No More Browne-Nosing

Bob Brecher

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.


  • 3 July 2011 at 10:42pm
    alex says:
    I salute bob brecher for writing this piece, and the London Review of Books for highlighting this issue. I have signed a number of petitions against the AHRC's policy, as organized by Thom Brooks of the University of Newcastle.
    I think there is a danger here of a) ad hominem attacks on Rylance; and b) preaching to the converted so the disinterested don't register.
    I wonder if a better strategy mightn't be to ask Rylance et al what they consider to be the intellectual genealogy of "The Big Society". Why and how did this, - and not, say "the Habermasian public sphere" - become a priority stream for research funding. Play them at their own game. Take them seriously as intellectuals, and let them tie themselves in knots.

  • 4 July 2011 at 12:58pm
    orlp says:
    I too salute Bob Brecher.

    The AHRC's policy is one of the worst aspects of current university policy, but the policy as a whole is a disastrous continuation of 30 years of government meddling with the universities. Would that the VC's and the UGC had stood up to Thatcher in 1980-1, as the French universities did to their government.

    Ever since, politicians have known that they can do with our universities what they like. Now we have sky-high student fees, and the requirement for universities to guarantee the financial benefits of their courses, as a corollary. Research is assessed on "impact" and the AHRC's policy is only the most blatant attempt to direct it towards political or financial ends, in the sciences as well as the arts.

    Things will only get worse unless by some miracle academic institutions return to their principles.

  • 4 July 2011 at 1:20pm
    philodemus says:
    Something I haven't seen as a result of this debacle is a frank discussion of the dangers of centralization in higher-education funding. Why on earth should the AHRC have the right to tell scholars that some areas of research are more interesting than others in the first place? It's not as though there are critical areas of research in the arts and humanities that will advance any particular national interest. Of course, the government is welcome to independently fund, as the State Department does in the US, language training to support its own activities, but this is kept separate from scholarship. In fact, this method doesn't even work in the sciences - witness the crude and incorrect instrumental reasoning used to privilege applied over basic science research, when this is likely to net no short term gains but rather long term losses in scientific understanding and practical output.