Wise up before you dumb down

August 8, 1997

The lucky university departments which, having managed to please their friends in the research assessment exercise, are now enjoying disproportionately generous research funding, ought perhaps to be bracing themselves for some nasty shocks by the time of the next general election.

For Dearing has unobtrusively recommended a second, non-competitive, stream of money to "support the research and scholarship which underpin teaching" in less fortunate departments - those which, as he sees it, "do not aspire to be at the leading edge in research". And no one can deny the need for such support: regardless of the tendentious rhetoric of the "leading edge", it is self-evident that university teachers at all levels must sustain an active and creative relationship to their disciplines if they are to offer students the education they deserve.

But then the following question arises: why should the Government ever spend a further penny of public money on university research, beyond what gives the necessary uplift to teaching?

The only plausible answer is that society as a whole can expect to benefit from the results of research, and that it will suffer if it does not have access to the best possible knowledge concerning global warming, for instance, or black holes, or the identity of indiscernibles.

But this argument, however persuasive in itself, cannot justify the restriction of selective research funding to universities. If the Government wants to buy the best research results, it will have to look for them wherever they can be found, and invest in those organisations which supply them most efficiently. It will need to seek them from private firms or independent institutes or even from enterprising lone scholars, not just from universities. Indeed it will look to overseas researchers as well as to domestic ones. There is no justification either in principle or in practice for continuing to confine any portion of selective research patronage to academics. And there are no votes in it either.

The Grand Old Universities should make hay while they can, but they would be well advised to wise up before dumbing down at their so-called "leading edge".

Jonathan Ree

Middlesex University

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