Cap and gown

Cap and gown

Declarations of academic freedom may not stop scholars being led into temptation

Spires can’t dream without cash. But better regulation is needed. abby chicken photography

This month we read of students and alumni of the University of Oxford protesting the opening of a new Earth Sciences laboratory funded by the oil company Shell. And this is by no means the only instance in which private corporations are supporting academic research.

At the University of Manchester BP is funding a new multi-million pound energy research centre, and in 2003 the research group Corporate Watch published a report on the oil industry and university funding that identified partnerships between oil companies and Cambridge, Aberdeen, Imperial College London, Herriot-Watt and Dundee universities. In 2000 Nottingham University faced a storm of protest over its decision to accept £3.8 million from British American Tobacco, while at Oxford Rupert Murdoch funds a Chair in Language and Communication.

These universities all maintain that accepting this money brings with it no external conditions, and that scholars funded by such endowments retain full academic freedom and independence (see for example Nottingham University’s memorandum of understanding with British American Tobacco).

But it is not coincidental that this growth in the corporate backing of university research comes at a time when the government is making historic cuts to its funding of higher education. To survive the stormy seas of shifting government regulation and global competition, universities are being forced to look for new patrons.

Until the nineteenth century, the main funders of British universities were the church and the aristocracy. They endowed the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge who – imposing religious tests, and teaching divinity and the liberal arts – in turn trained the nation’s churchmen and civil servants, and fashioned the ruling elite.

However in the mid to late nineteenth century, new institutions looked for new alliances that would open up access to higher education. The University Colleges that developed in the provincial centres of England grew out of academies founded by local mercantile benefactors such as John Owens in Manchester and Josiah Mason in Birmingham, or from mechanics institutes and professional training bodies such as the Leeds Medical School. Unlike the ancient universities, these were non-collegiate institutions that admitted students without reference to religion and sought to impart professional and practical skills to their students. As these colleges developed they looked to local industry and local government for support – earning them the collective title of “civic universities”.

It was the first world war that really drove the universities into the arms of the state. Although the civic universities had been receiving ad hoc government grants since the turn of the century, in the wake of the war the universities found themselves under real financial strain. Exhausted, they looked to government to assist them, making new sorts of arguments about their contribution, not just to the war effort but also to what they began to call Britain’s “system of national education”.

Yet the universities feared that funding from this new patron might mean the surrender of their independence. The University Grants Commission emerged as the solution. Issuing block grants to institutions to spend as they wished, the UGC allowed state support to be given to the universities while permitting them the autonomy they prized. It remained the mechanism governing the distribution of university funding until it was replaced, first by the University Funding Council in 1989, and then by Higher Education Funding Councils for England, Scotland and Wales in 1992 (HEFCE, SFC and HEFCW).

In many ways, then, the recent turn to corporate partnerships is just the latest patronage shift that universities have affected. They have a long history of making compromises with power, and it is unlikely that this will be their last.

But do we need to worry that the source of funding influences the direction of research? The founders of the UGC in 1918 thought so. Although the organisation was no panacea – most of its decisions were made in the inner sanctums of London’s clubland – it was founded on the recognition that, without proper safeguards, government funding could mean government priorities.

Whose role is it to protect universities’ independence? George Monbiot has argued that scholars must share responsibility for the way benefactions are used, and surely this is so.

But the regulatory environment in which higher education institutions are forced to operate means that the problem extends far beyond individual researchers, departments or even universities.

Government regulation encourages relationships between corporations and universities. At the same time as the basis of university financing is changing, these regulations are pushing institutions and funding bodies to look for tangible results from academic research, and requiring scholars to justify how expected results will be applied and made marketable.

In this world, memorandums of understanding and statements of academic freedom may not be enough to protect universities and scholars from the temptations of corporate capital. The question is, what will?

What we need is new institutions and better regulation to provide a bulwark between the imperatives of money and the values that we, as a society, hold dear.