David Willetts, the British minister for higher education, has recently announced that the government was “inviting proposals for a new type of university with a focus on science and technology and on postgraduates.” The NYT article on the matter may be biased, but it looks like this announcement could have come from the Italian ministry of university and research, and I mean it as an offense.

So, how much will the government invest in this new university? “There will be no additional government funding,” Mr. Willetss says, and all the funding will have to come from the private sector. And what is the government’s vision and plan for this new university? Mr. Willetts says that “We are not intending to issue any guidelines. We want people to come to us with ideas.”

So the idea of the minister for higher education is that the private sector comes up with all the funding and all the planning for a new university. (Imagine the home secretary stating the goal of increasing the police force, but all the new police force would be paid for by the private sector, which, after all, has an interest in reducing street crime, and that it is not the intention of the home office to dictate how this private police force should operate.) This is exactly what an Italian minister would talk about at a press conference, only to be forgotten the following week.

The reaction from the academia, however, is different. In Italy, you would see people throw their hands in the air and say “madonna mia, in mano a chi siamo,” while the British are masters of understatement.

“We at Oxford feel that keeping the U.K. a world leader in science and research is a very important objective,” Ian Walmsley, Oxford’s chief research officer, “and we’re pleased that the government agrees with that.”

Stephen Caddick, for the University College at London says the proposal is “not uninteresting”.

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