Elite in retreat 1

July 10, 2008

Katharine Ellis manages to sound very upbeat in her response to Kevin Sharpe's appeal for a UK equivalent to any number of US institutions devoted to advanced research in the humanities (Letters, 26 June). At least a dozen US institutions support academic staff, research facilities and fellowship programmes superior to those of any institution in Britain, but even Sharpe seems reluctant to conclude that, in a plebocracy run by politicians anxious to advertise their anti-elitist credentials (epitomised by a Prime Minister with a history PhD who prefers to be known as Mr Brown), it is only by adopting the private-funding model that we can maintain scholarly standards in our universities or indeed our museums and art galleries.

Ellis cites two of the ten institutes within London University's School of Advanced Studies as the answer to Sharpe's prayers (she is unable to include the Courtauld Institute, since, thanks to substantial support from the J. Paul Getty Trust, it has established itself on a quasi-independent footing).

It is true that in terms of its superb library, staff and postgraduate students, the Warburg Institute is probably the only UK institution able to compete with its American rivals (and in the growth area of "cultural memory" probably outdoes them). It seems unlikely, however, that subordination to the feebly funded School of Advanced Studies will advance the quality of these facilities in ways that can answer the prayers of those seeking a national home for cultural history and interdisciplinary research in the humanities. Indeed, to judge from recent correspondence in The Times Literary Supplement (which included protests from the likes of Princeton's Anthony Grafton) as well as my own experience of such "rationalising" policies, the probable increase of bureaucracy and the measurement of quantity rather than quality threatens a reduction in the Warburg's autonomy vis-a-vis both its research and library policy and thereby a corresponding reduction of its international status and its capacity to help us understand ourselves, our past and what we might become.

Edward Chaney, Professor of fine and decorative arts, Southampton Solent University.

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