Fundamental academic values, such as free and open debate, are at risk, a leading UK vice-chancellor said this week.
Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, told a conference in Hong Kong that “core academic values” must be protected against financial constraints and managerial pressures “at all costs”.
In a speech to the “Managing University Reputation in a Competitive World” conference at the University of Hong Kong, Professor Thrift said that a university that did not protect academic values was “not a university”.
“But these academic values are coming under pressure – the free and open communication of ideas, academic freedom, disinterestedness, working for the common good,” he asserted.
Professor Thrift quoted the 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who said that universities should be “places of light, liberty and of learning”.
These were still the “fundamental values of world-class universities”, he said. “We must ensure that they are protected at all costs. Everything else is secondary. These are the things that are likely to be forgotten [as a result of current funding challenges and increased government control] but without them, we stop being universities.”
In the speech, titled “Leading and Inspiring Top Staff”, Professor Thrift said universities were getting less and less government funding, but more and more government control.
“At some point there has to be a break in that,” he added.
He noted that Warwick was reducing its reliance on state funding, with just 23 per cent of its total income now coming directly from government.
“Never become overly reliant on government funding,” he advised.
He said that Warwick had 17 freestanding commercial businesses, “but all profits are ploughed straight back into the academic front line. It gives us freedom – a little rainy-day fund we can use in ways that others cannot.”
He also said that the university used a “flat” management structure, with fewer tiers of management and reduced bureaucracy.
“We believe it works much, much better,” he said. “It doesn’t produce mini empires; it stays reasonably fit and flexible. But a small cadre of managers do have to work like crazy, because everything is their responsibility.”