Sussex PhDs in search of utopia seek wealthy allies

August 25, 2006

Disillusioned PhD students at Sussex University have broken away from the "stifling" and "politically correct" higher education system and set up their own research centre, writes Anna Fazackerley.

The Sussex Centre for the Individual and Society will be located on the Sussex campus but is independent from the university and will raise its own funding from wealthy individuals.

The aim is to create an international network of researchers, mainly in the arts and humanities, who feel that the higher education system stifles their abilities and potential.

Alex Higgins, a researcher on social and political thought and one of the founding members of the centre, said: "I have a utopian streak.

Universities these days are geared towards boosting the economy and not towards creativity for its own sake. We decided we did not want to play the game."

Researchers in the centre will be free to pursue risky, unfashionable or interdisciplinary projects that will be unlikely to secure funding from conventional sources. Mr Higgins said: "I have been working on a research project that is not likely to get funding from one of the research councils. That is not to say it is not interesting and exciting and challenging. The problem is that it is too interesting, exciting and challenging."

Erich Kofmel, a 31-year-old Sussex PhD student from Switzerland and executive director of the centre, said: "Universities now toe a certain line that they regulate themselves. There is not enough free thinking.

People worry far too much about political correctness."

Mr Kofmel, who describes himself as right wing, said he felt constrained within his "definitely left-wing" university, and wanted to bring together researchers from different ideological backgrounds.

The SCIS has secured the support of some high-profile senior academics. On its international advisory board are professors from Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley.

Dylan Evans, who recently resigned from the position of senior lecturer in intelligent autonomous systems at the University of the West of England to set up a utopian community in Scotland, joined as a research associate.

He said: "I'm trying to get off the grid, but I decided to get involved in this because they are catering for people who feel disenfranchised by the current university system."

He added: "There is a critical mass building up of academics who feel pissed off with the way things are going. It is reaching a crescendo."

The SCIS is seeking funding from individual donors with a similarly rebellious philosophy. They are targeting business leaders and people in the art world.

Mr Kofmel hoped the idea would spread and has approached the National Postgraduate Committee asking for people elsewhere in the UK who would be interested in setting up a similar centre.

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