Wednesday, 30 March 2011

More on the AHRC

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

Monday, 28 March 2011

The AHRC, The Observer, and Mr. Haldane’s Principle.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) today issued what it terms an important statement about an article that appeared in the Observer newspaper on 27th March. (

The statement is unusual, in that it is rare for anybody connected to Higher Education in Britain to respond in any way to public criticism. In this case it issued a vehement denial of suggestions that it is falling into line with a politicisation of research in the U.K.

As I have also written of similar things, most recently in the London Review of Books, and the next Observer doesn’t come out for another week, I thought it would be a good idea to look at this response. The main difference between the Observer article and my own is that, while I note the AHRC directing funding into the “Big Society,” I do not claim this was the result of a direct government order. Nonetheless, the Observer's proposition is defensible: even though the AHRC may have volunteered to adopt the Big Society as one of its own in negotiations, by the time the commitment was put in the BIS directive it had indeed become something of a contractual obligation on which funding depended.

(One detail which should be mentioned in passing is, yet again, the habitual mangling of language which seems to be compulsary amongst educational administrators these days. The statement does not, as it says, "refute" the allegations made in the Observer: to refute is to convincingly disprove, and the AHRC offers no evidence to make its case. It merely rejects the allegations, which is a different matter.)

The first thing to note is that the AHRC attacks only one of the points made in the Observer article, and passes in silence over everything else. It suggests that, by simple good fortune, the government’s discovery of the Big Society merely happened to coincide with its own interests, which are of longer standing.

Left entirely untouched is the fact that the AHRC is increasingly becoming the executive agency of government whim, and that even the poor sums given to the Humanities now have to be harnessed to central priorities. There is not the slightest suggestion in anything that the AHRC has ever said to suggest that it might consider this to be detrimental to independent, internationally-esteemed research: indeed, the idea never seems to have occurred to it.

The response continues to say that “If academic peer reviewers do not feel the research is excellent, and of sufficient importance and value for money, it does not get funded.“ The implication of this is that the Arts and Humanities Research board, without any prompting, decided off its own bat to “focus the main thrust of its impact strategy on the creative economy,“ as the document on its funding settlement states. This decision means, as it also says, moving funding away from what is normally considered to be arts and humanities into “new media, computer television.”

These protestations are unconvincing. The AHRC funding document refers to “the Big Society” in a way which can only mean government ideology, as no-one but the government has ever used the term to any great extent. Moreover, it describes it as one of the “highest priorities in the arts and humanities.” We are asked to believe that its reaching this conclusion, and the arrival of the new government, were entirely coincidental events.

The funding document – which originates in the Ministry of Business, not the AHRC -- then goes back in the next paragraph to refer specifically to the task of “contributing to the ‘Big Society initiative’” in a way which can only mean fitting in with party political concerns.

Does the AHRC really think that such an initiative would remain one of the highest priorities in the Arts and Humanities even if the Labour party came back into power? How long after Ed Miliband became Prime Minister does it think it would take for this long-standing interest to be quietly shelved or rebranded? Would the AHRC defy a Labour Business Minister and insist on continuing with Research into the "Big Society?" The question merely has to be posed; no answer is really necessary.

For all that, there does seem to have been a mistake in the Observer article, which the statement exploits for the purpose of shading over the other points it contains. It does confuse the AHRC with other organisations that did indeed come under considerable pressure to toe the government line.

In the case of the AHRC, little pressure was necessary: its leadership was all too ready to indulge in sycophantic pandering. Whether that makes the matter any better is for others to decide. It should be noted that the ESRC – whose work in the Social Sciences is a much more obvious place to locate research into the “Big Society” – managed to get its funding without being so ostentatiously obliging. Its settlement refers to “A Vibrant and Fair Society,” without feeling any need to signal its subservience in quite such a conspicious manner.

-- Iain Pears

The AHRC's "Delivery Plan 2011-15" (see its website) contains the following statements:

...Connected Communities will enable the AHRC to contribute to the government’s initiatives on localism and the ‘Big Society"...

...recent speeches on the ‘Big Society’ have made use of key behavioural or evaluative concepts that can be difficult to pin down...

... We will focus on issues such as the ‘Big Society’...(and) national security (with the Security Services)...

... The contribution of AHRC plans to the ‘Big Society’ agenda are described in section 2...

...In line with the Government’s ‘Big Society’ agenda....the AHRC will continue to support...


NOTE: There is now an on-line petition to remove "the Big Society" from the AHRC's priorities. If you wish to sign, the web address is here:


NOTE: The Times Higher Education Supplement has reported that Bob Brecher, Professor of Ethics at the University of Brighton, has resigned from his position on the AHRC's Peer Review College in protest at what he termed the AHRC's "collaboration" with the Government.