UK: Profile - Sir Eric Ash, Rector of Imperial College, London. (1 of 3)

UK: Profile - Sir Eric Ash, Rector of Imperial College, London. (1 of 3) - In this profile by Malcolm Brown, Sir Eric Ash, Rector of London's Imperial College, laments the anti-intellectualism pervasive in British society and the effect that this has on

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In this profile by Malcolm Brown, Sir Eric Ash, Rector of London's Imperial College, laments the anti-intellectualism pervasive in British society and the effect that this has on the funding of university education.

Sit next to Sir Eric Ash at dinner these days and, sooner or later, the conversation will almost certainly turn to "graceful degradation".

It is not quite as racy as it sounds. Sir Eric, Rector of the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, is an engineer, and "graceful degradation" is the term which engineers use to describe the slow, bit-by-bit collapse of a system. In a telephone network, for example, if one key element breaks down and the whole system immediately crashes you have a "catastrophic failure", but if, instead, there is simply a progressive deterioration leading, after a period, to the same ultimate end, silence, then you are experiencing "graceful degradation".

Sir Eric thinks that the British university system, after years of financial squeeze, is suffering "graceful degradation".

Imperial College itself is still flourishing - in the most recent Universities Funding Council assessment of research, 12 of its 16 departments got the top "5" rating, equal to Oxford and only slightly behind Cambridge - but, even there, there are small, disturbing signs that all is not well.

Take the library. "We can't afford to have all the scientific journals in our library that we had 10 or even five years ago," says Sir Eric.

Now that is not a tragedy. If a researcher really wants an unstocked journal there are always ways of getting hold of a copy. But that completely misses the point about the way in which the academic mind works. Academics are inveterate browsers. They may pick up ideas almost at random from skimming journals, ideas that may spark new trains of thought or fruitful new cross-connections. If the journals are not there, that erratic, but often valuable, process cannot even start.

Sir Eric is not expecting the sky to fall in over his campus, but in a sense that is the problem - graceful degradation is just a mite too graceful. What is needed, perhaps, is a bit of disgraceful degradation of the sort that nobody can ignore.

Sir Eric Ash was appointed Rector of Imperial in 1985, almost exactly 40 years after he first stepped through its doors as a 17-year-old undergraduate. He had been born and spent the first 10 years of his life in pre-war Germany where his father, a German-Jewish lawyer, was head of the legal department of electrical giant AEG (now part of Telefunken). The family lived a prosperous middle-class life in Berlin and Ash senior, says Sir Eric, was advised by colleagues "not to worry about this silly man Hitler". Luckily he did worry and, by 1938, had decided to move the family to England.

Young Eric, who was modestly competent in English but certainly not fluent, was packed off first to a boarding school then to University College School, Hampstead. He breezed through the "school cert" (which he had to take in UCS's cellars because of the air raids), got a First and a doctorate at Imperial, then went on to research posts here and in America. Although he has spent most of his working life in academia, he did have an eight-year stint, from 1955 to 1963, in industrial research.

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