Eastwood takes aim at conspiracy theorists

Browne panellist labels accusations of STEM bias as crass 'reductionism'. Simon Baker reports

December 9, 2010

Claims that the Browne Review panel was biased towards science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects are based on the "crassest forms of reductionism", according to one of its members.

David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, said some critics were looking for conspiracies to fit "unhelpful posturing" that the report was a "philistine document".

He said his past demonstrated his commitment to the arts, humanities and social sciences, adding that the majority of the panel came from non-STEM backgrounds.

"I am dismayed that the proposals are being frequently and wilfully misrepresented and I think that's not helpful to the debate. When people say that Browne is in some sense targeting the humanities...it could not be further from the truth."

Professor Eastwood, who described serving on the panel as "hugely stimulating", said its plans were designed to protect funding for "strategic subjects, higher-cost subjects and subjects that might otherwise be vulnerable".

However, he accepted that reaction to the word "priority", used in the report to describe these subjects, was "unfortunate".

The former head of the Arts and Humanities Research Board (now Research Council) added that the core of Lord Browne's report represented "building blocks" for the system, and it was up to the state to determine the level of public investment.

"I've spent a whole career arguing the case for investment in higher education and I am still going to argue passionately for investment from a variety of sources," he said.

Professor Eastwood added that he was "certainly in the camp" backing a student-choice-driven funding regime rather than a "command-and-control system".

"A system that is shaped around intelligent student demand will be both well adapted and quality assured," he said.

He was adamant that students were properly represented on the review panel through the "eloquent and thoughtful" young graduate Rajay Naik and the "powerfully" argued evidence from public hearings and written submissions.

Asked about claims of STEM bias, given the background of Lord Browne and others, he said it did the sector no "good at all" to assume that senior public figures were incapable of taking a broader view. "It is frankly one of the crassest forms of reductionism I have come across."

Professor Eastwood added that no panel member "was there to promote or protect their institution or their type of institution". He said that as the former head of England's funding council, he "probably has more experience of a range of institutions" than most vice-chancellors.

On fees, he said there would be more "scatter" than many predict.

"What some institutions are saying they will do and what they end up doing will be two different things. If you look at some institutions' international fees, they set a sticker price that they then discount. Some of that may happen," he said.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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