Commonwealth trips on red tape

April 12, 1996

Whenever I meet fellow Commonwealth vice chancellors, as happened recently at the Association of Commonwealth Universities conference in Malta, I feel humbled by the severity of the problems faced by some of my colleagues.

While the issues confronting us all are in many ways very similar, the degree of underfunding, political interference, and student disruption experienced by universities elsewhere puts one's own difficulties into perspective. I was particularly struck by the statement by one Indian vice chancellor that she had had herself sworn in as a police commissioner because since the police had to be called to her campus so often, it was imperative that as chief executive she should be in control and not someone from outside.

Despite these difficulties, the collegiality and the shared ambitions, for institutions and students alike, were tangible. How, for example, could one fail to be impressed by what is being done in South Africa, where the demands of nation-building and of rapidly increasing access have to be reconciled with maintaining excellence in some of the world's most distinguished universities and creating it in some of the newest? Sustaining an environment in which teaching, learning and reflection can flourish when there is, for wholly understandable reasons, a high degree of social turbulence is a hugely demanding task, very different (despite superficial similarities) from the events in western universities at the end of the 1960s.

It was a distinguished South African vice chancellor, Brenda Gourley of Natal, who reminded us that a whole generation of her country's most distinguished leaders had spent lengthy periods in prison or in exile, reading and reflecting on the nature of government and on the kind of society they would one day seek to create. The intellectual output of universities had had a major impact and served to create a group of statesmen, as opposed to mere politicians driven by short-term expediency. I felt pride at what universities contributed, and contribute, to South Africa today.

One recurring question was how responsive a university should be to its immediate region or society. There is no simple answer. Universities fulfil a multiplicity of roles, from research at the frontiers of knowledge and the education of the next generation of doctors, engineers and philosophers, through to meeting the pressing needs of local communities by offering access to students not previously able to develop their talents or by solving urgent social or environmental problems of the society they serve.

The issue for me is not whether universities should engage in all of these tasks - they obviously must - but rather whether every nation state can afford to engage in international quality research and whether, if it can, its various universities should seek to be multifaceted or should be funded appropriately for distinct missions.

Many other familiar themes surfaced. Students today benefit from the investments made by their predecessors; how best should they contribute to the opportunities that they will bequeath to their successors? How should we educate professionals to be technically competent citizens who will not rock the boat, or to question and challenge received wisdom? And finally, will politicians across the Commonwealth ever learn that excessive bureaucratic accountability simply diverts the energy of the most talented from the very matters which it is supposed to protect, the quality and the standard of our teaching and research? If not, what should be our reaction?

Martin Harris is vice chancellor of the University of Manchester.

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