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While much time and attention has been devoted recently to scrutinizing the government’s proposals on fees and teaching funding, important changes have already been implemented to the way in which our research funding is spent – and although some science blogs and spokespeople have raised the alarm, humanities scholars have almost totally overlooked this issue.

As we know, arts and humanities research funding has been ring-fenced – or at least ‘flat-cashed’ – along with science research funding, and this achievement has been hailed by the leaderships of the AHRC and the British Academy as a vindication of their canny strategy of piggybacking onto public support for science research.  However, there are costs as well as benefits of this strategy.  In a recent statement by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) on ‘The Allocation of Science and Research Funding, 2011/12-2014/15’ (December 2010), BIS now tells us how this ring-fenced research funding is to be spent.  That’s right, it tells us how it is to be spent.

One of the highlights of the BIS statement is its ‘clarification’ – i.e. its re-writing, or some would say its neutering – of the ‘Haldane Principle’, the convention accepted by government since 1918 that (to quote the BIS statement’s version) ‘decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers themselves through peer review’.  Now, as the historian of science David Edgerton has argued, it was never as simple as that, and the Haldane Principle has been shown to be highly flexible for some time.  The last government, for example, found it easy to bribe the AHRC and the British Academy with extra funds if these bodies responded to the government agenda by themselves reserving some of their research funds for government priorities.  In this way we have had a growing number of ‘directed programmes’ in which the funders channelled research money to intellectual priorities that obviously originated with government, such as ‘social cohesion’ and ‘social inclusion’;  we have also had the ‘impact agenda’ by which funders agreed to require from funding recipients demonstrations of economic (and, if we were lucky, social and cultural) impact again on criteria originating from government.

But it did still matter that the Haldane Principle was there to be respected.  Successive leaderships of the AHRC have told us repeatedly that the directed programmes were just icing on the cake, releasing more funding for ‘responsive’ programmes, where the choice of projects to be funded was determined purely by peer review.

As of now, this is no longer the case.  In its latest document BIS restates its support for the Haldane Principle but also offers a ‘further clarification’, based on consultation with ‘senior figures’.  This clarification establishes the new principle – perhaps it should be the Cable Principle? – that government can and should set ‘key national strategic priorities’ which should guide the research funders ‘without crowding out other areas of their missions’.  Peer review remains supreme in deciding which specific proposals best address these priorities, but the priorities now can and will come from government.

What does this mean in practice?  The BIS document specifies this in certain cases with devastating clarity.  The AHRC for example ‘will direct’ – is this a prediction or an order? – ‘a significant part of its funding into six strategic areas…communities and big society;  civic values and active citizenship, including ethics in public life;  creative and digital economy;  cultural heritage;  language-based disciplines;  and interdisciplinary collaborations with a range of STEM subjects’.  Those are, says BIS, ‘the highest priorities in arts and humanities’.  Thanks for letting us know.  In certain respects instructions to the British Academy have been still more specific.  The Academy’s support for individuals is supposed to complement the research councils’ support for team projects, but the Academy has been told summarily to abandon its small research grants (which have probably been the best value-for-money grants government has ever funded for humanities research, but – obviously their fatal flaw –  purely ‘responsive’ to individuals’ own choice of research topics).  Instead, the Academy has been told to focus on postdoctoral awards, both early and mid-career, ‘that contribute to national priorities’.  In another piece of fancy prosaic footwork, BIS tells us that ‘The Academy expects a majority of Postdoctoral Fellowship awards to be linked to challenges such as these.’  I don’t think the Academy’s ‘expectation’ was a spontaneous one.  And what happened to the stipulation that national priorities should not crowd out other missions?

Now of course in a democracy we want government to have powers to direct research according to priorities chosen by the electorate.  As the BIS document says, lots of important research decisions necessarily involve government input – they decide how much money is allocated overall, and some allocations are so large (e.g. for the most expensive scientific research establishments) that surely government must have some say in them.  As the document further says, government departments can and do commission their own research.  But in a democracy we also want our universities to be insulated from undue government pressure – we want universities to be centres of free enquiry, diverse, critical and independent.  The Haldane Principle did establish some crucial arm’s-length independence for academic research which has been in part responsible for the extraordinary degree of freedom fostered in British academic culture in the postwar period – which has made it the global competitor that it still is, just about, today, and also has been the source of much novelty and creativity that no government department can plan for (as one would expect Conservative governments to recognize).  We ought not to give it up without a fight.

One reason why there has been no fight is also made clear in the BIS document.  The only spokespeople we have had for the humanities – the British Academy and the AHRC – are now so completely enmeshed in the government apparatus that they no longer have any independent voice.  So far as I can tell, no-one in either of these bodies has consulted or spoken out on the issue of the Haldane Principle;  presumably some must have been among the ‘senior figures’ consulted, but all of this consultation now takes place behind closed doors, and is deeply compromised by the carrots and sticks at the government’s disposal.  Similarly, although the BIS document says that ‘in making strategic decisions on the funding of research’ it is important that government ‘take account of advice from a wide variety of expert sources, including academia and industry, both nationally and internationally’ – if this happened in making the strategic decisions now laid out for us for the next 5 years, I missed it, and I certainly missed any public discussion emanating from the British Academy on what these national priorities should be.  The BIS document calls the British Academy ‘an important source of authoritative, impartial advice’.  Does anyone believe this description any longer?  Clearly we need a truly independent voice for the humanities that is not beholden to government in any way.

Postscript:  the BIS document also notes, with some evident regret, that HEFCE (and thus the QR funding it distributes via the RAE/REF) is not subject to its ‘national priorities’ because the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act prohibits government from attaching ‘terms and conditions on grants to HEFCE’ with reference to particular programmes of research.  Should we expect in pending legislation reorganizing HEFCE a ‘clarification’ of that prohibition too?

Peter Mandler
Dr. Mandler is Professor of Modern Cultural History at Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge University.  He is the Vice President of the Royal Historical Society.

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We need a Public Commission of Enquiry on the future of higher education
Michael Collins, 25 November 2010

It is clear from the scale of yesterday’s largely peaceful demonstrations and occupations across Britain that there is an enormous amount of concern amongst young people – school children and university students – over the future of higher education. They are not alone.

There is a growing sense of unease in academic circles about what the Browne report’s plans to increase undergraduate tuition fees by almost six thousand pounds per year will mean. More specifically, how will a marketised ‘supply and demand’ model for arts and humanities funding really function in practice?  The proposed withdrawal of the teaching grant for arts and humanities and the replacement of this lost revenue with a user fee would have devastating effects leading to the loss of jobs, institutions and expertise that would not be recovered once they had been cut.

Education and research institutions cannot be set up, shut down and restarted according to the vagaries of market demand. British universities do not benefit from the enormous endowments of American institutions, which can help them adapt to change. With so much uncertainty about future employment prospects and economic conditions, student numbers will ebb and flow. How can university vice-chancellors, deans of faculties and heads of departments plan their research and teaching on such shifting ground? Higher education needs much greater stability and continuity, and the long-term consequences of ill-conceived change could be immensely damaging.

As many of us have argued, it is essential to restate the wider social, intellectual, moral and political values of the arts and humanities, as well as point out the falsity of any division between arts and humanities on the one side and supposedly economically valuable sciences on the other. In short, we must recognise that humanities matter, just as we have acknowledged that ‘science is vital’. However, as well as making these wider arguments the immediate political context in which this government is proposing to implement reforms in higher education remains a central problem.

In its response to the Browne report the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) – a respected independent think tank – has pointed out that “in cash terms the proposals will increase public expenditure through this parliament and into the next”. This is a very obvious fact that is too frequently ignored. The fee that students pay is not ‘up front’, but has to be funded by the government. They will effectively be given a loan to purchase a higher education product. The income stream from repayments – which is supposed to form the long term basis for higher education funding – will not come back to the treasury for many years to come.

This completely demolishes the argument that current changes to higher education funding are concurrent with a deficit reduction strategy in the spirit of “we are all in this together”. The changes will mean a real terms increase in government spending, and hence can only be explained by reference to the coalition’s ideological commitment to market-led reforms, regardless of the cost to the public purse. Regrettably, government ministers have repeatedly made rhetorical links between increasing tuition fees and deficit reduction, and the media has too frequently allowed this fallacy to inform its reporting and its lines of questioning.

Under present circumstances the government must think again about seeking to push through reforms which may do very substantial damage to our higher education sector. There is no economic case to be made that these reforms are part of an urgent solution to reducing Britain’s budget deficit. Given the promises made by coalition partners at the 2010 general election, there is also no political mandate for change. There is widespread fear, anger and confusion.

An alternative idea is to draw back from reform based on the Browne report and opt for a Public Commission. This may be politically difficult, but will become more palatable if opposition to the coalition’s plans is increased from all sides. It is unfortunate that public money has already been spent on producing a report into this matter, but Browne is a wholly inadequate basis on which to move forward. It is also clear that all three major political parties need to take more time to re-think their positions on higher education funding.

The government should therefore set up a Public Commission to examine the function and funding of higher education from first principles. Only such a move could produce the kind of consensus required to make reform deliverable and place the future of UK higher education on a sustainable footing.

Michael Collins is lecturer in twentieth century British history at UCL.

Michael Collins writes in a purely personal capacity and his views in no way reflect those of UCL.

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