Adapt or die

August 4, 2011

Universities must enable research into fundamental issues about the meaning and purpose of life in order to be centres of intellectual excellence, as Philip Boobbyer notes (Letters, 28 July). Yet the academic community has developed a culture of shared values that unconsciously shapes and restricts such investigations.

Self-justification of research activities is symptomatic of universities that are, from the perspective of organisational theory, at an over-mature stage of their corporate life cycle. Other symptoms include complex, hierarchical reporting structures and slow reactions to external change.

Boobbyer writes from the department of history at the University of Kent. This reminds me, as a local resident, that Canterbury Cathedral was replaced long ago by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge as England's leading centre for research and higher education. Oxford and Cambridge have survived for centuries because their decentralised collegiate structures provided adaptability and, to some extent, multiple intellectual perspectives. Newer UK universities lack these advantages.

Universities must become more flexible and dynamic if they are to produce original research and thought. Otherwise there is every chance they will be overtaken and replaced by new and nimbler research and teaching organisations.

Frederic Stansfield, Canterbury

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