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June 11, 2008



"Western continental Europe barely has a university worth the name"
Isn't this a free-rider issue. You just need to look where the Nobel prizes go to realize where most ground-breaking research is done. I agree it does not matter if the UK has "world class universities" but we do need them somewhere in the world.


Yes - it is a free rider issue. But being a free rider is the smart thing to do.

john b

...in which case, the ideal would be to go down the Yank route and have world-class universities funded by vain/gullible/community-spirited alumni, while focusing government spending on teaching universities for the proles...


I wonder why the USA has never produced a single top rank genius. I mean a Shakespeare, Newton, Gauss, Euler, Mozart, Beethoven, Rembrandt, Hume, Smith etc. It didn't do it while its Universities were Cow Colleges, and it hasn't done it in the period (1950s/60s onwards) when their best have been very fine indeed. Mind you, neither has Luxemburg. Or has it?


The youngest of your "top-ranked" geniuses was only born in 1777.

A little unfair to have expected the US to produce such a genius before then!

Having said that I might offer Thomas Jefferson as an example.


World class universities attract large dollops of research grants from both the public and private sector. They attract businesses, and entrepreneurs spring from universities with really good science and research centres and activities. They help drive innovation.

Small universities just don't have the critical mass to do this, with notable exceptions, such as KU Leuven.

Its not about the students per se, its about the role universities play in the national economy

Innovation is spiky, and tends to cluster around universities that attract large research funding and generate a labour market for scientists and a market for innovations and ideas etc

e.g. Cambridge attracts significant research funding, and as a result the East of England has the 2nd highest business investment in R&D of any European region. Yet Cambridge U has not increased student numbers in 10 years. However - it might not be world class in a few years time...


I wonder why the USA has never produced a single top rank genius.

Richard Feynman.

Anyway, an alternative answer to this might be that "world class university" is not a very meaningful term (stronger: any statement using the term "world class" is wrong), and that the actual difference between no.49 (world class! hurray!) and no.50 (boo!) is not very great. Not just that, but whatever measurement of outcome you choose for this is going to be heavily dependent on factors connected to individuals rather than the institution itself (does "Oxford" do research? of course not, it's a bureaucracy. *researchers* research and *teachers* teach).

Larry Teabag

Drearyme's comment suggests a counterargument: the USA may not have produced that many home-grown top-rank geniuses, but it has been a second home to a very great number. And that's surely an argument for world-class universities: to attract world-class minds to our country (and hold on to the ones we do produce for ourselves).


I'm sure there is little point discussing any of those Secular Saints, the Founding Fathers, so I'll chortle in private at the notion of Jefferson as top rank. Feynman - no, if a list doesn't include, say, Faraday, Lavoisier, Pasteur or Clerk Maxwell, then Feynman isn't even close. (Mind you, a serious list would certainly include Clerk Maxwell and probably the two Frogs as well. Plus Einstein and Darwin, thus dealing with the date of birth point.) No, it's just an oddity about the US. Hell, not even a Tolstoy, Dostoevsky....


Dearieme, if you do not think that Feynmann was as good at physics as any of your examples were at their disciplines, then you don't understand what he did. There's a fair argument for calling someone like Bill Gates or Sam Walton a true genius - they are arguably the most successful businessmen that the world has ever seen. Your list of 'geniuses' is a little strange, to my mind. Or do we only allow geniuses that you say are OK? Proof by authority? How do we classify them, and do we do so with a clause that says 'no-one from the US'? ;o)

Chris, the idea of a world-class university is a load of bobbins. You seem to be talking about big, famous universities, with noisy alumni. Can you maybe give me a quantitative measure of a university please? Nobel prizes are not a valid measure, I think and as for 'visibility' in your link? Pff.

I find it difficult to think of any decent measure myself. What is proven is that the most technologically advanced countries in the world have the most advanced research institutes in the world. I feel that this is a pretty good thing myself. But as for expecting alumni to suddenly fund British universities - you're relying upon a fairly severe culture change that simply ain't going to happen. Tell the goverment to stop taking all my money in taxes to give to consultants, and I may be more generous...

Bob B

Sadly, whatever economic advantages come to Britain from its world-class universities are probably more than offset by our comparatively high drop-out rate from all education and training at 16:

"Last year [2004], a report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) revealed that Britain came seventh from bottom in a league table of staying-on rates for 19 countries. Only Mexico and Turkey had significantly lower rates of participation for this age group. Italy, New Zealand, Portugal and Slovakia have marginally lower rates."

An accessible piece in The Economist for 26 August 2006 showed that Britain is unusually well-endowed with low-skilled young people compared with other European countries:

Whatever else about Japan, its sustained record for successful innovation in manufacturing electronics products and motor vehicles speaks for itself but then, by reports, some 90 per cent of 16 year-olds there stay on in education despite parents having to pay fees for schooling after the minimum school leaving age of 16.

As for growing inequality of incomes in Britain and the US, by several accounts, the premium graduates earn compared with non-graduates has increased in Britain over the last 30 years and even more so in the US.

Bob B

No towering geniuses from America?

Surely, transistors, silicon chips and microprocessors must count for something.

Bob B


In the news this morning:

"More than one and a half million young people in England are to become eligible for £7,000 each to spend on improving their qualifications. The offer is open to 18-to-25-year-olds who want to boost their education to GCSE or A-level standard. Ministers want to challenge the perception that a university education is the only one worth having."

The auguries based on performance of a previous scheme are not altogether auspicious. Let's all hope this new scheme doesn't go the way of what happened to the Indiviudal Learning Accounts originally launched in 1998 when Mr Blunkett was education minister.

In 2001 it was hurriedly announced that:

"Education ministers are scrapping the English operation of a UK-wide scheme designed to help people with training costs, following allegations of fraud. . . "


ah Bob B - do you run a media clippings service..?

Bob B

"do you run a media clippings service..?"

No - I just save past posts for my records and search and retrieve as necessary from among a (backed-up) collection extending over several years.

The motivation is to anticipate and avoid unnecessary controversies over historic facts when simple quotes with citations could pre-empt challenges. However, I have to admit that on past form this practice does incense some, but mostly only those with strongly partisan ideological sentiments and political affiliations. OTOH those who look at political economy issues dispassionately are inclined to appreciate the value of the citations.

I claim no originality - allow me to mention New Labour's Excalibur database:

"Utterances issued by various parties in the heat of the campaign will have been closely noted, logged and filed in Labour's famous Excalibur database."

It is amusing to observe how upset fervent New Labour supporters can become when a similar technology is applied to our Labour government. But then, as Emmanuel Goldstein put it in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four:

"Even the humblest Party member is expected to be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but it is also necessary that he should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph."

stuart munro

Feynman? Nah. But Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps.
Darwin? Illustrates the popular component of genius more than anything else: in his lifetime he was the less famous grandson of Erasmus Darwin, and if you take away Malthus, Lamarck, and the Beagle opportunity, there is little more than a sound geologist who was also a fine essayist.
I suspect that modern academia, both haut and vulgar, resist the notion of genius, and the kind of breadth found in the likes of a Kant or a Newton is essentially unimaginable today.

Bob B

Niall Ferguson, a British historian now working out of Harvard, is claiming something fundamental when he suggests that Britain has had a disproportionate influence in shaping the modern World:

As he reports: "In 1897, the year of her Diamond Jubilee, Queen Victoria reigned supreme over 25% of the world's surface."

" . . by the mid nineteenth century, [Britain] was exporting more than a third of its GDP - about three times as large a fraction as the US exports today. . . in a typical year in the late nineteenth century, Britain invested about 40 per cent of its savings overseas."
Paul Krugman: Peddling Prosperity (Norton, 1994) p.258/9

There is nothing new about globalisation.

And a listing of scientific and technological achievements in Britain is certainly impressive. Apart from Newton and Darwin, there were also James Watt, Davy, Faraday, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, James Clerk Maxwell, Logie Baird, JJ Thomson, Alexander Fleming, Rutherford, Watson Watt, Whittle, Alan Turing, Francis Crick, Tim Berners-Lee . . as well as a few notable economists on the way: Smith, Ricardo, JS Mill, Marshall, Keynes.

The curious insight is this:

"We have noted a substantial body of original research . . . which found that stagnant or declining literacy underlay the [industrial] 'revolution' of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. . . Britain in 1850 was the wealthiest country in the world but only in the second rank as regards literacy levels. [Nicholas] Crafts has shown that in 1870 when Britain was world economic leader, its school enrolment ratio was only 0.168 compared with the European norm of 0.514 and 'Britain persistently had a relatively low rate of accumulation of human capital'."
Sanderson: Education, economic change and society in 1780-1870 (Cambridge UP, 1995) p.61


I like the idea of most education today as largely a signalling device, with little useful knowledge actually being imparted. I studied probably the most practical subject possible (chemical engineering) but had to be re-trained by my first company to actually practice. As signalling devices it is entirely possible that universities (and great ones especially) are on net balance destroyers of value. This would explain the paradox Bob B mentions, Britain in the 19c was great because, not despite, the lack of mass education.

Bob B

"I like the idea of most education today as largely a signalling device."

Would that schooling and the school leaving exams were just signalling devices. A succession of reports have been saying that around 20 per cent of Britain's adult population has reading problems.

"One in 10 academically promising state school pupils in England do not go on to university, a report has claimed.

"The study [produced by the Sutton Trust] also says thousands of bright pupils are let down by schools because they fall back after high levels of early achievement."

chris y

Feynman unquestionably. But given the size and wealth of the US, the question still stands, because there aren't any other comparable scientists.

Except, of course, von Neumann and Fermi and Einstein and need I go on? Why invest in training geniuses when you can import them at need.

Oh, and stuff Jefferson for a bog standard 18th century dilettante. Franklin actually produced some original results, and Madison was a much more interesting political theorist.

(Dearieme, in the 20th (American?) century, scientists are very rarely tall poppies, because useful research usually requires large teams. Back when elementary optics was cutting edge it was easier to spot the bright lads.)

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