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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…

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