Academia - a case of US and them

The leading historian David Cannadine warned last night that British universities have fallen way behind American ones: chronically underfunded, their academics are less confident, creative or imaginative.

CANNADINE... ON RED TAPE

'US professors are rewarded with promotions that give them more time to teach and write and protect them from the distractions of administration. In the Britain it is the exact reverse, and getting worse'

... ON RESEARCH

'It's a good deal harder to be imaginative and productive if you live in a world where you are endlessly on committees and being told that your funding is being cut'

Last night Professor David Cannadine, one of Britain's star historians, used the opportunity of his inaugural lecture as the new director of the Institute of Historical Studies in London to drop a bomb on the British higher education establishment. His belief that universities in the United Kingdom are so poorly funded and so hedged about with bureaucracy that they can no longer compete with top-notch American universities will upset the complacent and may even give a government minister a moment's pause for thought.

Anyone who believes British universities are still the best in the world is labouring under a nostalgic delusion, says Cannadine, who knows what he's talking about; he's spent 10 years at Columbia University in New York. At his new job he is grappling with the awesome task of gingering up one of Britain's underfunded higher education institutions.

He has set himself the ambitious target of raising pounds 20m to turn the institute into a dynamic place of international renown. Only a man whose confidence had been boosted by a long stay in the New World would have the gall for such an undertaking.

Once upon a time the great universities in the world were the likes of Heidelberg, the Sorbonne, Oxford and Cambridge; now the great universities are Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other big American names, Cannadine maintains. He is not alone in this assessment. The former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl didn't choose a European university for his two sons; he sent them across the Atlantic to Harvard and MIT. British universities, however, are not the worst in the world. Compared with many other universities in western Europe, they are in pretty good shape. In Britain, student numbers are smaller, staff-student ratios better and degree courses more rigorous than on the Continent. Our funding is more stable and secure, and British academics are not hired and fired at the behest of the state.

But compared with America, the richest British universities are chronically underfunded and under-endowed. It is this superabundance of material resources in the US that in turn makes so much else possible, says Cannadine - "not just the higher professorial salaries... but the broader and deeper back-up of support in teaching and research, and the fostering of a buoyant, optimistic environment where these activities are seen and supported, promoted and valued as the whole point and purpose of university - and beyond, into that wider national public culture".

Describing British history lecturers as underpaid and overworked, and suffering from low morale, he adds: "They discourage their brightest students from following in their footsteps, on the (highly responsible) grounds that their prospects would be bleak; and many of them, once they reach their forties, are waiting and longing for early retirement."

Cannadine has written books on the aristocracy and on class, as well as a life of GM Trevelyan (all produced in America). He knows that nations rise and fall and wonders whether perhaps it is inevitable that, as with cars and cricket, Britain is no longer a serious competitor at top level in the university world league. On second thoughts, he decides, we should not give up so easily.

Compared with the US, British higher education is also chronically bureaucratic, he says. "Of course, American universities have to be administered, and they, too, have their hierarchies of committees. But they are more concerned with spending money than with second-guessing the funding councils, and there is still a widespread belief that professors should be given as much freedom as possible to get on with the things they are expert at and employed to do: namely teaching and research."

Distinguished US professors are rewarded with promotions that give them more time to teach and write, and protect them from the distractions of administration. In Britain, it is the exact reverse, says Cannadine, and getting worse. The more eminent the academics, the more administration they are expected to undertake.

"And in part this is because the constant, insistent and growing demands from the Government for accountability bring with them ever more committees and meetings."

Cannadine's criticisms of the research assessment exercise will strike a chord with almost every academic in the land. In less than 10 years there has been almost a doubling in the number of books and articles on history. In 1997 historians produced 2,000 books and almost 5,000 articles "with the frenzied energy of battery chickens on overtime". Who reads it all? Not the public or academics, he says. The RAE is obsessed with quantity and is indifferent to quality.

"What might, in an earlier era, have been one big, important, provocative, ground-breaking article is now salami-sliced into three, to give more impressive evidence of quantity of output. What might in the Sixties or Seventies have been a deeply pondered book - say, The Growth of Political Stability in England, or Africa and the Victorians, or The Making of the English Working Class, or Religion and the Decline of Magic - becomes instead a prematurely published survey, with inadequate documentation and insufficiently thought-through argument, or an arid and lifeless monograph selling fewer than 200-300 copies, which almost no one reads."

Virtually all the new ideas in the humanities in the last 10 to 20 years have come from America, he believes. Few academics in Britain are writing big history books that everyone reads. Historians such as Paul Kennedy and Simon Scharma would not have written the books they have if they had stayed in Britain. "Working in a big, confident environment encourages you to think big and to have the kind of creative energy to write books like that," says Cannadine. "It's a great deal harder to be imaginative and productive if you're endlessly on committees and being told your funding is being cut."

Cannadine is not very interested in why British universities are in this state. When pressed, he says one reason is that America is bigger and richer, so it can afford a larger number of well-endowed universities. American universities in the last 100 years have also been highly successful at raising money from their alumni, having worked at this in a conscious and determined way.

British academe, he points out, has the same problems as the NHS. It is largely a Government-run and Government-financed enterprise - and the ability of the Government to raise taxes is finite. He does not draw the conclusion, implicit in this argument, that funding needs to come from a wider variety of sources, with higher tuition fees supported by bigger, income-contingent loans.

But other academics are ready to say that universities need to be allowed to go private or be set free from government interference. One is Professor Alan Ryan, warden of New College Oxford, who has also spent years working at Princeton University. He says: "Were we a properly private institution and we charged a rational price for our education, we wouldn't be so far behind the US." He, and an increasing number of higher education experts, believe that many of the problems universities face could be overcome if the Government were to allow and even encourage a free market in higher education.

THE PROFESSOR'S PRESCRIPTION FOR EXCELLENCE IN LONDON A RADICAL proposal to reorganise and hive off the Bloomsbury section of London University as a glitzy national centre for the humanities by combining University College and Birkbeck College was put forward by Professor David Cannadine, the director of the Institute of Historical Studies, last night. A new University of Bloomsbury would concentrate dissipated resources, avoid duplication and generate a collective sense of endeavour and excitement, he said.

The idea, which is likely to be strongly resisted - certainly by Birkbeck, the smaller of the two colleges and probably by scientists from both colleges - is to bring University College and Birkbeck College together. In addition he would like to see them in closer association with the British Library and the British Museum, not to mention a revived and reborn School of Advanced Studies, of which Cannadine's Institute of Historical Studies forms a part.

Cannadine's views on London University echo those of others. Its structure is not rational but more akin to the Byzantine or Hapsburg empires, say the critics. There are too many colleges and departments. "Just as London has more orchestras than any other capital city, but none of undisputed and outstanding international excellence, so the same can be said of London's too many colleges and universities," said Cannadine.

"The creation of a University of Bloomsbury is a task which should command the energies and capture the imagination of anyone who cares about the future of the humanities, the future of the city and the future of the country."

Cannadine may be an enthusiast but he is also a realist. If his vision of a new university doesn't come about, he will try to create at the Institute the sort of exciting environment for history that he enjoyed in America by opening its doors more widely to junior research fellows, visiting fellows and full-time research professors. If anyone can raise pounds 20m for such an undertaking, Cannadine can.

Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth GamesJust 48 hours earlier cyclist was under the care of a doctor
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
arts + ents
News
Orville and Keith Harris. He covered up his condition by getting people to read out scripts to him
People
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
arts + entsFilmmaker posted a picture of Israeli actress Gal Gadot on Twitter
Sport
Vincenzo Nibali rides into Paris on the final stage of the 2014 Tour de France
Tour de FranceVincenzo Nibali is first Italian winner since Marco Pantani in 1998
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel
arts + entsPrince Oberyn nearly sets himself on fire with a flaming torch
News
Danny Nickerson, 6, has received 15,000 cards and presents from well-wishers around the world
newsDanny loves to see his name on paper, so his mother put out a request for cards - it went viral
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana stars in this summer's big hope Guardians of the Galaxy
filmHollywood's summer blockbusters are no longer money-spinners
Sport
Red Bull Racing's Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo (C) celebrates with Scuderia Ferrari's Spanish driver Fernando Alonso (L) and Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton
sport
Arts and Entertainment
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmComedy was dominated by the romcom at its most insufferable
Sport
Tour de France competitor Bartosz Huzarski’s legs have highlighted the gruelling nature of the race, after he posted a picture on Facebook showing extremely prominent veins stretching from his feet and all the way up his legs
Commonwealth Games
Life and Style
Elle Kaye demonstrates the art of taxidermy
food + drinkFood revolution taken a step further in new ‘edible taxidermy’ class
News
A rub on the tummy sprang Casey back to life
video
Sport
Halsall broke her personal best in the 50m butterfly
Commonwealth GamesEnglish swimmer is reborn after disastrous time at London 2012
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Life and Style
Workers in Seattle are paid 100 times as much as workers in Bangladesh
fashionSeattle company lets customers create their own clothes, then click 'buy' and wait for delivery
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Voices
The Express offices in the 1930s when writers (such as Orwell) were paid around £2 weekly
voicesWebsites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
A cut above: Katy Guest at The Ginger Pig
food + drinkThe Ginger Pig's hands-on approach to primary cuts
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Early Years Teachers Required

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Early Years Teachers ...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

Qualified Early Years Teachers Required

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualifed Early Years ...

Do you want to work in Education?

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energetic gradu...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried