'Purist' Clarke states his case

The role of a university is to seek truth - but to seek nothing but the truth would be a big mistake, education secretary Charles Clarke said this week.

Mr Clarke, stung by attacks branding him, among other things, a philistine and a utilitarian, gave the clearest definition yet of his views on the fundamental principles defining the role of universities today.

For a man who seems to attract (usually unwelcome) labels, Mr Clarke's comments to The THES may yet mark him out as a universalist more than any previous tag.

Mr Clarke's all-embracing vision of higher education encompasses both universities' role in furthering society's body of knowledge and their more prosaic task of providing the research and graduates that industry and the economy need.

It is a difficult circle to square but Mr Clarke gave it his best shot, communicative as ever in his attempts to talk through myriad thoughts and producing what many may see as possible contradictions.

"From the point of view of the state, the best justification is the capacity of universities to enable us to understand the changing world and to enable society to deal with that. I cannot see any other institutions playing that role remotely as effectively as universities," he said.

"There is a role for seeking out the truth. But I think the 'seekers after truth' definition limits what you are talking about in a modern university principally to the research function not the teaching and knowledge-transfer functions.

"I am trying to make the case that only a proportion of state funding that is currently provided by reference to (universities' role in helping to understand) change can be equally well justified simply by reference to seeking after truth.

"In my opinion, that (the 'seekers of truth' definition of the role of universities) is fine. A lot of research is about that. Funding people for 35 years to live as monks just to do whatever they fancy is justifiable as such. But it won't add up to a justification of the level of resource that we currently put into the operation."

Mr Clarke's defence of knowledge for knowledge's sake - the purists'

argument - will come as reassuring for many academics worried that the secretary of state has it in for subjects and research with no immediate economic benefit such as, perhaps, medieval history. In fact, he emerged as something of a purist's champion.

He said: "I think we could justify a lot more study than we have. For example, Baltic studies, which happened to be in my mind because I visited Estonia recently.

"You could say 'who cares?' but I would say, as a lover of culture, that if you have got these new countries coming into the European Union, it might be a good thing if somewhere in our system we understood about, in this case, Baltic studies, which is not sufficiently understood or researched here.

"I would not make the utilitarian argument. I think that a lot of work that is done in universities in allegedly non-utilitarian areas is in fact extremely important in a utilitarian way, for example classical studies, modern languages, the study of literature.

"I think there is a lot to be said that if you have done some of the classical coursesI they may be more beneficial to you in career terms than doing, for the sake of argument, engineering."

Key to this is diversity within the sector. No single university will be expected to deliver everything in Mr Clarke's vision.

Mr Clarke leaves open the possibility of some tweak to top-up fees prior to their introduction in 2006, saying "nothing has been ruled out". These tuition fees, combined with the research and university funding councils, will ensure universities play to their strengths.

Mr Clarke also warned universities against creating cartels that charge the maximum annual fee of £3,000 from 2006.

He said: "The only thing I think would be wrong, and I would look for advice on opposing it if it seemed to be happening, would be the fee as a kind of marque of success in what you do. So, if you are a good university you charge a high fee. I think that would be a very dangerous course of action."

Between them they will deliver "a spectrum" of roles sufficient, he hopes, to satisfy both the seekers of truth and the captains of industry.

"I do not accept that there is purely intellectual work and a utilitarian thing. I think it is much more of a spectrum," he said.

And he wants the sector to sort this out for itself. "There is a case for having a Stalinist figure but not a very good case," he said.

"If I had a blueprint, which by the way I do not, that says that these universities ought to be focusing this way and not the other way, that would be a massive source of attack.

"I say only that each university should think very hard and very clearly about where it is going. The successful modern universities are universities that have a mix of funding from state, students and, not just industry, but from economic institutions, including employers."

Already registered?

Sign in now if you are already registered or a current subscriber. Or subscribe for unrestricted access to our digital editions and iPad and iPhone app.

Register to continue  

You've enjoyed reading five THE articles this month. Register now to get five more, or subscribe for unrestricted access.

Most Commented

Universities to scale back liberal arts and social science courses

  • David Humphries illustration (24 September 2015)

A Russell Group tagline rap is further proof that we need to reform the academy’s approach, argues Philip Moriarty

  • protest, street, march

Even in the academy, your class background will always be a factor in how you are seen, says LSE’s Lisa Mckenzie

  • World University Rankings

US continues to lose its grip as institutions in Europe up their game

  • Emotive faces drawn on lecture hall chairs

Academics offer advice on how to turn glumness into enthusiasm