Joint adventurers must step forward with care

November 12, 1999

Cambridge University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's plan to establish a joint institute is exciting, intriguing and could be troublesome. Academic collaborations are not new but the scale of this one and the commitment of a large sum of public money by the UK Treasury put this venture in a new class.

Now that the Treasury's backing is in the open, both universities can get on with joint planning. This will involve the development of joint research programmes and joint courses for undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Because this is a core development for Cambridge involving public money, the detailed proposals will have to clear the traditional hurdles of academic approval as well as satisfying government paymasters. There will very properly be vigorous debate.

MIT is accustomed to this kind of enterprise. It has an outpost in Singapore and is negotiating for its Media Lab's presence in Dublin. It is one of the most entrepreneurial of the world's great universities and has been searching for a bridgehead in Europe. It is not dependent on public money for this venture and will be keen to move briskly.

For Cambridge, even with its success in negotiating international deals, this is a whole new step in globalisation. The

academic community is likely to be cautious. People will be concerned with academic freedom and academic quality along with the risk of losing spin-offs and researchers to MIT. There will also be sniping from jealous rivals eager to secure some share of the government's largesse.

If ministers make this worse by tying strings to their money, and using the project to drive policies of their own, gaining agreement will be harder and Cambridge's chance of making the most of the partnership could be jeopardised.

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