CSR 2010: Man shall not live by bread alone

Across the academy, scholars must stand by their colleagues, especially those deemed ‘non-priority’, and assert the value of all subjects in enriching our lives, argues Keith Burnett

October 20, 2010

Last week’s recommendations by Lord Browne and today’s Comprehensive Spending Review have confirmed the government’s intent to withdraw teaching funding for what it deems to be “non-priority” subjects.

These recent announcements have made me think about how I would feel if my subject – physics – had been classed as “non-priority” and identified as fundamentally unimportant to the UK, or at least unworthy of its investment, in the way that many of our colleagues’ subjects have been. I would be gutted.

I would be thinking of the many years I had spent worrying about getting a good enough degree, getting support for my PhD, getting a postdoctoral post, and getting a job that would enable me to have a sensible family life.

I would think of the hard graft on the roller-coaster ride it took to become an academic. I would think how tough it is to do world-class research, even in good times. I would be wondering why I did it and whether I had misunderstood the importance of my work in the broader context of our society.

I would hope that my vice-chancellor would reassure me that I had not been mistaken and tell me that my work is deeply important and that my university is doing everything it can to keep the faith.

I would hope that this would come from colleagues across the university, too, and that they would also remain committed to the broad educational mission of the university. I would further hope that it would inform decisions about how the university chooses to spend its money, and what kinds of activities it tries to support, even in these more difficult times.

In these times, I would need respect and belief in the value of what I do, but I would also need honesty, about what is now possible. False reassurances would not help.

I would want to know that students would understand the value of my work. That they would see the importance of my discipline to life, to work and to culture – and that it could be a valid choice for them, too.

I would want to make that case with conviction, knowing that my position was supported by my university.

I would also want to voice my anger without making things worse. I would want to know what happens next. I would want to help shape that future, not just be a victim of it. I would want to understand developments in a clear and transparent way.

I would want some control back, so that I could use my creativity and skills. I would want to hold my head high as part of a university – that world where knowledge is multifaceted, not divided by impermeable walls. I would want to know I had a future.

So what next…?

As vice-chancellor, I find myself on the brink of a different era. So my response is: “Let’s start building that future, and we have to start with principles.”

A good starting point would be one of my dad’s sayings: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” It is true for our lives, and it is true for our university.

When I see what richness the work of our colleagues around this great place has brought us, I am reminded of how their research sustains us. Sir Ian Kershaw’s books on Hitler are on sale in every bookshop in the world, and his collaboration with the BBC Timewatch series on the Nazis shed a unique light on how Fascism emerged. It offered insights and judgement that cannot be ignored.

Mike Braddick’s new book on the Civil War brings together a social and political history that helps us understand how we came to be who we are as a nation, who we are now.

Leafing through Bob Stern’s new book on Kant, I find an outstanding academic considering in detail issues of autonomy, moral realism and ethics. In an age that constantly challenges our ethics and morality in new and demanding ways, are we in any position to think less about issues such as these?

And there is so much more. If we look behind the office doors of our own departments, there are treasures of insight and analysis that demand worldwide respect for their quality of thought, for the new ground they continue to break.

These are some of the many reasons why we want our children to be taught by people who have been tested in the fire of research. As Oscar Wilde knew, it is not enough to know the price of everything, we need to understand its value.

One of our most powerful resources as a country, and as a university, is our cultural insight, our deep questioning of our own society and ideas – perhaps we have never needed that analysis more as we consider how best to go forward. We have genuine reasons for confidence in this regard, and I have been heartened by the positive response of staff from all subject areas who are determined that we will continue to proclaim the strengths of this magnificent university.

In a world of global competition and profound change, we want our children to have more than just bread to live on. And to do that, they will need to appreciate the value of the full range of knowledge, and why our good colleagues do need, and deserve, some bread.

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