Universities' critical role in stable society

June 28, 1996

The London conference on challenges to the Dearing committee (THES, June 21), reflected in part some received and dangerously unquestioned assumptions about higher education. Discussion focused on the relationship of higher education to commerce and industry with much attention paid to issues about how science research is to be funded if it is to maintain its international status and meet the needs of industry as they relate to the economy.

The conference gave the impression that this was the main work of the universities to which the Dearing committee should give its primary attention. But is this really what universities are primarily for? Science and industry only flourish in stable societies where the political will on which they depend can be articulated and sustained, where economies are successful enough to meet the ever-increasing costs of science and industry and where, above all, proper provision can be made for their security and safety. The legacy of Chernobyl says all of this. Such societies, again, have to be stable enough to attract private sector investment.

The political and economic stability of the United Kingdom is so long-standing and successful that we can be in danger of taking it for granted. It is the primary task of universities to contribute to that stability by being critical of it if necessary. They achieve this mammoth task by dint of the breadth of their curriculum in the humanities, the arts, and the law.

The Robbins report recognised all this when it stressed that it was part of the task of universities to "transmit a common culture". Cultural changes since then have made this a more and not less important facet of what universities should be about. It is vital that we discover what different ideologies, religions and cultures have in common if they are to strive together in common causes for the public good. In this area the work of social scientists and psychologists, of philosophers and of theologians is central.

The conference gave, at least, the impression that it was unaware of all this apart from a passing comment by Stewart Sutherland.

It will be a tragedy for British higher education if the impression created by the conference has an undue influence on the work of the Dearing committee. That will not happen if that committee remembers what higher education is primarily for before it can be for all the other things that proponents of the needs of science and industry rightly claim. The church colleges have their contribution to make by continuing the fulfilment of the reasons for which they were created.

John Elford, Pro rector Liverpool Hope University College

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