Not all impact is financial 2

April 23, 2009

It is a great pity, but hardly surprising, to see the leader-elect of university leaders publicly subscribing to the continued prostitution of the academy. Steve Smith continues, too, that other striking failure of institutional leadership that seeks to devolve what he terms "accountability" to the individual disciplines. How easily the vice-chancellors forget that academic whittling with an economic penknife results in an institution that is just too narrow to carry the heavy title of "university". The impact of not requiring and then denying support for research in the arts, humanities and social science is, simply, further education in place of higher education.

Collectively, the vice-chancellors first mendaciously swallowed and then propagated the convenient lie that the citizens should pay for their higher (but not elementary, secondary or further) education because the graduate is the primary beneficiary. Now they freely peddle the Government's spin about accountability to the public purse in terms of the demonstrated relevance and cash potential of learning.

The first absurdity is the assumption that the impact of research must be socially or economically beneficial. So, in fairness, we should calculate the social and economic impact of CFCs, aerodynamics and care in the community against the public purse and charge those against the science and engineering budget.

The second absurdity is the assumption that the UK Government has a Plan B. Universities have been dumbed down because various governments, under the advice of their officials, had no idea how to address a rising requirement for slightly higher than further education-level skills to meet the needs of future economic growth. With the same lack of application and imagination, Smith's daunting Treasury officials have denied any alternative to the higher education sector as an effective national research generator.

The academy can and should tell the UK Government to pay up, with the institution deciding how those funds will be spent. For the research the politicians imagine they want and need, they have nowhere else to go.

Among other qualities, leadership requires perception, imagination and guts. That may explain the performance of Universities UK to date: constant and continuous appeasement.

Andrew Morgan, Swansea.

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