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.

'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'


'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.