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After BrowneIain Pears

Attempts to alter the government’s policy on tuition fees have failed. Dreamed up by Labour, then embraced by the new Coalition government, the proposed reforms triggered large student demonstrations, but these had no impact on any constituency of real influence either in the universities or in politics. Many university vice-chancellors, terrified by the prospect of sizeable deficits, have backed the changes, more or less reluctantly.

It is a peculiar government which lambasts people for getting into debt, then forces them to take on much more; which goes on about the need for an educated workforce, then makes that education more expensive; which attacks bureaucracy, then introduces an even more cumbersome system for the administration of loan payments and repayments, bursaries, partial grants, transfers of money between individuals, government and universities, and so on.

But these are not the only contradictions in a policy which shows every sign of being hastily cobbled together. In both health and education, ministers are hurrying to introduce reforms before they run out of energy and time. In education, they first modified a set of measures inherited from Labour, then modified them again to keep the Liberal Democrats on board. The result is an incoherent mess. The Coalition is creating a market in higher education, but is already interfering in an attempt to rig that market. It has freed universities to charge higher fees, only to announce that it will not allow too many to do so. It is moving from setting targets for the social mix of student applications – which is allowed under Fair Access legislation – to setting quotas for admissions, even though it has no legal authority to do this. And under cover of reasserting the Haldane Principle – the century-old understanding that research should be protected from political interference – it is pursuing a stealthy policy of undermining it.

To manage this revolution, the government is contemplating creating a super-quango with powers to direct the internal affairs of universities, which are precisely the sort of extra-state, autonomous institution that it is supposed to be freeing from the shackles of regulation. The Higher Education Council proposed by Lord Browne in last October’s review would be able to define and enforce standards; fund particular courses and shape what is taught in them; specify teaching hours; take over or shut down institutions it decides are failing; impose ‘access commitments’; set targets for drop-out rates; set admission requirements and adjudicate student complaints. The market the government has in mind is one in which it will determine demand, supply, what is sold and at what price. Powers on such a scale would grossly expand a bureaucracy which already causes a great deal of work for academics and weighs heavily on university budgets. They would also extinguish all meaningful independence in higher education. These proposals have no parallel anywhere in the Western world.

On 20 December, in response to disquiet from the research agencies, the government issued a Written Ministerial Statement asserting that ‘prioritisation of an individual research council’s spending within its allocation is not a decision for ministers.’ But this was followed by so many get-outs that it offered no real safeguards at all. These allow the government to divert money to ‘key national priorities’ – which it can set – and provide for no appeal against its directives. Governments have always had priorities, of course: an administration has the right to commission, say, research into nuclear fusion. This government, however, seems to be going further, using its control of the purse strings to enforce compliance with a political agenda.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council, for example, has been instructed to direct a ‘significant’ part of its funding into six strategic research areas which have been defined for it. Some of these areas have little to do with either the arts or the humanities – ‘civic values and active citizenship’, for example. Other proposals have a political slant: of particular concern is the unelaborated instruction, in a document issued by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, that ‘AHRC will systematically address issues relating to … cultural renewal contributing to the “Big Society” initiative.’

The British Academy has also come under pressure to allocate funds according to government priorities, rather than to what it thinks are the most promising research proposals. It has also been told that it must no longer give out the small grants used to finish off individual projects, although they have proved the cheapest and most cost-effective way of funding research in the humanities (the recipients were selected by a committee of the academy’s fellows, working for free). Stopping such grants is a clear breach of the academy’s independence.

The response of the research councils to all this has been anaemic. This is true not least of their reaction to the issue of ‘impact’. Henceforth a significant part of the assessment of a researcher’s worth – and funding – will be decided according to the impact on society that his or her work is seen to have. The problem is that impact remains poorly defined; it isn’t clear how it will be measured, and the weighting given to it in the overall assessment has been plucked out of the air. It is a bad policy: it will damage research in the sciences and corrupt it in the humanities, as academics will have a strong financial incentive to become liars. Despite the doubts expressed by David Willetts, the minister for universities and science, the institutional momentum behind it has proven to be unstoppable: Hefce recently announced that the measure will go ahead unchanged. ‘Impact’ will account for 20 per cent of an academic’s assessment, but will in effect act as a ‘swing vote’ deciding who will, and who will not, receive funding.

If no one really knows what impact is, it is at least clear what it isn’t: scholarship is seen as of no significance. What the government and Hefce are interested in is work that is useful, in a crudely defined way, for business or policy-making. The effects on the sciences will be unfortunate. Last month Thomson-Reuters published a list of the top 100 chemists in the world. Only four are British, and at least one of these gained his place on the list for work that would not be found to have sufficient impact to warrant a grant under the new system. The effect of impact will be to force researchers to focus even more than they do already on research that pays off – or can be made to appear as if it does – within the assessment cycle, rather than on fundamental work whose significance might take years, even decades, to be appreciated.

Objections that these changes will accelerate the decline of British science have been met with silence. Letters to ministers have gone unanswered or produced only a brush-off; it is asserted instead, without evidence, that the proposals are supported by the academic community. A letter denouncing impact and signed by nine Nobel Prize winners and 24 members of the Royal Society has been ignored. Indeed, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council cited the physicist André Geim as a good example of the virtues of impact assessment, even though Geim had signed the letter opposing it.

Impact will be bad for the sciences, but for the humanities it will be cruel. The intellectual bankruptcy of what is coming can be gauged by a pamphlet produced by the British Academy last June. A short text published in defence of the humanities used the word ‘impact’ 64 times, and highlighted a Humanities for Business programme offering modules to companies like Unilever on topics such as Machiavelli and entrepreneurial success, Rousseau and modern marketing, and inspirational leadership in Shakespeare’s Henry V. Hefce’s pilot assessment noted with approval that one researcher had been called ‘the next David Attenborough’ in the Radio Times, and that the work of another, involving a Henry VIII Twitter feed, had led Which? magazine to name Hampton Court as a Top Heritage Day Out. The future, it seems, lies not in original research, still less in teaching, but in consultancy work, journalism and guided tours.

A less trivial approach to the humanities would involve a proper programme of reform, not tinkering designed to square Conservative wishes with Liberal Democrat needs. And it would require more directness from people in the humanities, rather than their habitual struggle to game the system as best they can. Research in the humanities has little direct economic or social impact in the crude and reductive fashion that Hefce and civil servants wish to impose, and this has to be admitted. To pretend otherwise is a fraud, and to divert resources into ‘outreach’ programmes with no purpose except to satisfy the regulators and acquire funding is a gross waste of money and a perversion of the purpose of research.

That the importance of the humanities cannot be registered on a spreadsheet shows the limitations of spreadsheets, not of the disciplines being measured. With a few exceptions, published research is not designed to be widely disseminated. If the government wanted research to have a real ‘social impact’ it would encourage the broadest possible range of inquiry, unhampered by a bureaucrat’s definition of utility; it would attack the vast and increasingly authoritarian apparatus which has come to distort research across the academic disciplines; and it would lighten the administrative burden on universities, not increase it.

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Vol. 33 No. 8 · 14 April 2011

Iain Pears makes a characteristically spirited attack on government policy on higher education (LRB, 17 March). However, some parts of his attack miss the target.

1. Higher Education Council. Pears says: ‘The government is contemplating creating a super-quango with powers to direct the internal affairs of universities, which are precisely the sort of extra-state, autonomous institution that it is supposed to be freeing from the shackles of regulation.’

This is to confuse a proposal with policy. The British Academy is among the many bodies that have opposed the creation of a single monolithic Higher Education Council as proposed by Lord Browne. It appears likely that this proposal, like some others in the Browne Review, will be significantly altered by the time the government’s White Paper on higher education appears.

2.British Academy grant schemes. Pears writes: ‘The British Academy has … come under pressure to allocate funds according to government priorities, rather than to what it thinks are the most promising research proposals. It has also been told that it must no longer give out the small grants used to finish off individual projects, although they have proved the cheapest and most cost-effective way of funding research in the humanities.’

We argued strongly for the retention of the scheme, and we are continuing to make the case for it. While we regard the end of funding for it as unfortunate, it is hardly in itself improper for government to decide what types of scheme it is prepared to fund. We remain in dialogue with ministers, officials and others over this issue. Dialogue and engagement are not to be confused with supine obeisance.

Meanwhile, our new mid-career fellowships scheme, which replaces the small grants scheme, will support outstanding researchers and also outstanding communicators. Fellows of the academy, not the government, will decide who receives these or any other awards. Certain priorities specified for some of these awards – languages, for example – are ones for which the British Academy has campaigned for years, and are not impositions on us from government.

3. Impact. Pears makes some telling criticisms of the ‘impact’ agenda which is being implemented as part of the forthcoming research assessment. However, he goes too far when he writes: ‘Impact will be bad for the sciences, but for the humanities it will be cruel. The intellectual bankruptcy of what is coming can be gauged by a pamphlet produced by the British Academy last June.’

What he fails to note is that the British Academy itself played a leading part in reframing the notion of ‘impact’, and limiting its role, arguing that the notion of ‘public value’ was a better way of identifying the benefits of particular subjects and disciplines. This was reflected in the title of the publication about which he complains: Past, Present and Future: The Public Value of the Humanities and Social Sciences. In addition, the academy formally criticised the proposal in the new Research Excellence Framework that 25 per cent of the weighting should be allocated according to ‘impact’ criteria, calling for a maximum of 15 per cent instead. However, we do believe that visible research outputs and a commitment to public engagement are vitally important in order to maintain support for public investment in science and research, and make no apologies for saying so.

4. Research funding. Pears fails to mention two important facts. In response to a strong campaign waged by academies and universities, the government has maintained research funding for social sciences and humanities at steady-state level for the next four years. In addition the quality-related research funding, on which humanities and social science research disproportionately relies, has not only been maintained, but also ring-fenced. In an era of large cuts in public spending these results are remarkable. The British Academy is proud to have had a significant and, yes, independent role in contributing, along with many others, to these welcome outcomes.

There remains much to worry about in what Pears calls the ‘hastily cobbled together’ changes in government policy towards higher education. I would highlight some issues not mentioned by Pears in his article. First, the threat to foreign language provision. Courses tend to require four years’ study, and are therefore in a tough position when student loans are so high. Already in recent years there have been closures of language departments. More may be at risk. Second, the implications of the new student funding system for UK students wanting to go on to postgraduate studies. They will be in serious debt and there are no new funding support arrangements for them. Third, restrictions on student and staff visas. These are likely to have an adverse effect on the hitherto impressive record of UK universities in attracting overseas students and staff. These are among the many issues on which the British Academy has pressed, and will continue to press, the government.

Adam Roberts
President, British Academy, London SW1

Vol. 33 No. 9 · 28 April 2011

Adam Roberts’s suavely patronising response to the ‘characteristically spirited’ Iain Pears will not do (Letters, 14 April). His attempts, as president of the British Academy, to dispel the anxieties expressed by Pears and felt by many arts academics and intellectuals cover up a failure of leadership. To take a key example, Roberts writes that the British Academy ‘played a leading part in reframing the notion of “impact"’. He makes no apology, he says, for engaging with the issue, and congratulates himself on having argued that the proposed weighting for impact in the new Research Excellence Framework should be reduced from 25 per cent to 15 per cent. (It won’t be.) However, the argument made by Pears and many others is that the impact agenda is inherently damaging to arts research (and indeed, all research). It should not be modified, reformed or ‘engaged with’: it should be rejected wholesale as detrimental to the intellectual activity that the British Academy and the research councils exist to promote and defend. Had the impact agenda not been imposed, would Roberts independently have proposed it as a good thing? If it is a good thing, then why didn’t he and his BA fellows come up with it many years ago? Or did he simply need prompting by the government in order to see that impact would enhance our research, but only if we rename it ‘public value’? Does he really believe that the government will alter its own crude version of this, in which public value or ‘benefit’ (the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s preferred retitling of impact) is construed as ‘producing an immediate economic return’?

Pears also criticised the AHRC for allowing the Big Society ideological agenda to become a funding priority. The AHRC’s defence is that Connected Communities (the research programme at issue here, which is also supported by several other research councils) predates the election, and is therefore ideologically neutral. However, in June last year, just after the formation of the new government, the AHRC held its first summit on the programme. Shearer West, the AHRC’s director of research, gave a presentation which set the scene for the programme explicitly in terms of the Big Society framework. The only other presentation archived on the AHRC website from that summit was given by Bert Provan of the Department of Communities and Local Government. His title: ‘Connected Communities; or, “Building the Big Society"’.

While Adam Roberts is right to insist that the British Academy should engage with government, it is a great pity that such engagement never seems to take the form of saying no. The supposed pragmatism of engagement and of reforms that never work trumps the argument from principle every time. It is this failure to argue from principle that provokes despair and anxiety among those who are trying to maintain the integrity of higher education.

Thomas Docherty
University of Warwick

I was forcibly reminded of Iain Pears’s warnings of the coalition’s attempt to ‘extinguish all meaningful independence in higher education’ when I recently learned how Cambridge University, my own institution, plans to maximise its returns in 2013 (Letters, 14 April). There are staff whose whole lives are now devoted to working the system and we are being forced to follow suit. There is, of course, tremendous pressure to conform, not least with regard to one of the most worrying developments, the spurious measurement of ‘impact’. I have been asked to produce a pilot example of how the research of one member of my department (East Asian Studies) has had influence on the wider world and in doing so I must avoid any mention of the quality of the research. The guidelines too place a premium on presentation rather than substance. They are eloquent testimony to our betrayal of precisely the standards we try to instil in our students.

All institutions, all vice chancellors, should refuse to play the game and submit nil returns under the impact heading, but this won’t happen because we are simultaneously pusillanimous and venal and will play the game in the hope that our own fictions will prove to be more persuasive than those of others. How can I face graduates and urge them with a straight face to enter a profession that is so easily suborned? The concept of a community of scholars has been replaced by a system designed to set university against university in a fight for what money remains on the table after most of it has been frittered away. We shall all suffer for our willingness to participate in this cynical game, which leaves our European and North American counterparts amazed at what is happening and waiting with open arms for the talent that will continue to flow their way.

Richard Bowring
University of Cambridge

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