We have had occasion before on this blog and in the pages of the LRB to note the enthusiasm shown by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in helping government to liberate academic research from antiquated notions of free intellectual inquiry. Its latest inspiration is this announcement of opportunities for what it is pleased to call ‘follow-on funding’.
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.
If there’s one thing this World Cup has exposed even more cruelly than the emptiness of England’s footballing pretensions, it’s the shallowness of TV punditry. The assumption that ex-stars - and Lee Dixon - can talk as good a game as they once played is one we know well enough to avoid in other fields. Artists do not generally make good critics. ‘I want whatever he’s having,’ Alan Shearer said after the motor-mouthed broadcaster Danny Baker was allowed onto the BBC sofa for a few minutes a couple of weeks ago. Baker had delivered himself of a few jokes, a string of chancy speculations and one very canny observation: ‘England aren’t playing well enough to go out yet.’ England proved him wrong, as it turned out, by going out playing very badly indeed, but that isn't the point: as a pundit, with that comment, Baker had done the business. Shearer, though, is a void, as uninspired as he is uninformed. He has nothing fresh or insightful to say about why England failed so miserably in South Africa. Why should he? As an ex-England captain, he is part of a long-standing institutional problem, not its solution. Which is why, at the end of the game against Germany, his instinct was to get in ahead of the tabloids with the first kick in the traditional blame game – England failed, so the manager must go.
I think it must have been in 1994 that I first felt relieved England hadn’t qualified for the World Cup finals. Since then I’ve got into my stride; I was positively pleased when they didn’t make it to the Euros in 2008. It’s partly anti-patriotic schadenfreude, I’ll admit; there’s so little to love about the England football team – its style of play, the extra-curricular behaviour of players and fans alike. But more than that it’s being saved from the enervating cycle of rising optimism, hysterical excitement and inevitable disappointment we’re all put through whenever they do make it. Spared the xenophobic front pages, the St George flags flying from car aerials, the blurring of news coverage into sports coverage into news coverage of fans watching sports coverage, you have a chance to enjoy the football for the sake of it, and even to fall in love with a foreign team: Holland in 1978, Cameroon in 1990, France (Zidane!) in 2006, Brazil every time they step on the field. Unfortunately, this time they have made it, so let’s get the Big Question out of the way before the matter gets confused as Gary asks Alan and the Sun asks Steven and some young Tory toady asks David at PMQs. Can England win it?
Staff in the philosophy department at Middlesex University were told last week that they were being shut down. You won’t have read about it in the papers. The numbers are small – just six full-time faculty, a hundred or so students – and it would be easy to imagine that this was the sort of trimming that every university will have to undertake as they respond to Peter Mandelson’s announcement, in December, that cuts of £950 million will be made to the university budget over the next three years. Easy to imagine, too, that the departments forced to close will be those that aren’t doing so well: they will have falling student numbers or mediocre research ratings, perhaps a poor track record attracting grants. Philosophy, though, is the highest-rated research subject at Middlesex; in the most recent research assessment exercise in 2008, the department was ranked 13th out of 41 institutions in the UK, ahead of Warwick, Sussex, Glasgow, Durham and York, and first among the post-1992 universities. Undergraduate applications are healthy; its MA programme is the biggest in the country. Explaining why, despite all these things, philosophy had to go, Ed Esche, dean of the school of arts and humanities, told staff that reputation made no ‘measurable’ contribution to the university: it couldn't be allowed to interfere with their calculations. What, then, does matter?