Does Britain need world-class universities? Are they part of our national identity, something that we already excel at and a means-particularly in science and technology-to contribute to the advance of human welfare? Or, alternatively, are they a kind of vanity-the educational equivalent of nuclear weapons-providing a ticket to sit beside the Americans at a top table where we are now imposters?
The latter view is not absurd. Such institutions cost a lot in terms of brains and money that could be used or spent elsewhere, and neither France nor Germany suffers unduly from not having them. Moreover, since the development of the internet and with the emergence of new sources of scholarship and authority in think tanks, private foundations, publishing and even higher journalism, intellectual life in Britain is less dependent on seats of learning than it once was; at least in the humanities.
I was convinced by our roundtable discussion that there is still a strong case for trying to hold on to world-class institutions. One topical reason is that America and Europe do sometimes behave like different civilisations and it is not a good idea to be over-dependent on American research nor to lose all of our our brightest and best across the Atlantic. But if we are serious about this, we’d better hurry up: Shirley Williams argued that we no longer have a single world-class university in Britain.
At the bottom end of higher education we should not so much fear America as emulate it-which probably means, in effect, reversing the 1992 merger of the polytechnics into the academic university system. David Soskice wants us to adopt the American community college system, with their cheap and cheerful two-year courses which produce the middle managers for the US service sector.
Elsewhere, Michael Lind has second thoughts on free trade; Andrew Brown reveals that legendary Darwinian Bill Hamilton thought the human race was beyond help; and John Lloyd argues that Berlusconi-ism may represent the political future of the west.
Our cover price is up to a sneaky ?3.99 but you’ve got eight extra pages and a couple of new regulars: mathematical and philosophical brain teasers from Ian Stewart, and a new “cultural tourist” spread to keep a beady eye on the arts. Alas, after seven glorious years we must leave Bedford Square-new address is on the masthead.