Open Eye: The university for industry

Confronting new thinking is fun. Discovering the writing of John Ralston Saul added to my summer enjoyment. In his Reflections of a Siamese Twin Saul examines the evolution of the nation state and the tensions between positive and negative nationalism. Using examples from poetry and painting, as much as politics, he argues that a combination of reconciliation and reform is the key to the future for complex modern nations. His book Voltaire's Bastards: the Dictatorship of Reason in the West covers an even larger canvas.

It was so stimulating that I had to read it pen in hand to mark memorable passages. Saul's thesis is that the great figures of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson and John Locke would turn in their graves if they could see how the power structures of today's western world have perverted the use of reason. He argues that the division of knowledge into feudal fiefdoms of expertise has made general understanding and co- ordinated action not simply impossible but despised and distrusted.

Our civilisation has an absolute belief that the solution to our problems must be a more determined application of rationally organised expertise - whereas the reality, according to Saul, is that our problems are largely the product of that application. We have organised society around answers and structures designed to produce answers. The result is a profound enmity between democracy and rational management. In most spheres of activity leaders increasingly keep their distance from those they lead and avoid dialogue with them.

As an example, the manner of presentation of the political leaders at our party conferences bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Hitler's Nuremberg rallies. Saul suggests various ways to rebalance reason and humanism, to make democracy real and to reactivate the passion for the public weal that motivated Voltaire. Of special note to universities is his plea that we work at becoming comfortable with doubt. A society that is continually asking questions (like Socrates) is better than a society that must have instant answers.

This short summary does scant justice to the comprehensive critique of contemporary civilisation that stimulated my summer thinking and is providing a mental backdrop for my involvement with the University for Industry.

It is a privilege to be on the transition board of the University for Industry because this project unites, in a single government initiative, most of the crunch issues facing contemporary Britain. The basic problem is education and training.

Historically Britain has not bothered to ensure that every citizen has the sound base of knowledge and skills now hailed as the key to national prosperity and social cohesion. In addressing this core challenge the University for Industry faces other difficult issues.

First, many of the people it hopes to serve have bad memories of education, want nothing further to do with it and find the name University for Industry a turn-off: a university is not for them and industry means factories belching smoke.

Second, it follows that such citizens have no desire to pay for training, even if they have the wherewithal. Yet the funds that the government plans to inject into the University for Industry are relatively modest.

Third, even if more public funds were available it may not make sense to set up the University for Industry as a new provider of training. There is already a very extensive network of suppliers made up of hundreds of public and private institutions of further and higher education and thousands of in-company training schemes.

Another issue is information technology. Being of its times the University for Industry sees IT as an important part of its future. Yet surveys show that people do not want to learn from computers alone, they want human contact as well.

Arranging the facilities for such contact brings the University for Industry into further uncharted territory. In constitutional terms the UK is currently crawling crabwise toward a confused federal structure of countries and regions.

The University for Industry is one of the first bodies to have to establish itself in this novel and foggy country. What I find encouraging, in the light of Saul's critique, is that in designing the University for Industry the government and the transition board have been very ready to ask questions and to live with doubt. There has been a refreshing absence of glib answers and confident prescriptions. That augurs well for the future of this important project. Here, more than in most policy initiatives, instant answers are likely to be bad answers. Let's keep asking questions.