Welcome to the website forum for bright ideas

February 12, 1999

One of the main aims of The THES is to offer the academic community a forum for debate. This week we are extending our ability to do so. In partnership with the policy and ideas network, Nexus, we have set up a debate forum on our websites. It can be found from either of our Home Pages.* The site will have two sections. The first is launched this week for replies to our Soapbox column, a feature introduced last autumn and now deluged with responses. The second, coming soon, will be for sustained debates. These may not start from the paper but may feed back into it.

With this broadening of debate it seems timely to restate the paper's policy. This is to give space to anyone in the academic world to express any view on any topic relevant to that world - provided it is within the law, coherently written and not as far we know factually wrong. Inciters to racial hatred, flat earthers, creationists and astrologers will get short shrift, but views that run counter to the paper's own editorial policy are welcome.

This open-house approach can lead to confusion about where The THES stands. It does so increasingly as the old-fashioned distinction between news and views breaks down in other parts of the media with opinion invading even the news pages of the broadsheets.

The THES does of course have editorial views - indeed the first of these is that academic freedom to express controversial views must be resolutely defended. These views are explicitly set out in this leader column week by week. So, for example, we back better pay for higher education staff; maintenance grants for the poorest students; investment in further education; more money for research; innovation in the content and delivery of courses; continued expansion and wider participation; and, in order to sustain quality in all this, tuition fees from the rich and hard-nosed exploitation of universities' and academics' intellectual property rights.

This week provides a nice example of the distinction. The THES is privileged to publish in Soapbox Valentine Cunningham's strongly expressed criticism of the Oxford University Press and is glad to launch our debate website with your reactions. At the same time, given our editorial support for commercial exploitation of intellectual property rights, it is only right in this column to raise the question of whether it is wise for the great university presses to continue as they are.

Commercial pressures are in any case coming into play, hence the present row. It cannot be long before the jealous eyes of less privileged competitors in the knowledge business turn on tax privileges that have served the presses and their universities well but may become hard to justify.

Communications technology is opening new opportunities for the global exploitation of intellectual property. Knowledge is becoming commodified. In the dross-infested world of the internet, the Oxford and Cambridge names are extraordinarily valuable. The presses are already formidable businesses but there may be more they could do to make their universities richer and therefore more independent.

Perhaps it is time to separate charitable and commercial roles. Why not set up knowledge spin-off companies to exploit the benefits of venerable brands in cyberspace? This need not rule out separate charitable activities. It need not preclude publishing loss-making poets or monographs with small print runs. Indeed, if the auction houses are anything to go by, there may be unexpectedly large markets for such minority products. Rejecting new opportunities for fear of losing present privileges could in the medium to long run spell disaster.

* http://www.thesis.co.uk or http://www.netnexus.org

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