Professor David Cannadine, new head of London's Institute of Historical Studies, said British universities had fallen behind Yale and Harvard in the United States.
In a devastating indictment of British higher education, Professor Cannadine, who returned to the United Kingdom last year after 10 years at Columbia University in New York, said British universities are no longer world- class and fail to compete with their American counterparts. In his inaugural lecture, he said academics here are producing increasingly poor research - "with all the frenzied energy of battery chickens on overtime" - which no one is reading. Lack of money and too much bureaucracy have stifled creativity.
Professor Cannadine, author of the acclaimed The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, said: "British universities may still allow for the grinding out of routine pieces of research and writing, but it is not an environment in which serious or sustained or original or wide-ranging creative labour can be carried on, which will open up a whole new subject, or treat an old problem in an entirely new way, or capture the imagination and interest of the general public."
Most British academic historians are less confident, creative and imaginative than their American counterparts. He described British history lecturers as underpaid, overworked and suffering from low morale.
"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." He said historians produced 2,000 books and 5,000 articles in 1997, prompted by the Research Assessment Exercise, which requires academics to be productive to push up their department scores and hence their funding.
But no one is reading this research, the professor said, because there is too much of it and it is poor quality. "Late 20-century historians are increasingly coming to resemble another sad, demoralised and proletarianised fraternity: the handloom weavers of the early 19th century," he said
By contrast, American universities are well-endowed. In 1996-97 Columbia had an endowment worth $3bn, Stanford $4.4bn, Princeton $4.9bn, Yale $5.7bn and Harvard $11.1bn. These prodigious accumulations of academic wealth help to produce a buoyant, optimistic environment, he added, where teaching and research is valued as the whole point and purpose of university life.
nForty head teachers yesterday threatened to resign from the National Association of Head Teachers if the union continued to "vilify" the chief schools inspector, Chris Woodhead, and call for a criminal investigation into his relationship with a sixth-form student.
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