Much of Britain’s industry has disappeared. The recently vaunted financial sector is in disarray. But British universities remain world leaders. They set high standards. They support innovative research. Above all, as the distinguished Bristol historian Fernando Cervantes pointed out recently in the TLS, they offer a uniquely intensive form of undergraduate education. The conditions that have made this possible included, in the past, a loose, egalitarian organization, substantial autonomy for scholars and teachers, and a generous esprit de corps. Yet instead of preserving this distinguished and successful sector of British life, which attracts the most talented students from around the world, both Labour and Tory governments seem bent on rearing hierarchies, crushing autonomy, and destroying morale. The idea, apparently, is to reconfigure the universities on a corporate model—not, however, the democratic model used by Google and other corporations that are flourishing now, but the older one of the 1950s, which did wonders for such British industries as shipbuilding and car manufacturing.
Since 2009, a new government department—the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills, headed first by Peter Mandelson and now by Vince Cable—has been in charge of university budgets and policies. Like its predecessors, it has failed—indeed, it has not tried—to develop a vision of what higher education, science, and scholarship should accomplish in contemporary society. Instead, the bosses have devised a series of systems of assessment for university scholarship and teaching and required that these be applied at a vast expense of time and effort. Naturally, they change the rules as often as possible, ensuring that hard-won knowledge and substantial achievements are made useless at a stroke, and that no scholar or teacher, however accomplished and productive, enjoys a feeling of security.
Particularly painful is the scene being enacted in Woburn Square, in Bloomsbury, the home of the Warburg Institute. Named for a supremely imaginative historian of art and culture, Aby Warburg, the institute began as his library in Hamburg, and became a major center of culture and scholarship in the years after World War I. Devoted to the study of the impact of classical antiquity on European civilization, the library was rescued from Hamburg in 1933, following Hitler’s rise to power, thanks in part to the help of British benefactors. In the midst of World War II, Rab Butler, president of the Board of Education, decided that the institute must be kept in Britain, and that the only way to do this was to make it part of the University of London, which was in those days a great force for openness and innovation in British higher education. He persuaded the Treasury to…
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