Arts and Humanities still autonomous despite allegations of government ransom

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An article published in The Observer claiming that Arts and Humanities research must be targeted towards issues at the heart of the Big Society has prompted the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to absolutely reject the claims.

The alleged refocusing of Arts and Humanities aims has caused many in academic circles to voice concerns over government control. Furthermore, a senior Lancaster academic has spoken out strongly against government interference in academia and the current trajectory of the research funding system.

The article in question, published on March 27, claims that “[a]cademics will study the Big Society as a priority, following a deal with the Government to secure funding from cuts” and that “the AHRC was told that research into the Big Society was non-negotiable if it wished to maintain its funding at £100m a year.”
The Big Society is Prime Minister David Cameron’s election pledge to promote community development and give more responsibility to local authorities. It has been criticised by commentators and political opponents for a lack of clarity. The article claims that “[O]ne of the tasks of research, according to the AHRC’s delivery plan, will be to define “difficult-to-pin-down” values [of the Big Society].”

If it were the case that the Government was thus directing academic research, this would represent a significant undermining of the Haldane Principle, a principle in academia which states that research should be directed by academics and not by politicians. According to The Observer, there has been a Government “clarification” of the Haldane Principle: “under the revised principle, research bodies must work to the Government’s national objectives,” it claims.

Senior national academics quoted in the article showed concern over this prospect, which has the potential to damage “curiosity research” and “blue-sky thinking,” as well as impose party politics into academia. “With breath-taking speed, a slogan for one political party has become translated into a central intellectual agenda for the academy,” observed one anonymous Oxford University academic.

An article published on the AHRC website makes clear the Council’s complete rejection of the article’s claims. “The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) unconditionally and absolutely refutes the allegations reported in the Observer,” it states, continuing to say that “we did NOT receive our funding settlement on condition that we supported the Big Society.”

The AHRC statement suggests that any appearance of their research being directed towards the Big Society is merely coincidental. It says that “The AHRC has been working for over two years, since 2008, with four other research councils, on the Connected Communities Research Programme”, which has at its core research into the nature of communities and ways of enhancing the quality of life.

“These issues are of major concern. They also happen to be relevant to debates about the Big Society which came two years later,” the statement argues. “To imply that these important areas for investigation constitute a Government-directed research programme is false.”

Lancaster University’s Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research Professor Trevor McMillan echoed the AHRC’s denial. He also expressed concern that “two basic principles” be met. These are “that there will always be a level of responsive mode funding that allows bright innovative ideas by our academics to be developed and secondly that research excellence is at the heart of all funding judgements.”

However, one senior Lancaster academic has spoken strongly against the role of research councils, criticising them for restricting the freedom of individual researcher and departments. Dr Robert Appelbaum, Head of the English and Creative Writing Department, distanced himself from the AHRC statement.

“Clearly the Government is forcing us to do research in one way rather than another and I think it’s a violation of academic freedom and I think it’s a very big threat to the condition of universities in Britain,” he said.

Dr Appelbaum does not equate the issue specifically with the Big Society, but blamed the previous Government for the current condition of research funding. “Labour started the problem and now the Tory Government is making it worse,” he said.

He also challenged the AHRC’s defence that it is encouraging research into communities. “The very question about community formation is already a loaded question, a non-scientific question. All of the direction research that I’ve seen from the AHRC in the past five years has been loaded, it has not been value-neutral.”
Appelbaum criticised the AHRC for making researchers “do a song and dance” in order to gain funding, also commenting that “the AHRC can say what they want but they’re part of a system where the Government tries to dictate not just the quality but also the kind and the content of our research.” He was also keen to stress that this is not just a personal grievance, adding that “you see it again and again that peoples’ ambitions are thwarted because they have to fit to the boxes of the research councils.”

In the context of funding cuts, the AHRC have indicated that their onus is upon producing research which will impact upon society as a whole. Another statement on their website states that “[l]ike other funders of research, including charities and foundations, we believe that research has responsibilities towards public life and contributes directly to the general good.” Pro-Vice Chancellor Trevor McMillan acknowledged the potential significance of this to research at Lancaster, appearing optimistic about it.

“Research funding will be tougher to get but if we continue to be world-class at what we do, we collaborate well and we recognize the applicability of our research when appropriate, then we will continue to thrive as one of the best research universities in the county,” he said.

However Dr Appelbaum is more critical of “impact research,” claiming that his department is under pressure to produce this but that “it has nothing to do with creating good literature and good analysis of literature. […] You have to put quality first and excellent first, not popularity,” he argues.

Dr Appelbaum is pessimistic about the implications of these issues for research funding and the current direction of the system. “If the trend continues then academic Britain will be a joke; it’ll be overpriced, it’ll be victimised by brain-drain, the quality of the student body will decline and the quality of research above all will decline,” he said.

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