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.