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The turn of the year tends to direct my thinking towards institutions, because I spend part of it at the Public Record Office in Kew tasting documents that are about to be released under the Thirty Year Rule - "the secretions of the Whitehall organism", as a PRO hand once put it. But the cusp of 1997-98 saw an unexpected heightening of my institutional sensitivity, thanks to my finishing Richard Eyre's autobiography, Utopia and Other Places (Bloomsbury Classics, pounds 10.95).

It is easy to describe the similarities between the teaching and theatrical professions - imagination, a sense of the time and spirit of place, the push-and-go of a dramatic format, and presentation that moves the curiosity of those you are seeking to influence. There is plenty of this in Sir Richard's memoir, but what makes this former director of the National Theatre singular is his sense of his country's wider institutional existence.

For years I have nurtured a speculation that future scholars might see in Eighties and Nineties Britain a malign factor at work - a loss of nerve about those activities and institutions in which we could still claim to be truly world class (public-service broadcasting, quality newspapers, universities, publishing, the Civil and Diplomatic services).

The crumbling of our self-confidence as a professional society has led to breaches appearing in our institutional walls through which has marched an expensive and assertive army of management consultants, accountants and self-proclaimed reformers who evangelically recite the latest acronymic babble from the business schools - all sanctioned by a political class in the House of Commons which, as Sir Richard says, is our institution in the most desperate need of reform.

Sir Richard supports my embryonic thesis about institutional nerve-loss and depicts its beneficiaries as "the Three Horsemen of the contemporary Apocalypse: Money, Management and Marketing". All three, as they ride in brandishing their crude performance indicators, are quite incapable of appreciating that, in Sir Richard's words, "The whole is greater than the sum of the parts: that's the point of institutions - we do together what we cannot do alone."

The Eighties and Nineties have seen the thoughts of those who actually do the work written off as "producer views" which must be discounted, as they are driven by vested interest. And, sadly, there were enough genuine inefficiencies and restrictive practices to give the managerialists a case. But, all too often, you had the sense that the reformers disliked, even despised, the objects of their zeal - thinking that, at best, they needed saving from themselves and, at worst, they required punishing for past under-performance.

My great wish is that before the century turns, those on the receiving end will reacquire their self-worth, expose the excesses of the new public management for what they are and try to ensure that those who are raised into positions of authority have a sense of what really matters in terms of essential purposes and the personal and collective motivations that alone make institutions vibrant.

As RH Tawney put it 80 years ago (when writing of the kind of "generous, inspiring and humane" education-for-all Britain would need once the Great War was over), "Only those institutions are loved which touch the imagination."

The universities do retain this "touch", but only just. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has never possessed it, and shows no signs of acquiring it. In the post-Dearing world, we need unashamed trumpeters for scholarship - our core activity for nearly a millennium. Where will we find them? I shall spend part of 1998 thinking about that.

The writer is professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

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