Dismayed Clarke started debate after 'utopian' responses to paper

May 30, 2003

Education secretary Charles Clarke started the debate on the purpose of universities to counter the "utopianism" of many responses to his recent higher education white paper.

In an interview with The THES , Mr Clarke admitted to being taken aback by the number of responses that advocated limitless state funding for all higher education study.

Mr Clarke said: "What has struck me about the post-white paper discussions is what I can only describe as a utopianism that says everybody should fund everything at all times to an infinite level.

"I do not think that is socially just or politically feasible. So it then raises for me the question of what really is the justification of the state's funding of universities, and I think the argument is worth having."

Mr Clarke spoke out to set the record straight after his controversial speech at University College Worcester last month, in which he accused some academics of clinging on to a "medieval concept of the university as a community of scholars unfettered by difficulties and problems of the wider society".

He told The THES that he had been angered by claims that he valued only those courses that could prove an obvious economic or employment worth.

These led to his being denounced as utilitarian and even philistine in his attitudes towards higher education.

Mr Clarke said: "The argument that I was somehow trying to undermine university values and trying to undermine the study of learning, and in particular to undermine the study of particular subjects, or that I was taking the utilitarian view towards the role of universities, to me were all the wrong analyses of what I was saying."

Mr Clarke strongly defended learning for learning's sake but said universities should consider dropping courses and research where knowledge was weak.

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