LETTER:Commercialism vs academia at university

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The Independent Online
From Dr John R. Gosden

Sir: There is much in Sir Douglas Hague's article ("The wrong debate on university standards", 30 August) with which I can agree, in particular that those institutions for higher education which provide higher vocational training should function as polytechnics, rather than polytechnics be renamed universities. I cannot agree with his suggestion that research proposals should be evaluated by teams of businessmen.

The main problem with the present government's attitude to scientific research is that it is entirely goal-oriented: that is, that the object of any research programme must be defined in terms of its practical value and not with regard to its contribution to the general increase in knowledge. This is despite the almost universal recognition that all the important (and commercially valuable) research findings have come from purely abstract inquiries, deriving from attempts to satisfy intellectual curiosity.

As for the leading article on the same subject ("A dunces' debate", 30 August), I am astonished at the extraordinary assumption that "for most of the post-war period ... a British university education was to a higher standard than that of most other countries". I wonder where that statistic originated. Certainly in science (my own field) the products of most British university first degree courses are a long way behind their European counterparts. "The proportion of school-leavers entering higher education" may have been "one of the smallest in the advanced world", but I do not agree that this is because the standards for university admission were too high.

Part of the problem was that school-leavers felt the sciences, engineering and mathematics were too hard and preferred the softer option of the arts and social sciences, and part that the standards of secondary education had dropped alarmingly, even while university education had become available to anyone who could achieve the necessary academic standard.

Yours faithfully,

John R. Gosden

Edinburgh

31 August

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