Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The AHRC – again

The English Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) is back in the news once more, attracting more unfavourable and damaging attention for no necessary reason.

There is now a very real possibility that assessors of research proposals will shortly begin to resign en masse to protest against its policies; opposition Labour party politicians are, finally, beginning to badger the government about interfering with research, and the minister in charge of universities, David Willetts, has signalled that he is unsupportive of the Council’s approach.

A few months back the council, which distributes research money to academics in the humanities, became the subject of controversy. It badly mishandled press reports about its intention to pour some of its limited resources into a specifically political area of research, using public funds to flesh out the Conservative party’s “Big Society” slogan, and turn it from a catchphrase into something which had meaning.

One of the reports overdid it and said that the AHRC had been pressured by the government into this action. A mistake such as this is regrettable, but in this case it proved to be something of an unintended blessing. The authorities in English higher education have a general policy of never replying to any criticism; for the most part they do not even acknowledge its existence, and the funding structure is set up in such a way that they do not have to.

But in this case, the AHRC spotted an easy triumph: it put out a tetchy statement (rumoured to have been written by the chief executive, Rick Rylance, and presumably at least authorised by him) denouncing the suggestion, and assuring academics that the decision to back a party-political slogan had been entirely voluntary.

It says a great deal about the people who now rise to positions of influence in the education system that it never occurred to the AHRC that this would make things even worse, that there is a difference between enforced compliance, and voluntary collaboration. Indeed, they seem to have expected congratulations for a cunning ploy to win favour from the new administration.

Many academics did not see it that way. 4,000 of them signed a petition in protest; more than 30 learned societies issued a statement backing the petition, and the AHRC was deluged with hundreds of letters and emails. There was no upsurge of support from the ranks defending the AHRC's policies.

The protests had not the slightest effect, so now some of those who assess projects are planning to resign, a move organised by Thom Brooks, to indicate that this is a serious matter of academic integrity, not a temper-tantrum that will blow over if the AHRC sticks to its guns.

Equally, the Labour opposition is demanding to see correspondence between the Ministry of Business and the Council to find out what actually happened – probably not in the expectation of discovering anything truly sinister, but to cause annoyance and keep the issue bubbling.

For the government, this is a nuisance it can do without at a time when its policies on Higher Education are mired in controversy. It has already been forced to retreat on a raft of measures – selling forests, prison policy, the National Health Service – and it needs a display of resolve if it is not to be deemed weak-willed and spineless. Higher Education, unfortunately, looks as though it will be the sector called upon to provide that proof.

The government does not need its position weakened by a controversy for which, for once, it is not responsible -- although when the AHRC presented its plans, it could easily have told the council not to be so silly. The move to back the “Big Society” does indeed seem as though it was little more than a piece of amateur manoeuvring of the sort normally associated with student politics. It was neither necessary, nor required to gain funding – the ESRC won its money without a display of servility -- and it is now a political liability.

So David Willetts signalled as clearly as politicians ever signal anything that he wants the AHRC to close the matter down. In an article the Times Higher Education Supplement at the end of May, he wrote:

“Our commitments on teaching and research also respect the autonomy of universities and have avoided any pernicious temptation to steer the money towards ministers' pet priorities (although the research councils will doubtless want to reflect on the hazards of referring at all to current political slogans!).”

Only the head of a research council could fail to take the meaning in Willetts' remark -- not least because if one of the architects of the "Big Society" can refer to it as a political slogan, it becomes that much more difficult to maintain that it is, in fact, a serious subject for academic research.

The AHRC duly demonstrated its limited ability to interpret texts. Professor Rylance announced that he didn't really want to reflect on it at all: the council had no intention of removing the references to the Big Society in its plans. The Chairman, Sir Alan Wilson, added that he didn’t see why people were getting worked up about it – although I assume that, if he asked, they would have been happy to explain.

The main reason given for this stance is that it would be a bit of a bother, and involve discussions with the ministry. There is, however, no particular reason to think that these could not be disposed of over morning coffee, as it is clear that the government wants the tiresome business brought to an end swiftly.

It needs more controversy like a hole in the head at the moment. Several ministers – including the heavyweight justice minister, Ken Clarke – have learned that it can be quite ruthless about slapping down people who cause it problems.

Professor Rylance – who was not elected, is not a political heavyweight and was not even appointed by the Conservative government -- has little reason to expect political cover for decisions which are causing embarrassment, and which increasingly look like little more than a collective reluctance to lose face. Indeed, there is a growing risk the AHRC will end up causing the very damage it was trying to avoid.

-- Iain Pears

note: Simon Jarvis, Professor of Poetry at Cambridge, this evening wrote an open letter calling on Rick Rylance to resign. He said Professor Rylance was an "inappropriate person" to be head of the AHRC because of his conduct over the Big Society business, and that, if the references were not removed, then resignation would represent his "only legitimate course of action."

note 2: 23. June: 42 academic members of the peer review panel did say that they would resign from their positions on Monday if the AHRC did not change its mind. They will join two who have already done so. The idea is, I believe, that if this produces no result, then another group will resign, and so on.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Private Virtues?

There has been a great deal of fuss in England over the past couple of weeks about proposals by the philosopher A.C. Grayling to set up a private college, the New College for the Humanities, to teach fee paying students and, he maintains, defend the humanities in an age when they are under attack from governments obsessed by economic growth.

The disdain subsequently heaped on the heads of those who originated the scheme has been remarkable. Terry Eagleton, a literary critic and erstwhile Marxist theorist, described the plan as odious. A large portion of academics from Birkbeck college, Grayling’s own institution, wrote to denounce it. The head of Royal Holloway College put out a statement of disapproval about the courses, the head of New College, Oxford, put out another disapproving of the name. A meeting to discuss the idea was disrupted by a miniature riot, complete with smoke-bombs. Arguments in favour have appeared in the Financial Times and from the (conservative) Mayor of London; arguments against primarily in the Guardian.

The locations indicate the political split of the argument: so far it has been along almost classical left/right lines. Grayling (who rather regards himself as a pinko) was clearly taken aback by the response, but then took to the comments pages as well to mount a defence.

His point about the need to protect the humanities, for academics to get back to their knitting and pay attention to students has some considerable merit, of course, although he is scarcely the first to make it.

The humanities have indeed been targetted as economically unproductive; the vital freedoms to research have been undermined; government policy is to force academics into devoting more time to research because of the funding structure, then to criticise them when they do so. Pressure (real and implicit) has been put on research councils to divert money into government approved projects. And the new, complex fee structure based on loans is to be accompanied by a staggering new level of regulation which will extinguish most of the remaining autonomy that universities possess.

There is thus a case to be made that the biggest danger now to academic freedom, and the continued surivival of the humanities, is the government itself, which has switched in the past 30 years from being the acknowledged guardian of intellectual freedom to its greatest and most powerful enemy. Unless the humanities – or a section of them – break the stranglehold somehow, then the prospects will be bleak indeed. Some form of autonomous status does, at least, need to be thought about as a component of any solution -- although universities, of course, are already supposedly private institutions.

So far so good; or at least defensible. Up to this point, Professor Grayling scarcely deserves the intensity of the assault which has greeted his actions. Nonetheless, there are deep flaws in the idea behind NCH, and these seriously compromise the validity of the whole scheme.

From a perfectly reasonable starting point, the arguments rapidly become less appealing. In his Independent article, for example, definitions seem a little loose. Professor Grayling also insists that his critics argue to his strengths, rather than their own, which is rather disingenuous of him. It is only a legitimate plea if he, in turn, is prepared to argue on his critics’ strong ground as well, and this he does not do.

To bolster the case for the new college, two main comparisons have been deployed; one is the example of private American universities, the other Oxford and Cambridge. Both have their problems.

Nobody doubts, of course, the impressive nature of the American private universities. The big seven have been staggeringly successful, and the many private liberal arts colleges also have an exceptionally high reputation. Were NCH to emulate them it could make a significant contribution – although the vast cost, the continued social exclusivity and the consequently unhealthy concentration of resources into a few places (more even than the Oxbridge/the rest divide here) would be hard for the more collectivist British ever to accept.

But NCH is not going to be another Amherst or Williams – even geographically, as a metropolitan bias is likely to impose crippling overheads before it is even off the ground. Most of the American liberal arts colleges are buried deep in the country for a reason: it is cheaper there. NCH will be competing for space in some of the most expensive real estate on the planet. Financially, a small market town in the north of England would have been more sensible – although less chic.

Nor will NCH provide an intellectual community, its own facilities or even its own degree course: it will be teaching bits of the London University external degree syllabus like any tutorial college. Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr do not, I think, download their curricula from the internet, nor do their students pop off to the local state university if they want something to eat.

Rather than being a high-end liberal arts college, NCH as currently set up is a bare-bones profit-making company, and in this sector the record of equivalent organisations in the U.S. has been both dismal and, recently, mired in controversy. NCH has shareholders, investors and all the rest of it, and I know of no example anywhere or at any time when such an organisation has achieved anything of note. Obscuring the distinction between non-profit and for-profit in the general term “private” is not helpful.

Equally, the college has been decidedly vague over what the "profit" bit actually means: is it a merely legal convenience, or are they seriously expecting to extract revenue? The lack of precision here leaves the entire venture open to suspicion as to the ultimate motives. Indeed, in his article in the Guardian, and another in the Independent, Professor Grayling never even mentions the word "profit," let alone deals with the very real issues aroused by a profit-seeking educational company.

The second comparison – to Oxford and Cambridge – is also dubious. This is not entirely Professor Grayling’s fault; he at no time suggested that he was going to try and rival the two universities; that was the gloss put in it by the newspapers. Nonetheless, he did rather bring it on himself by saying the NCH would emulate the experience of the students with the one-to-one tutorial which is the jewel in the crown of the Oxbridge system.

I am doubtful about this aim, not because it is unworthy, but because I think that it misses the entire point about the tutorial system and why it is both so successful -- and so difficult to reproduce anywhere else.

The tutorial system is both expensive and time-consuming. Fellows of Oxford colleges typically teach 12 to 15 hours a week, and in addition give lectures and seminars, so that there is a basic load of around 20 hours teaching, plus marking plus setting exams. They have no secretaries and so do much of the administrative work themselves, and matching up teachers and students individually can take large amounts of time.

On top of that they spend much time in meetings of both college and whatever faculty they belong to, take their turn at college offices (Dean, finance, admissions and so on) and, finally, produce research to satisfy government requirements.

This is an unusually heavy load, and is not significantly better paid than jobs anywhere else in the Higher education sector. It is maintained primarily because of a sense of ownership: fellows are members of the governing body of the college, and are the trustees of their organisation. Even heads of house have very little power in comparison. The decision to work harder than they need is theirs alone, despite the best efforts of government and university to take that power away.

The point is that only an extraordinarily powerful collective spirit can maintain a system which is wearisome and frequently subject to outside attack, and it is this which is likely to be absent from the New College of the Humanities. How could it be otherwise? The grand figures who are the shareholders will not, it appears, be getting down and dirty with undergraduates day after day. The teaching staff equally will have no sense of ownership or control – because they will have neither.

Even junior research fellows in many Oxford colleges are on the governing body with an equal vote to everyone else. Will NCH emulate this egalitarian practice? If it does not, any comparison to the "Oxbridge experience" will be ephemeral window-dressing, and although the documentation is so far hazy, it appears that all effective power will in fact be concentrated into the hands of founders and investors, with little going to the people doing the work.

Professor Grayling suggests that his college will, in the long term, be able to sustain a financially (though not educationally) inefficient teaching system in a structure designed to maximise profit, and also be able to attract teaching staff who will be simultaneously high quality and mere employees.

It may be that some ingredient has not yet been mentioned, but as it stands I do not see how this can work, especially in an organisation with unnecessarily high fixed costs and no endowment. Tutorials are sustained by the underlying structure of the colleges: it will be exceptionally difficult to graft them onto an entirely different format.

This points to a further problem underlying both the outraged response to the proposed college and the bemused failure to understand that response. It was presented, from the start, as a celebrity venture: rather like a fantasy football team, heavy emphasis was placed on the high-profile figures involved. The first thing a visitor to the website sees is a large photograph of Professor Grayling; click a link, and there is another one...

This was a terrible mistake. The English have a profound distrust of such people – celebrity academics, I fear, have not the slightest idea how much they are disliked almost on principle. Much of the new professoriate is based in the U.S., which is even worse, and collectively made the error of assuming the venture would be well-received because of their participation. In fact, it was the main reason for the violence of the reaction.

This may be a national failing, but not taking it into account was very foolish: on its own it guaranteed that the new venture would be perceived as an initiative by a bunch of grandees dismissive of their erstwhile colleagues and ready to profit from their misfortune.

Subsequent reports that some of the partners would only be jetting over from the East Coast to give a couple of lectures every year did not help either: paying £18,000 to be taught in tutorials by the likes of Niall Ferguson is one thing; paying that amount of money to see him a couple of times at the far end of a lecture theatre when you can watch him on the telly for nothing is another.

The founding fathers of NCH, in fact, lack the collective spirit which a venture like this must have if it is to succeed in the long term. Many of them were, at one time, fellows of Oxbridge colleges; nearly all left, often enough because they were not suited to the (very real) constraints on their own liberty that being a tutorial fellow involves.

Equally, they are, for the most part, old men – only Ferguson is under 50, most are over 60, and one is 80. Three decades of feminism has resulted in one woman being involved. There is nothing wrong with the wisdom of age, of course -- indeed, I find it more compelling with every year that passes -- but I doubt they will surprise their students with new ideas. And it does pose the problem of what happens next.

Even if founded with the most honourable intentions, what about their successors? How is that transition to be made? If a shareholder wishes to sell up, what is to stop the institution falling into the hands of people who are seriously keen on the idea of maximising profit? Members of the governing body of an Oxford college are not there, after all, because they buy their seat, and do not expect a return on any investment.

Good will and intentions are rarely, in the long term, a match for money, and he who controls the money, controls the organisation. The idea that academic freedom can be maintained without an overwhelmingly powerful mechanism to limit the influence of outsiders is a naive one – as, indeed, the fate of public universities has demonstrated in the past 30 years.

A simple point illustrates this: several of the leading figures are evangelical atheists, with a highly contemptuous view of religion. How will NCH teach history, which cannot be understood without an extremely sophisticated understanding of the phenomenon? What place, and what guarantees, will there be for any young, untenured, historian with a more nuanced view?

The professoriate presents, in any case, an unusual view of the humanities: a quarter of them are scientists, but there is no-one who has much interest in anything other than the Anglo-Saxon world. There will be a compulsary course on scientific awareness, including evolutionary biology, but, it seems, no art, no languages, only a superficial glance at the classics and ancient history and no literature except for English. Nor, of course, is there to be even an optional module in understanding religion.

If the cultures of France, Italy, Germany, Russia and Spain scarcely exist, the rest of the world is entirely absent. Of the three historians on the board, two write only about England, one writes predominantly on England. The subject convenor is also an English historian.

It may be that a system of checks and balances has been concocted and its profile will become less parochial as it evolves. But it would have been a good idea to highlight this from the beginning, rather than giving the impression that the students would be primarily taught by a bunch of labourers controlled by absentee landlords.

A venture set up by a younger generation of academics, with Grayling et. al discreetly in the background acting as godfathers, might have received a warmer reception, and might have been demonstrably stable institutionally. But it is not a characteristic of many of the founders to shun the limelight.

And that, perhaps, is the final, and greatest, problem with the new venture. Professor Grayling is acting because he considers the battle within the national university system to be over. But for many in that system it has only just started, after a long and shameful delay.

It was the duty of his generation to fight that battle, but it did not. Had serious opposition been mounted 10 or 20 years back then there would have been a very much better chance of success.

But collectively, his generation let it happen, and fell back instead on gaming the system. A few took the opportunity to get as much celebrity as academics can in a culture which cares little for scholarship.

Such people should not now be delivering lectures about saving the humanities: they had their chance to do so, and they blew it. It is time they stood aside. A little more activity when they were in their prime and the humanities might not have needed saving; a little more humility now and the reception given to their proposal could have been radically more favourable.

Indeed, their response is still that of their generation: a world weary belief that nothing, really, can be done. Government policy can never be changed. No effective argument to defend the humanities can be made, and the only thing to be done is to cocoon them in a setting where no defence is needed. You have to adapt to power, not challenge it, for there really is no alternative, as Mrs Thatcher said all along.

It is a fatalistic, and gloomy outlook. And the greatest problem with NCH is that it is a monument to that belief.

-- Iain Pears

Note: it is a pity that the NCH website has already adopted the tendency of businesses to report only good news about themselves. "NCH in the news" does have a somewhat selective account of its media representation -- despite the widespread criticism, not a single link implying any negative reaction has been put up. This is not the best way of establishing your credentials as the defender of open debate.

23rd June: Credit where credit is due; the website now has a much fuller list of news comment, and includes a few of the unfavourable ones.

29th July -- no; they're gone again. Now only neutral or positive comments (or complaints by Professor Grayling at his ill-treatment) appear on the web page.