Thursday May 1
The THES is told by a reliable source that education secretary Charles Clarke had stunned an audience at University College Worcester when he said the state should fund only higher education with a "clear usefulness". The source, who was present at the gathering, reported that Mr Clarke had said that "medievalists" had a mere "ornamental" role in higher education.
A THES reporter emails the Department for Education and Skills press office, saying: "I understand that in front of about 300 people, on April 8, at University College Worcester, Charles Clarke said that he believed that the public purse should only pay for higher education which had a 'clear usefulness'. He said: 'I don't mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay for them.' I'm keen to get him to clarify, or expand on these views,as they will no doubt raise a few eyebrows among our readers."
Friday May 2
A DFES spokesman replies. "He is basically saying that universities exist to enable the British economy and society to deal with the challenges posed by the increasingly rapid process of global change. Some might argue that universities are essentially communities of scholars that should go on without the involvement of the state in any way; that they are a group of people who come together to think thoughts in whatever way they do it. CC thinks that is a perfectly legitimate definition of a university, but it doesn't of itself add up to an explanation or justification for the state providing any resources for universities." No further clarification is offered and the quote is not challenged.
Thursday May 8
The story is published in The THES quoting the reported remark as well as the DFES' explanation in full. It is followed up by several national newspapers. At least one paper double-checks the alleged Clarke quote with the DFES before printing it. The department stands by the quote, explaining: "He was raising a philosophical point about why we have universities."
Friday May 9
Mr Clarke denies the quote. He has nothing at all against medieval historians, he says in letters to newspapers. "What I have said on a number of occasions, including at Worcester,is that the 'medieval concept' of the university as a community of scholars is only a very limited justification for the state to fund the apparatus of universities."
Saturday May 10
A partial transcript emerges of Mr Clarke's speech at University College Worcester. Fuller excerpts appear below.