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.


  1. Hi Iain,

    Thanks for this (and for your great work at LRB). Just to say that I wrote about this yesterday and today ( and and think it's essential that we take this opportunity to at least find out a little bit more about how this is all supposed to work, and at most to end mechanisms of state (and party-political) control over academic research.

    Pablo K

  2. A very thoughtful post- thank you for deconstructing it so thoroughly for us. I'm surprised by the muted reaction from the academic community so far. I don't think word has travelled around just yet- at least, I'd hope that's the reason for the lack of reaction. If there is one thing that unites academics, it's the principle of academic freedom and independence.

    Christine Cheng

  3. Some readers may be interested in signing the petition here:

  4. Note that one of the members of the Council of the AHRC is Professor Sir Richard Trainor, whose activities on behalf of the humanities you discussed last year.

  5. I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I see nothing party-political at all in the AHRC's "Connected Communities" project.

    It's about "communities". The "Big Society" slogan is also about "communities" in some sense. The AHRC has shrewdly emphasized this fairly tenuous connection in its bids for future government funding.

    You know, I almost feel sorry for them.

  6. Thanks for this Ian - I happen to know for a fact that other organisations were mentioned to the Observer reporter but, for some reason, ended up on the cutting room floor, e.g., the British Academy. Any confusion caused is down to the Observer reporter. I happen to know Peter Mandler and he told me exactly what he said to the reporter.

  7. sorry, that should be 'Iain'

  8. Spot on Iain. AHRC tactic of trying to please government paymasters has backfired badly. But is what they're doing that much worse than many University administrations or sector groupings - i.e. Meekly accepting or even supporting Treasury-derived and intellectually spurious measurements of 'impact' in the hope that their sector or institution will benefit? The behaviour of the Ahrc - horrible as it might well be - is not actually that surprising given the way universities have been complicit in the erosion of academic freedom in their pursuit of money.