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Universally Challenged

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The Times, 11th March


The Government was rocked this morning by the publication of a damning report into the Universities budget. Whilst British innovation and high technology fall behind:

* Cambridge University spent £1 million on restoring medieval silverware

* King's College London paid almost £250,000 for taxidermy

* Oxbridge rowing clubs spend the equivalent of £100,000 on new boats each year

* One American university spends more money on advanced materials research than the entire UK.

* Baillie College, Oxford, spends more on the College wine cellar than on science teaching.

The Shadow Chancellor, Sam Farrow, has vowed to 'hold the Government's feet to the grindstone and their noses to the fire' over the issue of scientific research.


From the diaries of the Rt Hon Jim Hacker.

12th March

A triumph in the House today. That awful little man Farrow was wittering away about Universities, and money being wasted on fripperies when there's a national shortage of cutting-edge research. Well, I was preparing to give him the usual guff about the University of Upper Snodsbury having received a 50p grant for research into advanced pencils, or whatever, when I had an Idea. The Hacker Plan, they'll call it. I announced it on the spot. We'll erect a brand-new Institute of Technology, like the Americans and the Germans have, and we'll put it where the industry is – right in a Depressed Area, and with any luck a marginal constituency too. There are plenty in the North-West, and lots of industry for the Technology to be used in. The Minister for Universities is telling his department to make cuts at the moment, so we can spend the savings on my new Institute.

Do you know, even Humphrey was quite impressed. He said it was a good idea and my response to Farrow was 'masterful'. Not a 'courageous' or a 'controversial' in sight. Well, Bernard pointed out that you can't have a controversial in sight, even if you can have a controversial insight, and that he had one just then as it happened – I sometimes wonder if all the Classics hasn't rotted his brain. It turned out his controversial insight was that when he was at Oxford he hadn't got on very well with the scientists, who didn't pass the port or attend the Union or speak English, and sending them to Lossiemouth was an excellent idea. Sir Humphrey of course had an entirely cynical view of the whole thing and said a new Institute was bound to be a good idea because it would need a quango to run it and we've been terribly short of jobs for retiring dons lately. I sometimes wonder if he has any sense of priorities at all – think of all those jobs in Warrington or Preston or indeed Lossiemouth, all very close races at the next election too.


Sir Humphrey made a note about the scheme also, preserved in the Appleby Papers.

JH has a scheme about Technical Institutes, probably because he's been talking to a German or something. I saw no real harm in it. As long as they don't try to pretend it's a University, and preferably put it very far away where all those scientific louts can't expect to get jobs in the Civil Service, it will probably do no harm, and possibly even some good. After all, if it isn't a University, and a technical institute that doesn't even teach History let alone Classics clearly isn't, we can run it properly and not end up with another Sussex or some ghastly thing like that. 

However, Sir Arnold was most brusque about the whole idea. Says it will undermine the place of Oxford at the top of the tree – I can't see why it should, we haven't had a scientific innovation at Baillie since electric lights and quite right too. Oxford should be a timeless place, like the Civil Service. And it would certainly be a case of barbarians at the gates if Oxford were to be seen as second fiddle to a new Technical Institute. It was bad enough having a scientist as Prime Minister, imagine having to have one as Cabinet Secretary.


Sir Bernard Woolley recalls, in conversation with the Editors

I suppose it must have been about March that year that I was collared at the Ballie Gaudy* by Sir Humphrey. Imagine my surprise when he wanted to talk shop there. He started off complaining about that article in the Times – apparently it is true that Baillie spends more money on wine than science, partly because the Master is, as the Minister would put it, frequently tired and emotional, and partly because the University pays for science teaching but nobody ever saw the Vice Chancellor buy anyone a drink. Which I am sure is entirely true.

But then he got onto the Hacker Plan for Technical Institutes. He wants it stopped. At least I think he does. He said its progression was not necessarily to the advantage of those segments of the sector traditionally associated with excellence in the humaner learning, the provision of an appropriate atmosphere to develop administrative facility and the civilising influence of degustatory occasions such as the event at which we had so happily eventuated. Poor Lord Sycomere had turned up at some point in that lot and had to ask for a translation which Sir Arnold was not pleased to hear me give as “not good for us” - apparently the Vegetables should not be provided with such information about how we communicate in case they ever get made Ministers again.

*a 'Gaudy' is Oxford University speak for an alumni reunion, normally involving a boring speech and a good dinner.


From the diaries of the Rt Hon Jim Hacker.

15th March


Beware the Ides of March indeed! After being so supportive of the Hacker Plan, Sir Humphrey has betrayed me once again. I had only just begun to mention that we might name the first Institute after some suitable figure from the Party's history, and he said outright that we would not be naming it anything. Well, I could see he might not be able to approve of something so party-political as that, so I suggested a great scientist instead. Sir Humphrey is never at his best on scientific matters and I thought seeing him try to name a great British scientist (other than the PM, which clearly wouldn't be acceptable) would be a treat. He did suggest Bacon but I had to tell him it was not intended to be an Agricultural College. Bernard was most unhelpful, asking why we didn't call it for Davy and Jones; even if shipbuilding counted as a high-tech industry I don't think that would be very funny. Though it would annoy the Seamen's Union and drive John up the wall, which is always nice.

But no – Sir Humphrey doesn't want the Institute at all. He thinks it would undermine confidence in the university system to set this up in parallel to it. Ridiculous! It serves a different purpose – having a Civil Service doesn't undermine confidence in Parliament. Well, except among the civil servants. I told him I consider this my opportunity to leave a legacy of learning and progress for the British People, without the bureaucrats in the Department for Education turning it into another Essex. That was probably a mistake – Sir Humphrey is now convinced I must meet with some expert associated with the Department, who will doubtless try to persuade me to abandon the Hacker Plan entirely.


Sir Bernard Woolley recalls, in conversation with the Editors

Sir Humphrey was very hush-hush about Professor Morris' meeting with the Minister. He insisted I should be there, but wouldn't tell me anything about the scheme – just that I should react appropriately, and I would know the moment when it came. All terribly mysterious, but Sir Humphrey assured me that even our not overly bright Minister would smell a rat if we both seemed too prepared for the details of Morris' proposal.


From the diaries of the Rt Hon Jim Hacker.

16th March

I was expecting Professor Morris to be a Civil Service sort of Professor, very urbane and donnish, supercilious even. He isn't like that at all. He's an econometricist with egg on his tie and a beard like Father Christmas, and clearly one of the kind with a bee in his bonnet. Professor Morris' particular bee is the commercial possibilities of computerising the Stock Market, but apparently the mathematicians don't talk to the computer boffins, and neither of them talk to the economists.

This is exactly the sort of thing I want my Institute to do! I told Sir Humphrey this proved my point and he almost agreed with me. But then he said if my new foundation (I like that phrase!) “were to accomplish the common ends held in view by myself and Professor Morris it was essential it should enjoy the blessings of propinquity and the membership of a wider scholarly and social community such as may not be co-located with the mere mechanical processes of industrial fabrication.” Professor Morris was so kind as to translate – he thinks the Institute ought to be in Oxford. Which is no use to anyone – neither Oxford seat will change hands this side of the Revolution, it isn't a Depressed Area, and worst of all Oxford definitely belongs to the Department for Education, whereas a new Institute could be technical research and come under the DAA.


From the Appleby Papers

Morris has been hanging around for years hawking his econometric scheme. I had always thought it was rather against the spirit of Oxford, but if we must have such barbarisms as computerised stockbrokers... well, at least Morris is one of us, if a rather eccentric member of the Convocation and entirely too keen on specialisation which undercuts the founding principles of the Civil Service.

“You see, Minister, I totally agreed that a dedicated institution is the way forward. You were a political economist yourself I believe?”

“Yes, at the LSE actually.”

“Marvellous, simply marvellous. A specalist body, you see – the best source of a really expert training. But for electronic trading we will need a broader base of expertise. A College, I think. There have been such institutions before, though not recently. And of course, a College has a wide variety of rewards it can dole out to patrons – such as a far-sighted politician who throws his weight behind it from the start. All Colleges have honorary Fellows, Patrons, guests of honour, that sort of thing. Not the Mastery of the College, of course, that would have to go to a subject specialist.”

Bernard is going to go far in the Civil Service; he picked up his cue beautifully, “I suppose, purely hypothetically, by the time it is opened a retired statesman would be very appropriate as the namesake of the College.”

Hacker was most gratifyingly delighted, “Of course I could never dream of suggesting - you can't mean – Hacker College?”

“Yes, Minister”