Universities `are failing science’

Competitiveness is being undermined by declining standards in education institutions, says R&D chief

The poor quality of education and research in universities is undermining Britain’s scientific competitiveness, warned George Poste, R&D chairman of SmithKline Beecham.

Poste said poor levels of capital equipment – such as advanced instrumentation – within UK universities was undermining the nation’s long-term research capability. Industry was forced to fill the gap by spending up to 18 months familiarising new recruits on modern equipment.

Speaking at the Chemical Industries Association’s annual Business Outlook conference in London last week, Poste made an impassioned plea for the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education to stop the decline and `grasp the nettle no matter how painful it might be’.

He called for a more focused approach to the university system. The Government must, he said, abandon the idea that all universities can be world class.

`The Dearing committee has an opportunity to tear up the failings of the last 20 years – either to replace them with failings that will take another 20 years – or alternatively an opportunity to say something is desperately wrong and broken. If we want to do something formidable in this country then we have got to begin to start focusing and grab the political nettle no matter how painful that may be.’

Poste said the Government spread its funding too thinly, supporting sectors which could hardly be described as sunrise industries. The UK has some excellent research centres, but also a long tail of mediocrity.

The UK must, said Poste, play to its strengths. While the life sciences are strong in the UK, the R&D base needed nurturing as a national asset.

Poste also attacked the Government’s failure to have a coherent science policy. `Science is marginalised. It only reaches public policy at Whitehall when there is crisis – such as BSE, the Brent Spar or E-coli.’

It was not just a failing of the present Government, he said. All the political parties were lacking over science policy, `each party matched with vacuous innocence’.