Letter : Entrenched elite at UK universities

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Sir: Ted Wragg's article (15 August) made such a sensible case against a superleague of elite universities, one can only wonder why anyone would think it a good idea.

Wragg focused on the limits a superleague would place on the ability of many excluded departments to raise themselves into eminence, and consequent damage to the morale of staff and students. A parallel feature is what to do about departments of international renown that would be left stranded in institutions not deemed worthy of the superleague. There are many such. Is the proposal to move them? Or destroy them?

Inversely, excellent institutions include poor departments, and some individuals who have ceased to produce brilliant work. Their research already has more funding than good research in poorly rated departments. What is proposed will amplify this inefficient use of public funds. Furthermore British snobbery is already such that graduating from some institutions automatically grants superiority, even when professional opinion knows that the teaching is dull and the research invisible. A superleague will only confirm anti-egalitarian reflexes already too prevalent in this country.

One would have thought that these simple truths would be self-evident to intelligent representatives of the people. That they need stating at all indicates that higher education policy is more than ever the victim of ideological contradictions. Because the Government espouses the free market, it has made polytechnics equal in name to established universities and set up supposedly objective assessments of teaching and research quality. Social Darwinism is the name of its game, pitting each against all in the pursuit of slender financial resources. This is in many ways wrong- headed, but it is at least logically consistent. But such competition is destabilising, unpredictable, short-termist. Really "free" markets are nightmares, and myths: control cannot be left to fate so governments always intervene. In this case, rather than develop a subtle and sophisticated educational policy, the interventionist impulse is to ossify the current elite.

Fortunately the consequence will be unworkable, and the idea does have some value: it will give ministers and civil servants "a big idea" to play with until the election, and it will frighten the intellectuals. Two laudable political goals for an establishment that invests in short- term personal benefits as if these guaranteed the collective future.


Senior Lecturer in English

University of East Anglia


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