Islands of prosperity

March 26, 2009

The Higher Education Funding Council for England, it appears, now has a metaphor policy. It has instructed its chief executive, David Eastwood, to declare unhappiness with "pockets of excellence" and a preference for "islands of excellence" because "it imbues them with a greater sense of isolation" ("It's clearly a place of excellence, but is it a pocket or an island?", 12 March).

What was wrong with the pockets metaphor? It correctly suggests that the old universities continue to "wear the trousers" and that institutions wishing to improve their ratings could "pick a pocket or two".

So why islands? Linking them to the mainland tends to be very expensive, or they have to wait millennia for tectonic plates to shift. Attempts to control islands provoke wars - think Cyprus or the Falklands - while others are susceptible to tsunamis (Sumatra). Some islands have prospered and become more successful than the mainland, such as Venice and Singapore.

Despite the intentions of Hefce and the Government, could it be that some "islands of excellence" will, like Manhattan and Hong Kong, outstrip their mainland neighbours through their enterprise and energy?

David Gosling, Higher education consultant.

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