All hope, little glory

August 21, 1998

My colleague Mike Shattock makes some interesting points about our universities (THES, August 14).

But the United Kingdom continues to live on past glories and overestimates its importance in world research. Perhaps our historical record on prizes per head is good. More recently, however, it has not been. For example, in the 1990s, 46 Americans have won Nobel prizes. The tally for Brits is five. Realistically, there is worse to come.

One of my Harvard friends recently put it bluntly: "You have one or two good people scattered around, but basically the UK is like the University of Indiana, say - good, sound stuff, around number 40 or 50 in the world, but it's essentially derivative research." This person draws a distinction between doing solid work that gets into top international journals and writing the papers and books that create new literatures. This distinction is worth keeping in mind.

My friend's unpalatable message may not please everyone. Some will undoubtedly close their minds to it. But it seems worth thinking about, because doing so is probably the first step on the road back.

Andrew J. Oswald Professor of economics University of Warwick

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