Meeting of minds on many matters

Academy's challenges feature among wide-ranging, myth-popping debates. Matthew Reisz reports

November 4, 2010

Amid sessions on everything from teenage mums and vampire novels to "happy-clappy architecture", the sixth annual Battle of Ideas festival in London addressed many of today's central challenges for higher education.

A debate on "policy-based evidence" heard arguments about the dangers of using science and (often spurious) statistics as surrogates for grappling with tough policy issues.

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, observed that coalition government leads to far more reliance on evidence in Cabinet meetings because decisions can no longer be based solely on party loyalties or manifesto commitments.

In a session on peer review, Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal, claimed that "top journals give a very distorted view of the world" and that "traditional peer review is actually a faith-based process that ought to be scrapped".

Other debates held on 30 and 31 October included "What's the point of the social sciences?" and "What are universities for?", both sponsored by Times Higher Education.

Philip Moriarty, professor of physics at the University of Nottingham, advanced the case for fundamental research as providing a greater long-term return on investment than what he called "R&D for an SME", which merely offered small improvements in efficiency.

Meanwhile, Philip Cunliffe, lecturer in international conflict at the University of Kent, stressed that "universities need to be semi-detached from the marketplace and daily life". Yet academics now found it hard "to make a non-instrumental case for the value of the academy", since they had spent too much time "pandering to the prejudices of New Labour when the coffers were full", he suggested.

Astrid Wissenburg, director of communications and information at the Economic and Social Research Council, claimed it was "an urban myth that all research money goes to short-term, near-to-market research", since there is "no expectation that every academic would make a contribution of 'x' thousand pounds to the UK economy".

David Sweeney, director for research, innovation and skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, noted that "the fact that we want to talk about everything doesn't mean we want to denigrate non-utilitarian research".

Sukanta Chaudhuri, emeritus professor of English at Jadavpur University, brought an Indian perspective, arguing that the country's "constant call for relevance had led many institutions to neglect high-end research and concentrate on practical training and direct economic benefits".

The result was a higher education system that amounted to "a vast polytechnic vis-a-vis the universities of the West, on an essentially colonial model".

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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