Divided and Ruled

Paul Myerscough · The AHRC and the Big Society

In the LRB earlier this month, Iain Pears regretted the government’s progressive undermining of the Haldane principle, ‘the century-old understanding that research should be protected from political interference’, and noted in passing that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) had issued a document stating that the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) ‘will systematically address issues relating to... cultural renewal contributing to the “Big Society” initiative.’

On Sunday, the Observer made quite a bit more capital out of the same story. According to Daniel Boffey, the AHRC had been told ‘research into the “Big Society” was non-negotiable if it wished to maintain its funding at £100m a year.’ Much hand-wringing followed, and much tweeting too. The AHRC issued a testy response the next day, denying that it had been ‘instructed, pressured or otherwise coerced by BIS or anyone else into support’ for the Big Society initiative. And one of the Oberver’s main sources, Peter Mandler, who teaches history at Cambridge, has said:

the Observer misquoted me... I was referring to direct pressure from BIS that I believe was applied to the British Academy, but... the reporter conflated my references to the BA and the AHRC. I don’t know whether there was direct pressure applied to the AHRC – possibly there was – or possibly they don’t need to be pressured any longer.

 Iain Pears noticed the vulnerability in the Observer story too. By focusing on the journalistically appealing possibility of direct government coercion, Boffey had missed the true significance of the story, which is, as Mandler suggests, that the AHRC didn’t need to be pressured – because it was already on board. Pears quotes the AHRC’s 'delivery plan' for 2011-15, which explicitly indicates its intentions to contribute to the government’s Big Society agenda. ‘In the case of the AHRC,’ Pears writes, ‘little pressure was necessary: its leadership was all too ready to indulge in sycophantic pandering.’

 Tom Sutcliffe in the Independent offers a plausible picture of what might have gone on in the minds of that leadership:

The AHRC, aware that it was operating in a climate of cuts, thought it might be helpful to rephrase part of its mission statement in a way more congenial to its new paymasters. It’s a human enough instinct, after all... where would the harm be in letting the government think we’re on side? Stick it in the document here and there. It’ll make them feel better about signing the cheque, and once we’ve got the money we’ll decide how to spend it as we usually do. And only then did the AHRC find out where the harm lay – as an academic community already maddened by having to fill in 'impact statements' to prove that their research has an effect on wider society... detected another and more serious encroachment on intellectual liberty.

Yet the AHRC itself is made up of members of the academic community. There is an illustration here of something that happens all too often in that community at present. Rather than bend their minds to ways they might collectively resist the government’s reforms, many academics are, as Pears put it in his piece for the LRB, choosing instead to continue their ‘habitual struggle to game the system as best they can’. They do it, just as some of them accept positions of responsibility for implementing the reforms in their departments, because they are afraid for their own positions if they do not. This is understandable; it's understandable, too, that academics feel exhausted, and demoralised, and just want to be left alone to get on with their jobs. But the result, for all the one-day strikes, all the petitions and polemics and angry conversations in the corridors, is a community divided against itself as never before. It’s the oldest and easiest trick in the book – divide and rule – and academics, who are unused to the grit of politics and have little taste for it, haven’t yet found the means, or the shared will, to fight back.


  • 30 March 2011 at 6:32pm
    alex says:
    It's not just the AHRC's ethics that are being undermined; their grammar is also increasingly shaky. See how they write that they 'refute' the allegations, when they mean 'deny' or 'rebut'.

    • 1 April 2011 at 12:24pm
      simonpawley says: @ alex
      I know this is a bit tangential, but if this usage is wrong, then it is a commonly made mistake. The OED includes this kind of usage as possible, though adds a note saying that some consider it to be wrong:

      "Refute... 5. trans. To reject (an allegation, assertion, report, etc.) as without foundation; to repudiate.
      Note: Criticized as erroneous in usage guides in the 20th cent. In many instances it is unclear whether there is an implication of argument accompanying the assertion that something is baseless."

    • 1 April 2011 at 9:45pm
      alex says: @ simonpawley
      Even if technically justifiable, the usage gets my goat because it claims the status of proof without (or before) the actual demonstration.

  • 30 March 2011 at 10:24pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    There was a time, and not that long ago, when academic departments were governed by senior academics, who were as likely to circumvent or palliate the edicts of HR as to implement them. Unfortunately a layer of professional management has grown over the last few years, and managerial groupthink has been brought inside the walls.

    • 1 April 2011 at 2:11pm
      will says: @ Phil Edwards
      Fair enough - but the point here is more that academics in the humanities (and I write as one) have allowed the layer to grow, having accepted that research productivity, and the gaining the means to achieve research productivity (research chairs, matching private grants etc that take them away from day to day university business) are the much the most important way of measuring their achievements. We've not been interested in running universities and in part this is the consequence.

  • 1 April 2011 at 2:51am
    Harry Stopes says:
    I have no special insight into the inner workings of the AHRC, but Tom Sutcliffe's views, which you quote, seem plausible. Everybody in the humanities can see the way in which things are going, for the moment at least, and maybe some people are going along with them. A friend, interviewing recently for AHRC funding in History at one of the London universities was asked of his thesis proposal how it would relate to people outside of the discipline, what it could possibly say about modern society. In the words of the questioner, "who cares?"

    • 1 April 2011 at 8:03am
      alex says: @ Harry Stopes
      Harry, I don't actually have a problem with a question like that. It's just asking someone studying a specific topic to try and think about how it could have significance to people beyond the immediate field. Historical or other humanities research can speak to present needs. But that's totally different from saying it should focus on (and, one assumes, endorse) a particular government's ideology.

    • 1 April 2011 at 10:54am
      alex says: @ Harry Stopes
      PS here is a website showing how history, for instance, can (in most but not all cases, reasonably) inform public policy:

    • 1 April 2011 at 11:12am
      Harry Stopes says: @ alex
      I agree with you there, I'm not isolationist about history. I think what struck my friend was that the question was framed in terms of 'we're under pressure, how would you defend yourself.' It wasn't an invitation to think positively and expansively about relevance and connections outside the discipline, so much as a push to be negative and to have a justification - a justification on terms that were set outside the discipline.

    • 1 April 2011 at 1:04pm
      alex says: @ Harry Stopes
      OK, we are more or less in agreement. But I must say I find some colleagues reluctant or unprepared to defend or define what they do. The other day I talked to a professor I much respect, who thought it was wrong or restrictive to attempt to produce a definition of history or a statement of its value. Others are against foregrounding skills (see Robert Tombs in this issue's Letters page). I also read a Philosophy don writing that the purpose of philosophy courses is to train future philosophers, without thinking that millions outside the discipline might benefit from their wisdom. I find that deeply bemusing and ultimately I don't think it serves the interests of the Humanities.

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