Leader: Keeping control of the academy

September 1, 2006

It is hard to say which development will arouse most suspicion and potential hostility among academics: employer-led higher education or the involvement of economic assessors in the allocation of research grants. Both will provide ammunition for those who believe that higher education is being reduced to the role of a service industry for the economy, rather than opening students' minds and pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge. If applied research squeezes out blue-skies inquiry and universities become glorified training centres, of course the sceptics will be right. But is it possible that both initiatives are pragmatic moves that may help to preserve the traditional virtues of higher education at a time of much tighter financial scrutiny?

The debate has echoes of Charles Clarke's incursion, as Education Secretary, into the realms of "medieval seekers after truth". He argued that the Government could be expected to fund courses and research without apparent economic relevance only if universities played their part in helping society and the economy adapt to rapid change. Every subject would have its place, as long as the system could show a return on substantial public funding. Sadly, Mr Clarke moved on before it could be established where the balance lay between the two. But the latest initiatives demonstrate that, however characteristically idiosyncratic the delivery, Mr Clarke was expressing a view held more widely in Westminster. The Treasury has confirmed as much by playing an unusually prominent role in the debate on research funding over the past two years. Well before the Chancellor's surprise inclusion of an announcement on the research assessment exercise in his Budget speech, it had become obvious that much greater economic accountability would be demanded of universities in future. One of the conditions attached to the promise of greatly increased research funding was regular monitoring of economic impact. The research councils' proposal to include economic assessors in the allocation process should be seen partly as a response to the new situation in which the councils find themselves. The question is how central a role the assessors will play and how to ensure that their appointment is not the start of a slippery slope in which academic merit ceases to be the main criterion for research.

Employer-led higher education may be from the same stable but it should be examined on its merits. Plenty of teaching, research and knowledge transfer is commissioned by employers already. Nursing is one obvious example, but there are countless others. Many universities could not survive without such links and do not feel themselves compromised by them. If they are offered public money to develop their activities, they are hardly likely to refuse. As the UK gets to grips with the demographic difficulties already facing other European higher education systems the relationship is bound to become closer still. Employer-led courses alone will not be a panacea, but new markets will have to be found somewhere if weaker institutions are not to face inexorable decline and eventual closure.

Rather than make what Mr Clarke considered utopian responses to his attempts at raising the larger question of how universities justify their state funding, the leaders of higher education must think seriously about where they draw the line between solvency and academic independence. Every university can demonstrate economic and/or social benefits from the most unlikely areas of research. As next year's public spending review approaches, they will need to do so ever more loudly in order to enlist public support when the going gets tough. It would be futile to ignore the political imperatives that lead to proposals such as the application of economic criteria to the selection of research projects and the emphasis on employer involvement in courses. The conditions for both must be drawn as tightly as possible if universities are not to dilute the qualities for which they have been valued over the centuries.

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