A Lesson for Higher Education from the Spinal Cord Repair Breakthrough

Dee Searle

The most memorable aspect of BBC Panorama’s heart-warming account of a significant breakthrough for people paralysed by spinal cord injuries was not the skill of medical staff, the brilliance of scientists or the bravery of Darek Fidyka, the Polish man who is undergoing the gruelling and risky treatment, it was the dedication and generosity of all those involved. And it provides lessons for the way we fund higher education.

For those who missed the programme (screened on 21 October), it reported on the British discovery that transplanting nerve cells from the upper nasal passage of a paralysed patient into that person’s severed spinal cord helped the nerves to regrow and restore mobility and feeling. The research is funded by the Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation and the UK Stem Cell Foundation and involved collaboration with a pioneering neural surgeon in Poland. The technique is still at the experimental stage so there is understandably caution about the possibilities of widely available treatment any time soon. But it does offer hope to millions of people around the world. 

It’s hard to say who was most inspirational in this long-term, complex, international, collaborative process.  

Was it the quietly spoken but brilliant Professor Geoffrey Raisman of University College London, who was determined to find a way to cure spinal cord injuries, had the vision to explore and apply the regenerative properties of olfactory ensheathing cells and has dedicated his professional life to developing and refining the procedures? 

Or kindly Professor Wagih el Masri of the NHS Midlands Centre for Spinal Injuries, who often has to break the news to patients that they will never walk again and who has ‘waited 40 years for a moment like this’? 

Or Dr Pawel Tabakow and his medical team at Wroclaw Medical University in Poland, who combined medical skill and innovation with scientific rigour to apply Prof Raisman’s technique to a human patient? 

Or Darek Fidyka, who allowed intimate filming throughout the challenging preparation, operation and recovery process, and the other spinal injury sufferers who courageously described the wide-ranging impact that paralysis has on their lives? 

Or just maybe it’s edged by David Nicholls who, when his 18-year-old son Daniel was paralysed in a diving accident, set up a foundation not to pay for advanced treatment just for Daniel but to fund research into a cure for many, and who insisted that ‘the scientific information relating to this significant advancement will be made available to other researchers around the world so that together we can fight to finally find a cure for this condition which robs people of their lives’.

A common thread is that none of the people involved was in it for financial gain. Professor Raisman’s breakthrough originated in pure academic enquiry, not a desire to patent an invention that could bring in hefty profits. This contrasts dramatically with the monetised view of higher education and academia being promoted by this government, in which the ‘graduate premium’ of higher wages is being used to tempt young people to take on debts of up to £27,000 to cover university fees and at least as much again in living costs.

As Professor Lawrence Zeegen, Dean of Design at London College of Communication (part of University of the Arts London), recounted on 20 October at a lecture on his book, ‘50 Years of Illustration’, when the extensive research and hundreds of interviews are taken into account, he would have earned more spending the same amount of time working at Burger King. But, as he cheerfully noted, that’s not the point; he produced the book out of a love of the subject and a passion for sharing his knowledge.

And that’s the key to higher education, whether in the arts, humanities or science. It should be about enabling people to pursue subjects they care about or fascinate them, as a step on the road to a fulfilling career that has the potential to benefit themselves and society. If we base going to university on the prospect of earning higher salaries, think of all the Raismans, el Masris and Zeegens we could miss out on in the future.