Protests against the willingness of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s decision to join up to the Government’s Big Society idea in order to safeguard funding are gathering pace.
A petition against the AHRC’s idea of research priorities has received more than 1600 signatures in less than a day, including some of the most senior figures in British Academia. Not only members of the AHRC’s peer review panels – who would have the job of apportioning money according to the Council’s priorities -- but also several Fellows of the British Academy, Fellows of the Royal Society and Professors from many universities have signed.
Such signings indicate considerable disquiet at the AHRC’s policies. The question is, how will it respond? It has three choices. The first, and most likely, is to take up the usual defensive crouch of all embattled institutions: go silent, ignore all protests and wait.
The second option is to put out another obfuscating statement: the AHRC notes the protests but, sadly, feels that all the signatories are misinformed. As it has explained, it did not cave in to government demands...
This option would take the line that the signatories are just too ignorant to know what is going on, and so their opinions can be passed over. Whether it is possible to accuse all these Academicians and Professors of being gullible and get away with it would be an interesting experiment.
The point of such a tactic would be to deflect concern away from the fact that many people feel that voluntarily signing up to an ideologically-inspired government programme is, in many ways, worse than being forced to do so, that there is a difference between active collaboration and passive acquiescence.
The third option is actually to do something: this is the least likely, as it would not only involve the AHRC saying it had a mistake, it would probably result in a lot of awkward conversations with the government. Also it is difficult to see how the head of the AHRC, having at least signed off a defence of the Big Society business, could possibly reverse position and remain in post.
So why are people so upset? Judging by the comments attached to signatures, it is partly because the sight of one of the most important institutions in the Arts and Humanities prostrating itself before power is embarrassing and undignified. The AHRC should at least have put up a show of independence, if only to demonstrate that its councils remembered something about the nature of academic research and what it is supposed to be.
Partly it is because it is acquiescing in academics being seen, and treated, like servants: the government coins the phrase “big society,” but hasn’t got the faintest idea what it is. So the AHRC volunteers to toss a few coppers at academics, and tell them to come up with something that sounds convincing.
Partly it is because relying on the fickle nature of a politician’s attention-span is a dangerous tactic. Most remember perfectly well that Tony Blair got himself all enthused about the “Third Way” when he came into office, then dropped the whole idea after a year or so. How will academics fare if they sign up to “Big Society” research programmes and then find that this government has lost interest, or has found a new slogan?
Not only would their funding be at risk in mid-project, no-one would then be interested in their results. Research done under the aegis of the Big Society will have a shelf life of a year or so – as temporary, disposable and as forgettable as the concept which gives it birth. Academics should not be, and do not consider themselves to be, cut-rate consultants for hire, but this is how the AHRC’s stance appears to cast them.
But most importantly it is because of reputational damage.
There is not much left in Britain that is world class – the car industry, shipbuilding industry, steel and cotton and machine tool industries are all gone. Our Navy will shortly be going into battle with an aircraft carrier, but no aircraft to put on it. Our soldiers have had to buy their own boots. Heathrow is a disgrace, the public transport system is Third World and the banks are bust. Even the House of Commons has been mired in a squalid scandal.
But the universities, and the academics who inhabit them, are world class. A lot of this depends on reputation: British universities, and academics, enjoy a higher reputation than the actual level of funding should warrant. Despite spending much less than other advanced economies, Britain produces a disproportionately large number of universities in the lists of the top 100 higher education institutions – more than the rest of Europe combined. They are highly thought-of, and this sustains their ability to attract the best academics, the best students and external research funding which can then be turned into real achievement.
Reputation is a delicate business, and has been built up over the decades and the centuries. It needs to be nurtured and protected, but has instead taken several hard knocks of late: the unedifying debacle at King’s, London, the Ghaddafi money saga at the LSE are only the most prominent. When reputation is lost it is hard to retrieve, and the antics of the AHRC are another blow. An academic or institution whose research is no longer clearly and unimpeachably objective will be damaged. Remember Caesar's wife.
Jane Austen might have said (had she been an academic or a blogger) that “loss of virtue in a university is irretrievable -- that one false step involves it in endless ruin -- that its reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful, -- and that it cannot be too much guarded in its behaviour…”
The AHRC has not been guarded at all in its ill-considered willingness to court political favour. It has, instead, been behaving towards the universities with all the cavalier recklessness of Mr. Wickham to one of the more vulnerable members of the Bennet family.
And that is why people are signing petitions.
-- Iain Pears