In the last few days, more than forty of us have collectively resigned our membership of the Peer Review College of the Arts and Humanities Research Council: we will no longer referee colleagues’ (usually hopeless, often hapless) applications for research money. We quit in protest at the AHRC’s announcement a couple of months ago that the Big Society was to be one of its research funding priorities, and its subsequent insistence that this did not impugn academic freedom – on the grounds that the decision was an independent one and not imposed by government. More resignations are expected as the AHRC digs in over this ‘justification’ of its Browne-nosing hope of favour.
For British academics to act like this is unprecedented. Probably the most quiescent group of public sector workers in the country, we’re hardly known for saying no, let alone for saying it collectively. This (so far) minor skirmish over just one instance of the corruption of the universities might contain the seeds of something bigger, if it leads enough academics to realise two very obvious things: first, with more than 40 per cent of the population – and the great majority of middle-class school-leavers – aiming to get to university, we have a good deal of power; and second, the sky will not fall on our heads if we exercise it and disobey.
The supine acceptance of coalition policy by the vice-chancellors’ club Universities UK and their hangers-on in our universities can be resisted. The mass resignation from the AHRC just might presage a refusal to carry on keeping our heads down and ending up delivering them on a plate. If the AHRC’s determination to stay in the tent – even if that means prostrating itself at the entrance – spurs more and more of us to abandon our traditional quiescence, then it’ll turn out to be a wonderful example of the law of unintended consequences.