Leader: Flights across the pond show need in humanities...

September 6, 2002

First it was Alan Ryan leaving Oxford for a year, then Richard Jenkyns quitting his classics professorship, and now Niall Ferguson prefers to pursue his history on the other side of the Atlantic (back page). To lose one star name might be unlucky, but three in a matter of months surely suggests, if not carelessness, a more serious problem. The trio has had plenty to say, not criticising Oxford in particular, but about the comparison between top British universities and their American rivals.

On one level, of course, it is just coincidence that three articulate and well-known academics in close succession have moved to the US, even if they have made some unflattering comparisons on the way. Oxford can demonstrate that it has given as good as it gets in the transatlantic trade that is bound to be a feature of an increasingly global higher education scene. Looking only slightly more widely, Cambridge's recruitment of Roger Pedersen has caused just as much angst in American science as has the loss of Ferguson et al in the UK.

Yet neither Oxford nor British higher education as a whole should be too complacent about the current wave of departures. Although the three dons all stress that they are not leaving for the money, their moves underline yet again the yawning salary gap between the two countries. Of more significance is the frustration all have expressed at the needless bureaucracy and poor funding levels that they see holding back leading universities.

The other, less obvious common thread is that all three are from the arts and social sciences. The traditional image of the brain drain, associated with scientists lured away with promises of vast research teams and gleaming equipment, is being turned on its head. Recent funding programmes and the government's promise of increased spending over the next three years may attract more top scientists to Britain, as well as helping to retain our high-flyers. But what of the arts? To fail to redress the balance in their higher education blueprint really would be carelessness on the part of ministers.

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