A rose by any other moniker, etc, etc.

But badly paraphrased Shakespeare is not enough to quell the uneasy feeling currently washing over the academy. The perception that this is just part of an inexorable slide into a culture that supports business and forgives all its transgressions while, at best, fully ignoring and, at worst, running down higher education as we know it is, on the evidence, extremely hard to shake. The academic community will need deeds as well as words.

A department whose remit is so broad that it extends from the ends of the Earth to the edge of outer space understandably gives cause for concern. There is a real danger that higher education will be lost in the noise. The House of Lords has made itself heard on this matter. In a recent debate, Lord Baker of Dorking described universities as "custodians of scholarship, intellectual rigour and world-class teaching"; while Lord Howarth of Newport asked Mandelson to affirm that "the Government values research, teaching, knowledge and ideas as goods in themselves, as aspects of civilisation, and not just as means to advance material prosperity".

Lord this and Lord that. With all this talk of Masters of the Universe and outer space, one half expected Hansard to record Lord Vader's rasping comments on the matter. Presumably he would have been appreciative of Lord Drayson's new links to defence but disappointed with the overall lack of commitment to attack.

There is, nevertheless, among all this, cause for cautious optimism. Since the death of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Drayson has also weighed in, campaigning successfully for the creation of a separate select committee focused specifically on science across Government. Endowed with enough clout, this body should go some way towards protecting the interests of the science community proper. It will not be enough on its own, but at least it's a start.

But if science deserves its own select committee, then surely so do other interest groups that fall under the umbrella of BIS. Only, under that scheme, sooner or later one must arrive at the conclusion that perhaps there are altogether too many disparate interests represented by the same government department and that separation of these may be the right thing after all. And so, at the end of all your journeys you may find yourself right back where you started, undergoing death by a million episodes of restructuring.

It is possible, with some effort, to get to a glass-half-full interpretation: Mandelson has a reputation for being highly effective within Government and is without doubt the most powerful and influential of the ministers within the fold. The academic community has the support of many within the House of Lords. In response to their collective concerns, Hansard records these words from Mandelson: "As a liberal- arts university graduate ... I fully appreciate the role played by universities in building up not only our country's competitiveness but its character and its scholarship. I am committed to all of those things."

If he is true to this statement, he may yet be a great ally to higher education. But the academy will require proof positive of this, and sooner rather than later. The challenge for Mandelson is to provide concrete evidence of commitment to scholarship; to knowledge as a thing of value in and of itself. The challenge facing the higher education community is to maintain enough of the right kind of pressure to hold him to this promise.

I would suggest that there is currently no better option open than to hope for the best while engaging constructively with the minister. It is not sensible, at this time, to make an enemy of him when he may conceivably be a friend.

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