West breaks eastern promise 1

August 8, 2003

In the US, and increasingly on the Continent, a university that does not have offerings on China, Japan and Korea would not be seen as top rank. In the UK, we simply allow these subjects to wither away, despite the fact that they are vital to national interest.

Five years ago, the Higher Education Funding Council for England funded a short-term expansion of Chinese studies in the university sector, but we now learn that this cash is to come to an end. As usual, seed money goes down the drain because agreements to "pick up" the funding never seem to be binding.

We now read that Bristol University is thinking of starting up East Asian studies at the same time as Durham decides to close the subject down ("Bristol bucks trend in Asian study", THES , July 25). It must be done with mirrors. This confirms one's suspicions that Hefce is simply not doing its job properly, interfering in ways that are counterproductive and not interfering when it is essential to do so. I assume that it will hide behind the concept of university autonomy, but this is not good enough when important subjects are allowed to go to the wall.

The sensible thing to do would be to force Durham to keep East Asian studies. A less satisfactory option would be to transfer all staff and library resources to Bristol. Neither option will be taken. Hefce will simply sit on its hands. A decent library will go to waste in Durham while Bristol will be allowed to go cap in hand to funding bodies in China and Japan appealing for money to buy a few books on the subject.

In Japan, Bristol will certainly receive short shrift, and not just because money is tight. Japan has been extremely generous to British institutions wishing to start Japanese, only to see many of them reneging on agreements and simply closing when the initial funding runs out.

It is at times such as this that I am ashamed to be British.

Richard Bowring
Professor of Japanese studies
University of Cambridge

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