Bullying universities into the ‘Big Society’ ideology

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As critical as I am of the Conservative Party, I like the idea of the Big Society. The idea that there is a national framework to aid with volunteering, to allow the public to shape society in the way they want it to be shaped is not something that I feel the need to fight against. The only issue that I could have with it is the way that it can be used to hide government cuts.

The Big Society is Cameron’s manifesto baby. Photo by the Prime Minister’s Office

However, recent reports have speculated that the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), who distribute funding amongst universities, have given in to government pressure. Universities, according to the report in the Observer, will need to direct money at researching the Big Society or suffer a loss of funding. This comes following a revision of the Haldane principle, where academics choose where funding is allocated, which states that research bodies must work to the government’s national objectives.

There is some contention as to wheather this pressure has actually been applied, but even the possibility is a complete violation of the way research is supposed to be done. It is true that money should be placed where needed, but where it is needed must be decided by academics who know their fields, not by the government. It is not the place of government to order academics to research a party’s policy, blackmailing them with the threat to reduce funding.

Essentially, academics would be working to help secure a single party’s place in government or to face issues with securing funding for individual research projects.

The fact that the government has essentially thrown out the Haldane principle and started throwing its weight around in academic circles is shameful, and their insistence that they have merely redrafted the Haldane principle has been labelled a lie by many academics, for instance those in the Royal Historical Society and various universities.

The biggest problem with the government’s imposition of research goals is that research into the Big Society is something that will support the party leading the government, to the detriment of all other parties. If the government is prioritising their own policies as research goals, then that is an abuse of power, using the resources of government to help a single party to be re-electable. The Big Society at the moment it is little more than Conservative Party rhetoric. Research into this rhetoric, its definition and application, turning it from a vague idea into a solid concept, would benefit the Conservative-led government.

However, the transformation of the Big Society into a solid concept would also have benefits for us ourselves. For example, the implementation of the Big Society Bank to support volunteer work, an improved framework, would substantially help with volunteering in Britain. Furthermore, it could be said that the government has a right to choose where their money goes, which would then allow scrutiny if this doesn’t reap rewards. However, blackmailing councils and departments with threats of reduced funding feels almost totalitarian in its implementation: “You don’t have to do what we say, but if you don’t, we will make life hard for you.”

My main issue with this is the fact that a single party’s policy, without any concrete support, could be imposed as the research focus for universities across the country. There is no concrete evidence to say that universities won’t simply be pouring their money away if they choose to research this. I believe that the government has overstepped the mark with this. If the Big Society was truly something that warranted research, the AHRC would fund research anyway. However, if this target is imposed on researchers, it just appears to me to be the Conservatives cementing their place in government, not through the means of the party, but by using the power of government itself.

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  1. I know this was an aside point to the main article and this isn’t an article on the Big Society per se, but there is an issue here that I think is worth having a look at. The people who are opposed to the Big Society aren’t opposed to either national frameworks to aid with volunteering or the right to self-determination of a population. They’re opposed to the distinctly familiar nature of the rhetoric employed, because it’s not really any kind of progressive vision borne out of recent developments in economic theory, political philosophy and activism as New Labour was to a degree. It’s more like a rehash of the rhetoric and policies of the 1980s.

    The attempt to sell the Big Society (which to me sounds more like the title of a Panorama documentary on the obesity crisis than a vision for a country) has a great deal in common with the rhetoric of the US Republicans in the 1980 Presidential election. There’s not much difference between, say, a phrase like “government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem” and Cameron blathering on about how he wants to “take power out of the hands of governments and put them back into the hands of communities.”. The real story is between the lines, though. “Communities” really, for practical purposes, means “businesses.” Citizens rarely have the time, money or motivation to manage big-scale projects. Take the Big Society cause celebré, Hebden Bridge – it takes the town a huge amount of effort and sacrifice to just manage a fairly ramshackle old cinema. It’s not a realistic vision to expect it to pan out over philanthropic ex-government programs. What will happen in reality (and what is intended, as some of the less scrupulous Tory MPs let slip occasionally) is that the marketplace will step in and government programs will either be abandoned, or completely perverted by privatisation.

  2. That is an interesting point, and I agree – the fact is, the simple idea of the “Big Society” is a good idea, but the way in which I see it being implemented – bringing in businesses, using it as a replacement for public services, etc. – is a terrible idea. It makes me think of the way that parent-run schools were championed around the time of the election, which just doesnt make sense to me, as it takes schools out of the hands of people who know what they’re doing, and puts it into the hands of people who don’t – which could be said for a lot of the “Big Society” ideas that the Conservatives have had.

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