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November 19, 2009

It is something of a relief that an academic as eminent as Vernon Bogdanor is willing to question the link between good universities and economic growth ("Misguided philistines in a relationship that is doomed to failure", 12 November). Not only is there little support for the assertion that good universities improve economies, but there is also fairly robust evidence that it works the other way round: improving economies lead to better universities (for example in China, Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia).

Far too often the phrase "knowledge economy" is bandied about uncritically, as if there really were such an obvious thing. As the above examples show, economic growth is perhaps more likely if nations have a reasonably stable political situation (even if we don't approve of it) and plentiful natural resources, or at least access to them.

A wider debate in these pages concerns the fundamental aims of the academy: surely few would disagree that one of them is the pursuit of truth. However painful it may be, it is the job of universities to question platitudes masquerading as truth, even if this undermines the organisations we work for.

If the "knowledge economy" turns out to be as much of a fantasy as the "wealth creation" dreamt up by the prophets of high finance, one would hope that the universities themselves will be first to shatter the illusion.

Carl Gombrich, Principal, UPC courses University College London.

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