Academic independence

Academia has made its own bed by courting rich donors overseas. A university cannot very well bite the hand that feeds it: its hands are tied. Take a principled stand, and you can wave goodbye to the new buildings and facilities.

I have many friends in academia. They spend most of their time writing applications for funding from various foundations, trusts and private donors, in order to carry out research in their chosen field. As money is often not forthcoming, they must resort to increasingly desperate tactics. I won’t say, “Selling their soul to the devil” — merely that, “The devil is in the detail”.

Nobody likes it: these are scholars and intellectuals. They want to spend their days engaged in teaching and research, writing hefty tomes, giving lectures to obscurantists and pausing for thought for long periods of time. I would like such a life too, but I’d have no courage to go begging for more cash every six months. Really, it’s too much trouble.

So I pity my friends in academia. If they do manage to secure funding from a generous philanthropist, there will undoubtedly be strings attached. The wealthy foundation will specify a professorship for their man, whether or not he has the requisite qualifications. The moneyed trust, will gladly bequeath funding, so long as they can amend the title, abstract and intent of the research ever so slightly. If you want funding, then you must mention rain forests even if studying natural habitats in Australia, global warming even if studying pollution of water supplies, counter-extremism even if studying the benefits of teaching home economics…

When these hardworking scholars do finally secure the funding to carry out their prestigious research, the institutions that employ them have no choice but to offer them their full support. It is not so much that money talks: it is more that the absence of money talks. Rock the boat when the seas get choppy and, well, you might just find yourself cast overboard. The institution cannot put its feet down about a rogue academic, accused of impropriety, if his employment is intrinsically linked to a multi-million or billion pound funding venture. There’s a word for all this, I know.

If you think it is bad now, just wait until the full force of Brexit kicks in. These noble institutions will have no choice but to court more and more foreign money, warts and all, strings attached, no questions asked. And with it, their objectivity and independence will be severely curtailed. The Right Wing will respond by calling their silence on important matters, “Political Correctness gone mad.” But in fact it will be nothing of the sort: in fact it will be the very opposite of political correctness gone mad. It will be subservience to the agendas of wealthy nations, corporations and individuals.

So far, we’ve only had a taste of what is to come. If the bitter flavour of recent events is off-putting, wait until you’ve savoured the meal in full.

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