Why I ... support Charles Clarke and his wish to see relevance in academe

May 16, 2003

I find myself in the interesting position of defending Charles Clarke. Interesting, because I am also chastising the Department for Education and Skills and the Higher Education Funding Council for England for publishing strategies that appear willing to amputate from the purpose of higher education everything bar boosting gross domestic product.

Important though the economic health of the country may be, there has to be more to learning than that.

Which is why I hope it is the aridity of the DFES vision for higher education above all else that prompted medieval historians to pick up Clarke's recent comments as an attack on their discipline. Certainly, staff running any university course not central to the scientific innovation identified as key to a 21st-century economy can be forgiven for feeling vulnerable to what are sure to be radical changes to higher education.

Clarke did not mean to attack medieval history. I think he was trying to convey his impatience for academic pursuits that take place entirely separate from the real world, and he used the example of medieval times when access to literacy and knowledge was controlled by the clergy. He did not seem to be saying that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is something universities should not do, but rather that it becomes pointless if new knowledge is unable to cast a helpful light on the world we live in today. And that is unlikely to happen if those working in "pure" research - be it nanotechnology or medieval history - are divorced from the struggles people face today.

Meeting the challenges of the 21st century will depend on all the blazing beams of academic brilliance that can be generated if our grandchildren are to be able to look to the 22nd century with confidence. The prime minister summed up these challenges in February when he said that issues that "affect us over timeI require reflection and strategy geared to the long termI within this category are global poverty, relations between the Muslim world and the West, environmental degradation, most particularly climate change".

Universities have a choice whether or not to turn their teaching and research towards helping people to generate solutions to these problems.

The government has a responsibility to make sure that the parameters within which they make that choice are the right ones. This does not mean that subjects such as history are of marginal importance to the future, but it does mean that what Sir Gareth Roberts calls "handle-turning research" (self-serving with little to add to the sum of knowledge) may well be.

As an example, research into the social, cultural and intellectual climate in which members of the Lunar Society lived and worked in the 18th century might cast light on how innovation might best be fostered in the 21st century. Men such as James Watt, Matthew Bolton, Joseph Priestly and Erasmus Darwin were not constrained by academic disciplines or sub-disciplines. They tackled such challenges as getting "more power for less fuel" and precision in instrumentation, and they wrote poetry, history books and developed new systems of education. Most important, they applied their widely informed minds and experiences to resolving each other's problems. Learning was part of their everyday lives, and they drew personal as well as professional fulfilment from it.

I have no problem with the desire of this government to normalise education systems around standards of excellence in what they produce as well as how they do it. But if we want those systems to serve our collective aspirations for not only prosperity, but also for self-fulfilment, supportive and just societies, and the life-supporting environment on which everything depends, the government will have to say so unambiguously and back those institutions that take up the challenge.

Sara Parkin is programme director of Forum for the Future, which runs a Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability with 18 UK universities and colleges

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