Leader: Academe's value must be upheld

December 15, 2006

Academics are far from alone in feeling that Government targets and financial imperatives are eroding the culture that gave their work value and attracted them into the profession in the first place. Health professionals would say the same, as would schoolteachers and many other public servants. Similar pressures have been evident in private companies for many years. The question is whether there is something unique about the academic world that merits an exception from the norms of modern working practices. It is a dangerous argument to make - one that sounds pretentious and that has to be supported by strong evidence of the benefits to society and/or the economy.

Those who work in universities and colleges need no convincing that their mission is worthwhile, but debates this week within the Society for Research into Higher Education suggest a generational split over whether academic life has been devalued to the point that it has lost its meaning. Ron Barnett, the SRHE's chairman, talks of the "splintering of the academy and of academic identity" as the young accept the changes of the past decade, while their older colleagues hanker after a time of greater autonomy.

From outside higher education, it is easy to dismiss the doubters as unrealistic nostalgics. But events in other parts of the world should serve as a reminder of the true value of academic endeavour. In Iraq, for example, as in so many other theatres of violence, academics are among the first to be targeted. Qualities that are taken for granted in times of comfortable consensus are recognised instantly in more testing circumstances. The totalitarian threat may be not be a relevant consideration in the UK, but academics' role as independent analysts should never be underestimated. Of course, universities have to modernise - and academics cannot avoid administration or accountability - but discussions such as those at the SRHE conference are important as regular reassertions of the core values of the profession. Young lecturers may be better at managing the competing pressures of modern academic life, but even they know that the pendulum could easily swing too far. Some aspects of university life (including pay) have improved in recent years, but both the unions and bodies such as the SRHE must be watchful that its central purpose remains intact.

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