The meeting – which lasted precisely one and a half hours, as it was billed to do – was politely chaired, effortlessly unmelodramatic and spot on. Its consensus was that British universities are in danger of suffocating because of too much bureaucracy, too much government direction (or interference, as it might better be called) and too little recognition of the basic fact, brilliantly encapsulated by Prof Sir John Meurig Thomas, that “planned discovery is impossible”. In short, the very greatest discoveries, many of them made at our universities, have often come by indirections.
Most of the time, business targets and commercial constraints just don’t work in universities. Bureaucrats should be few and in the background, not many and increasingly in the foreground. Those who do the hands-on work should be given their heads. After all, it is their heads that matter.
Universities are to do with knowledge and imagination. When asked for the most important thing about his work, Einstein replied “imagination – above all, imagination”.