Fiddling while education burns 1

July 9, 2004

There is an interesting juxtaposition in Kieron O'Hara's "Conflict overrules consensus" and Alan Smithers' "Set free to do the job" (Soapbox, June 25). Both argue that outside pressures are harming universities, when the greatest culprits are the institutions themselves.

It is 20 years since I wrote that universities were behaving like Bavarian peasants in the Middle Ages who, instead of clubbing together to buy a fire engine, painted a prayer on their gables: "I pray to Thee, St Florian, protect my house, burn others down." Since then we have had the research assessment exercise, for which the best likeness is Bruegel's great drawing: Big fish eat little fish . That too would die in a week, were it not supported and indeed run by academics.

In due course, the biggest fish will starve, as there are no little fish left to eat - that is, the succession planning of university research requires a larger number of institutions than the ever-dwindling number that conduct it.

But the saddest situation is that of quality audit, where the laudable reduction of demands by the Quality Assessment Agency would appear to be nullified by university managers increasing their demands internally.

When will they ever learn?

Lewis Elton
University College London

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