. . .. . . . . et dona ferentes

 

A Critical Review of The Lambert Review of Business-University Collaboration

 

133pp. available on www.lambertreview.org.uk

Email: public.enquireis@hm-treasury.gov.uk

 

The Lambert Review will be of interest to future historians of the British Constitution. It is a Treasury document addressed (p.1) to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Gordon Brown, whose interest in the University of Oxford is well known, and contains specific advice to the Vice-chancellor about what he should do in the year 2006, and that he should then agree with the government about what to do next (pp.105, 127; Recommendation 7.6).

 

As in time past the Treasury's First Lord came to be very much more than primus inter pares, so in recent years the Treasury and its current CEO has been extending its power to supervise in detail the affairs of other departments beholden to the Exchequer for their finance. Number 10 may be nominally on top, but it is increasingly in number 11 that the real power resides. The ostensible reason for the Lambert Review is that ``this is a great time to be looking at the question of business-university collaboration in the UK'' (p.1). More precisely (p.117) it is to identify the benefits to business of greater interaction with higher education, and to examine, assess and analyse how it has been working and could be made to work better.

 

There is nothing wrong with this. Notoriously, British businessmen have been much slower than their American rivals to profit from research undertaken in this country. The Review was asked to examine the effectiveness of measures such as the R&D tax credits on business demand for research and skills, but decided it was too early to tell (p.29). It is, however, keen on business-university collaboration, and in one of its sensible recommendations, S. 3.2 (p.32), seeks to undo some of the damage going to be done by the Department of Education, by exempting businessmen from the prohibition on giving lectures without having first obtained a teaching qualification.

 

The Review is keen on Intellectual Property and technology transfer, and, looking towards the US, thinks we should be more professional in managing intellectual property. Universities should recruit more administrators to manage technology transfer. A model outline contract is offered, but subject to the greatest feasible flexibility (S. 4.1, p.52). The Review notes that a lack of clarity over the ownership of intellectual property is a major barrier to collaboration. Indeed. But without going into the conceptual and legal quagmire of explicating the concept, it stipulates that there should be no great barriers to the timely publication of the results of research, and recognises that the dissemination of knowledge is one of the fundamental functions of a university, and that academics will always want to broadcast the discoveries they make. But that is not the only concern that should be addressed. Independence is as important as copyright. One important argument for the public funding of universities is that it promotes independence of judgement, and is a security against certain forms of improper pressure. If universities and businesses collaborate there will be opportunities not only for direct financial pressure, but insidious social pressure to nuance public statements in a business-friendly way. In the controversy over genetically modified crops a bemused public looks to the academics for guidance: it would not be re-assured if the Monsanto Professor of Botany were to give his---perhaps entirely honest---opinion, or if the research station at Wytham were a joint enterprise with agro-business. If it is any consolation to those who had hoped to solve the universities' financial problem by marrying moneyed business partners, it emerges from the Review that collaboration with business ``is not usually a large revenue generator'' (p.49). The mess of pottage, which our insistence on long spoons may prevent us from ladling into our own trough, is surprisingly small.

 

In Chapter 6 the Review discusses the funding of university research from a business perspective (p.83), and recommends (S. 6.1) that the Government in deciding the future direction of research funding should take into account six principles from a business perspective. The universities are viewed from a business perspective, and in Chapter 7 and Appendix II the business view of how universities should be ``managed'' is worked out in detail. Universities ought to be run by governing bodies with a maximum of 25 members, a majority of whom should not be members of the university, which should adopt a Statement of Primary Responsibilities, approve the Mission and Strategic Vision of the university, long-term business plans and Key Performance Indicators; and appoint a vice-chancellor as the chief executive officer.

 

The sceptical reader may wonder how these passages, replete with management-speak and recommendations for more bureaucracy could find their way into a Treasury report. The terms of reference do not ask the Review to attack our good universities, and Oxford and Cambridge in particular. They are entirely about business. The last one, however, is to ``ask business for its view on the present governance, management and leadership arrangements of higher education institutions and their effectiveness in supervising research and knowledge transfer and providing relevant skills for the economy'' (p.117). Businessmen were to be asked their views. ``Business is critical of what it sees as the . . . risk-averse style of university management'' we read on p.6, and wonder whether the Review will later temper this criticism with the consideration that King's College, Cambridge, gave Maynard Keynes a free hand to speculate with its endowments, nd Sir Will Spens cunningly manoeuvred to enable colleges to invest in equities, and not just gilt-edged stock. But no such point is made. Now that Prudence is out of fashion, it seems that academic institutions should follow the example of the Church Commissioners in making risky investments.

As the Review progresses there is an unannounced shift from reporting what businessmen think to adopting that as the Review's own thinking. Businessmen think the vice-chancellor should be a chief executive officer, ergo (Recommendation 7.1) the Committee of University Chairmen should develop a concise code

the lines of Appendix II, to bring this about.

 

What should we make of this? It is tempting to dismiss it as a departmental extravaganza, asking what business is it of Mr Gordon Brown's Department that there are over 3,000 members of the Governing Body of the University of Cambridge (p.104). That would be a mistake. Although the university is not just a business, any more than it is just a seventh-form college, or a regiment, or a monastery, or a ship, it is, to a greater or lesser degree, all of these, and can learn from seeing itself as others see it. We have bursars. We sometimes elect headmasters, soldiers, priests, lawyers and admirals to important posts. They bring to our counsels considerations of financial realism and educational effectiveness; retired service officers are sensitive to the needs of the non-academic staff, and often succeed in making a college a happy ship. But each model is only of limited application, and we explain to the headmaster that undergraduates need to be allowed to learn from their own mistakes, and to the colonel that whereas in war almost any decision is better than no decision, in academic life most decisions do not need taking, and no decision is almost always better than a bad one. We need to take note of how businessmen see us. Some of their criticisms might be just. Even if their vision is distorted and they see us wrongly, their wrong views challenge us to correct their errors, and in so doing to articulate afresh our values, and deepen our understanding of them.

 

The Review's concern with universities stems from its remit to ``Identify the benefits to business . . . and how any barriers holding back business demand for universities' knowledge and skills outputs can be addressed'' (p.117). Universities are knowledge factories. Knowledge factories do exist. And I, for one, have reason to be grateful for the disciplined Teutonic approach of the chemical companies that produced M&B693, which may well have saved my life in the 1930s. But far more people have reason to be grateful for penicillin. The unmanaged structure of university life enabled an academic to feel free to follow up an unexpected observation without having to worry whether it might hinder his producing a satisfactory KPI (key performance indicator). Universities differ from businesses in not having clear goals and sharply defined mission statements. Microsoft has a Chief Executive Officer, who knows what its mission is, and sets goals for his underlings to achieve. If I am employed by Microsoft, I may find my boss sympathetic and sensitive to my particular aptitudes, and I may be allowed to devote myself to devising an improved Syriac script at 600dpi; but I report to him, and he to his superior, and if the word comes down from on high that next year's target is for user-friendly spread-sheets, I must turn to providing a running report on standard deviations at every stage. I may have enjoyed my calligraphic endeavours, but my only entitlement was my salary, and if I don't like spread-sheets, I must see if I can sell my skills to Bell Telephone. It may be that successful knowledge factories need to have many layers of velvet in their gloves, and it may be that the Review recommends it---I find it difficult to know what the management-speak in Chapter 7 really means. But the iron hand is there. A Lambert-approved university is an oligarchy with a board of directors of not more than 25, mostly not members of the university. The pre-1992 universities are criticized for not yet having toed the line (p.96). Unsurprisingly the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are regarded as grossly anomalous, and unsurprisingly again, are told in no uncertain terms to get their act together and ``make further progress in modernising their governance and management structures'' (p.104)---this from a Department which still starts its financial year on April 6th because that is really the Spring Quarter Day, so long as we stick to the pre-1752 calendar.

 

Culham has been near Oxford for a long time, and now there are many knowledge factories around us. A symbiotic relation benefits us all, so long as we are careful to maintain our visible freedom from covert pressures on our independence of judgement. We need always to make it clear that universities are not knowledge factories, even though knowledge, sometimes useful knowledge, comes from them. In Oxford we need to emphasize the point especially strongly, because we are in danger not only from avowed enemies in London, but from would-be friends within. The metaphor of Oxford PLC. is beguiling, particularly as we strive to free ourselves from government funding and control. We shall be under pressure to make this or that small concession in return for a dollop of much needed money, and by the time we realise where these salami tactics are leading us, the pass will be sold. To the approval of the Review (p.104) the number of signatures required in Cambridge to require a ballot has been increased---has Lambert any idea of what it is like to be an individual member of Congregation, between tutorials late on a Tuesday afternoon with the morrow mortgaged to meetings and a lecture, trying to raise fifty signatures? Legislation to restrict Congregation's right to move resolutions was only with difficulty defeated. The North Commission spent nearly ś100,000 getting some chartered accountants to advise Congregation to hand over its powers to Council. Many inconspicuous moves to subordinate independent delegacies to Council have slipped through. The language of management has seeped into university discourse, and people who ought to know better have drafted mission statements and set targets. Many, even within Oxford itself, have regretted that we did not have a Chief Executive Officer who could carry on secret negotiations behind the back of Hebdomadal Council and the General Board, and have them and Congregation rubber-stamp the deal in spite of its involving a gross breach of trust. In that, as in many other cases it was just as well that there is no one ``who can speak for Oxford'', no one who can be rung up from London, and commit the university over the telephone. For reasons made clear by the Theory of Games, a ``fortunate incapacity'' is often an advantage in negotiation. Who speaks for the United States? Many negotiators have come to grief, after having been spoken to by the president, by supposing that what he agreed to was a deal, only to discover that the Senate or the House of Representatives would have none of it. Seasoned diplomats know that it is no use telephoning the White House without having previously gone over to Washington, and won over various chairmen of key Congressional Committees. Those who argue that Oxford suffers by reason of its diffusion of power need to remember that the Americans have a similar diffusion of power, which has not prevented them from exercising considerable influence in world affairs.

 

It is no accident that Oxford and Cambridge diffuse power. They are polities, more like civil society than a business, a school, or a regiment. The checks and balances that have grown up over the centuries are designed to prevent fashionable factions having things all their own way. Some American faculties are riven with dispute whether a particular academic should be admitted to the faculty. It cannot happen in Oxford. The Leavisites and anti-Leavisites may be at daggers with each other, but if a College elects a Fellow, and the Head of the College certifies that his primary field of study is English, he cannot be kept out. But correspondingly, the College can gain for him only membership of one faculty, and beyond that the choice does lie with faculty members themselves. Many such subtle devices exist in Oxford, designed to ensure that different interests have some, but none an overriding, say in matters that concern them. It affronts centralisers, who often find their excellent plans obstructed by tedious people who see things differently. The Review thinks Oxford and Cambridge ``need to build a new relationship with the colleges, which $\dots $ prevents them from blocking decisions that are in the interests of the university as a whole'' (p.104), but entirely fails to register that the interests of the university as a whole is just the sort of issue on which honest men can hold different opinions. Often in practice the different authorities in Oxford and Cambridge have been mindful of the other's interests, and have not pushed their own narrow interest to the exclusion of all else. The authors of the Review appear not to know this, but take it for granted that the centraliser's view must be the right one.

 

Does it matter? Ought we to give up precious Tuesday afternoons to fighting Lambertine measures? The answer is Yes. The greatest attraction of Oxford and Cambridge for the aspiring academic is the freedom they give to each of us to do his own thing. We are not managed, but are collectively our own employers. It makes a great difference being a fully enfranchised member of an institution rather than being a mere employee. It comes though in all sorts of little ways---the availability of copying machines, the opening hours of a library, the possession of a key to a particular door---which singly may seem unimportant but may impinge sharply on an individual's convenience and together determine the extent to which he identifies with the institution. Nor is this only a matter of social politics. It is also, and most importantly, the setting most conducive to originality. Managers can tell me to do some things which I obediently could do. But they cannot tell me to be original. Original ideas may come suddenly, as I cross the High, or explain something to an undergraduate, or make a sally in a seminar; or they may develop slowly, as I read further in Duke Humfrey, or keep on getting discordant readings in the lab, or they may gradually emerge from silent soliloquies in the wakeful watches of the night: but always their birth is hazardous. An idea, which as far as I know has not been thought by anyone else, but only by me, is for that very reason likely to be wrong, and I might be well advised to think no more about it, and concentrate on some task already in hand. I need a lot of support to chance my arm against the received opinion of my time: I need encouragment, I need security. I need to know that if the idea turns out to be no good, if the experiment does not work, if I fail to find the proof I am looking for, I shall not be thrown out of my fellowship, nor made to feel that I have let my faculty down by not publishing enough articles to get a top mark from the HEFC examiners. If we want originality, we have to back the individuals who may have original ideas. They are necessarily in a better position to judge how best to employ their time than any manager can be. Although naturally, as in any community, there are subordinate activities in which we need to coordinate our efforts---admissions, examinations, syllabuses, lecture lists and the like---so that we each have to exercise some administrative skills, and although we ought to be grateful to colleagues who bear a greater burden of administrative chores, these are subordinate activities, and the raison d'etre of our existence is to be a thinking reed, often moving with the currents of contemporary opinion, but none the less able to think independently for oneself.

 

Academic freedom makes for awkwardness. In ancient Athens {\Greek newterivm'os} (neoterismos) was seen as dangerous, and academics who not only, like the Athenians are always wanting to tell or hear, but---even worse--- to think some new thing, and are likely to come up with some new idea which, most tiresomely, they try to put into practice. The academic polity suffers from ineradicable original sin, which makes managers want to save us from ourselves. The fully enfranchised status of the Oxbridge don is under threat. It is not only the itchy fingers of the Treasury wanting to manage us along business-oriented paths, but often a failure among ourselves to be clear sighted about what things matter most. We easily could quench the spirit that dares to think new thoughts. The Review acknowledges that ``Top universities face a global competition for talent and money, which will become more intense in the years ahead'' (p.104), and rightly recognises that the financial remuneration of academics needs to be greatly increased, but completely ignores the question of what might lead someone with a first to be an Oxbridge don rather than a better paid academic in America or a much better paid chartered accountant or market analyst. In time past it has been the freedom accorded by Oxford and Cambridge which has led original thinkers to want to be there rather than anywhere else. That appeal is wearing thin. The great burden of management-induced waste of time---largely introduced at the behest of the Government---frustrates any attempt to do a good job to the best of one's ability. We are all set for a managed decline into mediocrity.