Cash-rich elite depends on the rest 1

March 21, 2003

Surely the first lesson to be drawn from the comparison of the endowment funds held by US and UK universities is that super-elite institutions utterly fail to deliver research and teaching in proportion to their massive financial muscle. ("Transatlantic cash gulf grows", THES , March 14.) If the total endowments of the ten wealthiest UK universities are equal to less than half the endowments of Harvard alone, we might naively expect the latter to produce twice as much high-quality research as all its more numerous UK counterparts put together. (Or, indeed, given that most UK institutions have no endowments worth speaking of, the whole of the British university system.) In reality, of course, each department at Harvard performs no better than the majority of equivalent departments in any one of the ten British rival institutions that are also collectively responsible for teaching about 15 times more students.

More intriguingly still, how can we account for the fact that much of the most interesting research in the arts and humanities, even in the US, occurs in non-prestigious institutions with relatively little access to funding? Certainly, for every piece of research I read that issues directly from a super-elite institution, I read 20 pieces that are the work of an isolated researcher or group based somewhere in the sticks.

Indeed, what precisely is the relationship between the periphery and epicentres such as Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge? Is the real function of epicentres to talent scout around the periphery using their prestigious presses and tenure-track positions as bait? Do new research questions tend to be formulated on the periphery before being hijacked by epicentres? Indeed, can epicentres survive without the periphery (and vice versa)?

Before embarking on wholesale changes to the present funding regime of UK universities, should not some thought be given to such issues? At the very least, it is the vast army of researchers on the periphery who are largely responsible for keeping the British and US university presses in business.

Terry Hale
University of Hull

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