By Professor Paul Stirling



A meeting of virtually all the Heads of the Universities of
three allied countries is far more than simply an academic
conference.  The aims are not easy to define exhaustlively.
but they are certainly multiple.  It is an opportunity to take
stock of successes, to reflect on policies, to share insights, to
establish links and friendships, to increase awareness of the
achievements and the problems of other universities and
other countries, to face up to immediate and long term
dilemmas and puzzles and to think out solutions and
policies.  Yet all these aims can be subsumed under a single
rubric.  This august and distinguished gathering will have
justified the time and effort of the participants themselves, -
and, may I add, of our gracious Turkish hosts and the
CENTO organisers,— if the Universities which you all
honour by your pre-eminent role in them are in some real
sense better Universities because you have all met here

One of the most important purposes of the Conference is to
address ourselves to the theme set by the Standing
Committees—University Research and Socio-Economic
Development.  And here again, the primary purpose is not to
advance knowledge by elegant papers to be published in due
course, but so to influence each other that, by and large, and
in all three countries, university research contributes more
effectively to development than it would have done without
this conference.

The immense difficulties of establishing rapidly and
effectively, modern universities, which were necessarily
based initially on foreign models, were greatly increased by
the scarcity of resources in the nations which they were
intended to serve.  To aim my paper at analysis of some of
the problems that have arisen is necessarily to imply


  shortcomings.  So may I begin by declaring that everywhere
I found striking achievements, enthusiastic staff,
hardworking and competently taught students.  It is itself a
remarkable tribute to all three nations that this Conference of
more than forty University heads is taking place.  Our theme
is creativity.  If this conference is to prove creative itself,
then we must face up to problems.

I have included in this paper a number of topics germane to
the conference theme, I begin with three practical matters.  I
give, by request, a brief account of British practice; I make
some comments based on impressions gathered during my
pre-Conference tour in 1974; and I discuss in particular the
problems of overseas training and overseas teachers.  I then
move to a more theoretical level, not in order to escape from
practical issues to a more rarified atmosphere, but on the
contrary because questions about definition, about social
causes and effects, about the aim and purposes of creating
and transmitting knowledge have harsh practical
implications for policy.


It would be quite impossible to do more, in a few paragraphs
about British Universities and the research in them, than to
make a few specific points.

For the last four hundred years, and more especially for the
last two hundred, scientific advances and technical
innovations have been one major and quite indispensable
factor, in Britain’s achievements and relative prosperity, as
they have in the other nation states of Northern Europe and
North America.  Yet universities played a relatively minor
part in creating and in disseminating this knowledge until the
second half of the nineteenth Century.  In 1800, we had only
Oxford and Cambridge in England and four, rather better,
universities in Scotland, mainly devoted to religious and
classical studies.  Not even medicine and law were taught at

By 1900, the total universities and university colleges was
about 19 with about 2,000 staff and some 20,000 students,


  in a population of about 38 million.  Science, engineering
and medicine were well established.  But there was still no
clear career structure, and the influence and pre-eminence of
Oxford and Cambridge remained strong.

Development continued slowly, until by 1939 we had some
21 universities, with some 50,000 students with over 8,000
staff.  During this period a career structure emerged, and
publication grew in importance as a measure of professional
competence.  Since 1950, growth has been rapid, and a
national salary scale has been introduced.

In 1919, the University Grants Commission was established.
This body receives an annual grant from the Treasury and
shares it out among the universities, after consultation with
them.  This grant rose from just over £2 million in 1938 to
£581 million in 1976-7, and naturally the direct influence of
government, and the size and complexity of the UGC have
increased to match.  In 1975 we had 263,242 students in 42
universities, with a total staff of 30,336 (U.K.  Population -
56 million).

By the Second World War, research had become a
contractual obligation of all university staff.  To enter a
contract to increase the stock of human knowledge is on
reflection rather strange, and reflects the optimism and the
naivety of the universities' rulers—both internal and external.
But it is as much part of the informal norms and self-identity
of the profession as it is of the written rules.

British universities exercise autonomy in the appointment of
staff, though for senior appointments outside assessors are
normally consulted.  Each university makes its own rules; a
few appointed teachers do not even hold first degrees; and
certainly many do not have higher degrees.  Posts are
advertised publicly, and given to the most able and suitable
candidate in the judgement of a small appointing committee.
Virtually all scientists, in practice, do now have doctorates,
and most other teachers have doctorates, or publications.
But there are no hard and fast rules.

Once in, a teacher's promotion is decided locally, except


  again for outside assessors at senior levels, and depends
fairly heavily on publication.  Teaching and administrative
prowess are also relevant, and for some fifteen years or so
there has been talk of giving more weight to teaching and
less to research, but so far with little effect.

In theory, research is completely at the discretion of the
teacher.  In practice, research interests are influenced by
what is going on among colleagues, by public concerns and
fashions, and by the availability of finance and facilities
where these are relevant.

The output in addition to the total stored and coded
'knowledge' available in print is vast; and the rate of these
additions is accelerating rapidly.(2) Much, but of course not
all, of this output is ephemeral, wrong, bad, boring,
pointless.  But this huge output of second rate research is a
necessary part of the system.  Waste is inevitable.  In the first
place, no one can be sure which new facts and which new
ideas will turn out to be important.  To attempt to suppress or
eliminate the second rate would be, inevitably, to suppress
some which is first rate, and some which though second rate
is nevertheless significant.  Secondly, the army of second
rate researchers forms a critical, experienced audience to
which all academics address themselves.  It is this audience
of communicating and experienced scientists and scholars
who act as judges and selectors,—who decide what to take
seriously and what to ignore.  It is they who provide the
stimulus to effort, the ideas and suggestions, and who make
or break reputations.  The waste is not after all wasteful.

I am arguing here a point to which I attach great importance.
The existence of a stream of creative activity in any
academic discipline depends on the existence of a group of
professionals in that subject, who provide each other with
the format and informal sanctions to effort, and who act as
evaluators to keep up standards and sort out the ephemeral
and the silly from the serious contributions.  The majority
who do not themselves make striking contributions, are
nevertheless important as colleagues, audience, critics,
judges, sources of ideas and disseminators to those who do.

One slightly bizarre fact about the total research output of

Next Page   Contents

Return to Papers index