Why I... believe a debate on what universities are for is vital

February 15, 2002

Proposals to turn Cambridge from the ancient democratic corporation of masters and scholars into a big business corporation were in the news last week. The vice-chancellor is to get personal executive powers. The community of scholars will, in effect, lose the power to call him to account. The "president's" in-crowd will nominate to what used to be an elected council and bring in their friends from industry to sit with them as "externals". Governance will become management. Peer review and the collegiality of the equally enfranchised will turn into top-down line management.

This is supposed to be in the interests of faster decision-making. Bad decisions will no longer be open to challenge. Cambridge's staff will join the stressed academic multitudes who cannot speak freely because it is against "company policy". In short, unless we all vote this down, Cambridge will become like other universities.

Yet on present showing, Cambridge cannot be trusted to run itself as it is. It famously wasted a vast sum of public money on an accounting system that is still in breakdown. Last week the same few who will get the new personal powers announced that no one was going to be called to account for this.

The right way to run something depends on what it is for. Government and industry have their own interests in redefining the purposes of universities. The Oxford and Cambridge Act 1877 gave us "religion, education, learning and research". Those priorities are shifting. Universities are rewarded if they turn out new employees and new entrepreneurs; public research funding now goes for preference to what will eventually sell.

Governments are not much driven by the pursuit of truth. They want control for their own ends. They are trigger-happy with their interference, imposing policies for passing political reasons on institutions that used to have the confidence to hold out for the eternal verities. Governments want universities to do research that is going to get them votes. Industry is pretty self-interested too.

Hanging onto your integrity under such pressures depends on having a confident sense of identity. On February 7, The Times reprinted an issue of 50 years ago. It reported that Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd had financed the conversion of a hall of residence for researchers at St Andrews, and that the chairman of ICI was getting an honorary degree. I am not saying I approve of that. The point is everyone knew the university was the senior partner in this deal.

Governments like you to confuse their interests with those of society. Society's interest is much wider and longer term. There were three letters about student travel in a 1952 edition of The Times . They saw "the pursuit of knowledge" as socially desirable, making students "our best ambassadors". It would cost a bit, but allowances had to be made for the funding of something so valuable. On this model, society permits rather than controls academic endeavour.

If universities are making a mess of self-government, and government and big corporations now see higher education as their creature that will do their bidding without question in return for a dry crust, how is the academic pursuit of truth to be safeguarded? And the academic freedom of speech that protects society's freedoms?

A few weeks ago Peter Williams of the Quality Assurance Agency called for a debate. He got short shrift in the letters column, which means he touched a nerve. It is time for a comprehensive public reconsideration of what universities are for. Without that, the Cabinet Office's Better Regulation Task Force is going to have its work cut out in its review of the regulatory burden. Williams's call for some back-to-basics thinking is worth taking seriously. Society badly needs the independent critical voice, but universities and society are ill-placed to protect it.

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