Stop counting beans, start planting trees

March 17, 2006

Government shortsightedness and contempt is destroying our once-great education system, argues Peter Atkins

The combination of misunderstanding, pettiness, shortsightedness and contempt that drives those in control of higher education is a potent weapon of mass destruction. We had one of the greatest educational systems in the world, with departments of outstanding brilliance stocked by people of international achievement and, in many cases, renown. Through the Government's inability to comprehend the nature of higher education and its handmaidens, the vice-chancellors' bean-counting heroics, the whole system is becoming riddled with malaise.

Consider the assassination of the chemistry department at Sussex University. How can a vice-chancellor worth his salt take one of the UK's great chemistry departments and stamp it out like an academic cockroach? How many Nobel prizewinners would it need to have before it is seen to be worth hanging on to? Why kill a department that has one of the highest research ratings in the country? Such actions are an abnegation of a university's obligation to nurture subjects that are central to higher learning and to the wider economy. It is a shameful act of philistinism that, like the former Secretary of State's barbaric comment about the uselessness of medieval historians, will gather more scorn than the university had gathered lustre from its scientists.

But the assassination is only the tip of a terribly worrying iceberg of malaise. That the former Secretary of State could say such a thing, that universities throughout the land are wrestling with underfunding and that lecturers are now perceived as having less to contribute than plumbers (and certainly less than their servants, the vice-chancellors) adds up to a desperate picture of decay and gloom. That some lecturers are driven to damage their own students by withdrawing their services and threatening to leave them in graduation limbo, itself a monstrous thing to do, is a sign that matters have gone too far and that a whiff of Iraq is in the academic air.

In Virgil's Georgics , I think there is a remark to the effect that you planted corn for yourself and trees for your children. University lecturers have come to realise that trees are of little interest to politicians and, increasingly it seems, to vice-chancellors. They remember that secondary school teachers were driven from the high regard in which they were once held by a combination of the external influence of ceaselessly depressed pay and the internal self-destruction of their social and professional standing by showing that they too could go on strike. Lecturers are being goaded by the same twin prongs of fiscal contempt and professional prostitution, and they sense that they will join the teachers in the pool of under-appreciated educators. That combination generates its own momentum, and the direction of that momentum is down.

The Government and the university bureaucrats must redirect this momentum before it is too late, if it is not already. Vice-chancellors have to understand that they have a responsibility to plant trees, despite the cost. Some subjects are costly; but they are also enormously rewarding. How many expensive chemistry departments are being closed in China? To get the ghost of an answer, take a look at Dailin Institute of Chemical Physics, with its 1,300 researchers and annual budget of $26 million (£15 million), and Nankai University, with its 1,000 new chemistry undergraduates every year. I have just come back from India, where I experienced the almost tangible sense of self-confidence that pervades the universities as they see their Government investing in the future and their universities running with enthusiasm.

Governments must nurture the excellence on which innovation depends.

Research, of course, is vital, and can have immediate consequences for the Exchequer. But all kinds of innovation - in research, in industry and in commerce - depend on a flux of young, trained, enthusiastic minds. Only universities can provide education that sharpens the edge of brilliance, and only university lecturers have the skill and dedication to do so. To generate malaise is to poison the future.

A physician will see that a patient is teetering on the edge of illness and will move to restore that patient to health. Anyone can see - from the local assassination of important departments to the global disgruntlement of an entire profession - that this particular patient needs immediate attention. The remedy is obvious: governments and vice-chancellors should think trees, not beans.

Peter Atkins is professor of chemistry, Oxford University.

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