No resistance to the pen-pushers

'Supine' academy blamed for not fighting rise in 'disastrous' bureaucracy. Melanie Newman writes

October 15, 2009

A "supine" academy overseen by bureaucrats who undermine the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake was in the firing line during a spirited debate at the British Library.

Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas (IoI), accused it of offering a "spineless" defence of the sector against the onslaught of bureaucracy.

The event, Don and Dusted: Is the Age of the Scholar Over?, took place on 7 October and was organised by the IoI and sponsored by Times Higher Education.

Colin Blakemore, professor of neuroscience at the universities of Oxford and Warwick, and one of the speakers, said that red tape had increased slowly.

This meant that "for each individual step, it has been easier to do what is obviously nonsensical than to resist". It only became apparent that the sum of such steps was "disastrous" later on, he added.

Another speaker, Mary Beard, professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, said academics had been "divided and ruled" in their search for "diminishing resources".

In two years' time, she added, she would probably be citing her contribution to the debate at a research excellence framework meeting.

A delegate from the floor agreed with Ms Fox that "the academy has been unbelievably spineless".

"We didn't effectively oppose the massive expansion of higher education, the research assessment exercise, the National Student Survey or league tables," he said.

"We keep saying that we have the best higher education system in the world, but we aren't tackling grade inflation."

The academic added: "Knowledge for knowledge's sake is dead. We've become immensely pragmatic and cynical."

David Sweeney, director of research, innovation and skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, approached the case for assessing academic research in combative mood.

He observed that universities had "played very little role in the Enlightenment because they became absorbed in theological and professional academic disputes".

Professor Sweeney added that only people "living on Mars" would expect the Government to pay for research without any indication of the potential results.

He concluded that pressure on academics to justify what they are doing is largely "a good thing", but admitted that "there are some bureaucratic methods we'd prefer to refine".

It took Timothy Hornsby, chair of the Horniman Museum, to bridge the divide between academics and the funding council.

"If you have your snout deep in the public trough you have to sing for your supper," he said.

He recalled a requirement from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that museums should "prove" that visitors had undergone a "transformational experience".

Subsequently, he said, the DCMS scrapped all centrally set performance indicators and allowed museums to use their own, which were then "crawled all over" by rivals.

He said the second system was "infinitely preferable" to the first.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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