Saving space

November 3, 1995

The president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, in her lecture "The Academic Space: New Frontier or Black Hole" given last week in London, made an impassioned plea for the defence of what she called "academic space". She defined this as "a space in which to learn, to carry out research, to teach, to think", but deliberately avoided the familiar "academic freedom", "because it has come to carry so many questionable connotations" - such as, she suggested, the freedom for academics to write their own cheques.

11 = /She defined the freedom with which she was concerned as "essentially a freedom which exists as the servant of other, ultimately more important freedoms: freedom from want, freedom from tyranny, freedom from fear, freedom to build a future".

She asserted, with the confidence permitted to presidents, that the importance of "a form of education which teaches people to have open, critical and creative minds", one that sharpens and hones the mind, was increasingly in the past ten years being reasserted in modern societies. There is, she said, a realisation that technology and humanistic study can be complementary, that the pressure to be relevant has perhaps gone too far.

A British academic audience, beset by the pronouncements of ministers about the need for more vocational education and by plans for externally devised vocational qualifications, may welcome her message but may see her optimism as misplaced. The fears expressed, for example, by Robert Jackson in the science and technology debate in the House of Commons last week, may chime more closely with their perceptions.

Mr Jackson warned of the deleterious effect on research to be expected from the transfer of the research councils to the Department of Trade and Industry. The applied and vocational ring seems to be inexorably tightening here as elsewhere.

While those engaged in scientific research may be able to see their way to survival in a system geared more closely to wealth generation, this tightening is increasingly alarming those in the humanities. They do not see much evidence of President Robinson's claimed reassertion of the values of a broad education. Furthermore, anxieties can only be increased by the almost total takeover of senior civil service posts in the new Department for Education and Employment by the employment side. The extent of the takeover and the increased emphasis on business considerations seem to be underlined in particular by the premature ousting of a permanent secretary, Sir Tim Lankester, whose track record includes blowing the whistle on the commercial distortions introduced into government policy in the case of the Pergau Dam.

There is no doubt, then, that the academic space needs defending. But how is this to be done? This, as president, Mrs Robinson need not, indeed cannot, address. But Lord Nolan and his committee, currently taking evidence on issues of governance in public spending bodies including universities and colleges, cannot escape so easily. The committee has set out seven principles that should govern the behaviour of people engaged in public life and is now consulting on the detailed arrangements which may be needed to ensure that people live up to them.

But this does not go far enough. So far at least the committee has shown little interest in the purposes institutions exist to promote nor, therefore, do its questions address how arrangements for their governance may help those purposes. If one of the purposes of universities, for example, is agreed to be the defence of academic space against encroachment, arrangements for their governance should be considered in terms of their fitness for this purpose.

The values which should govern the way an academic institution runs itself - its approach to students and commercial customers, its responsibilities to good management and openness, or its duties to tolerate beliefs from which powerful interests or society at large might recoil or regard as unimportant - are complex ones. That does not excuse ignoring them.

President Robinson is right that the need for morality and values is more frequently asserted these days. But that does mean that the intricacies of fostering such characteristics are being seriously addressed. Too often the assertion that moral values must have greater priority is used as justification for demanding more monitoring, more inspection and more control, in short more encroachment on "academic space". It rarely extends to consideration of why that space is important and how it can be defended.

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