A great blast in favour of academic freedom and the power of ideas has come from Vernon Bogdanor, whose latest work The New British Constitution (here reviewed by a slightly more conservative figure, Tony King) has immediately become a classic. For those who need the assurance, Vernon is a firm believer in the efficacy of devolution for the UK which in his view has become a quasi-federal state. In this New Statesman piece, Vernon gives a powerful valedictory thrust at government towards the end of Oxford career. He asks why the universities arent so influential with government any more and puts the answer down to a spurious value for money mindset in Whitehall of never mind the quality ( of research), feel the width. But just a small uncomfortable thought: where else other than from government are UK and Irish unis to get most of their funding? Still, splendid stuff. Any Irish echoes, I wonder?
Governments are coming to treat the universities as if they are nationalised industries, telling them how many students they can take and what they are allowed to charge them. They are now beginning to tell them how students should be selected, and now even what research they should be doing. But the universities, if they are to fulfil their function, must remain self-governing bodies. They cannot become part of the managed public sector in the way that the NHS, for example, is. The independence of the universities is a vital bulwark of academic freedom, the freedom to produce ideas. This freedom is too precious a value to become dependent upon on the goodwill of governments.
The end result is satisfactory neither to the politicians nor to the universities. Politicians, perhaps anachronistically, still look to the universities for ideas. The universities brood on why it is that they are so unloved. Government and the universities are like a warring couple locked together in a loveless marriage. The answer lies in divorce. The more the universities are left alone, the more creative they will become, the better able to resume the role they once had as powerhouses of ideas. Paradoxically, if the universities wish to become more influential in government, they must first become more independent of it.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London