Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Research for its own sake

Reading the Independent on Sunday (on Sunday), I came across an article headed "Universities are 'not just for getting a job'".  In some ways it was a bit of a non-story; a story about the opinion of someone who had made the remark.  I was pleased to see that the person saying it was the Vice Chancellor of my own institution, who is also the chair of the Vice-Chancellors' supergroup Universities UK.

The headline seems a rather uncontroversial statement (to me, at least), but the idea of charging students large tuition fees was predicated on the fact that University students earn more money, on average, than those not going to University, and so charging them high fees is therefore justified.  I never much liked that argument.  I mean, we have a graduated income tax to account for that time of thing, and it always smacked of the politics of envy.  We should fund from taxation anything we think is worth having in a society.  The last couple of governments seem to have decided that we do want people to be educated up to sixth form level, but that's enough, and anything else is a kind of personal luxury.  What I don't like most of all about it, though, is the assumption that Universities only exist for people to serve their own financial self-interest.   What of the people who want to go because there is so much to know?  How do we account for the fact that this desire to push the boundaries of knowledge is part of what makes us human?  

I may be doing a subject which has a lot of positive financial benefits, but I also want to live in a society where we have Professors of Medieval Poetry, just because such a society enriches us in ways beyond money.

I'm glad my vice-chancellor thinks so too.