Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Iain Pears on the AHRC and Big Society

. . . can be found here. A terrific commentary as usual. An excerpt:

"[. . .] The English Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) is back in the news once more, attracting more unfavourable and damaging attention for no necessary reason.

There is now a very real possibility that assessors of research proposals will shortly begin to resign en masse to protest against its policies; opposition Labour party politicians are, finally, beginning to badger the government about interfering with research, and the minister in charge of universities, David Willetts, has signalled that he is unsupportive of the Council’s approach.

[. . .] For the government, this is a nuisance it can do without at a time when its policies on Higher Education are mired in controversy. It has already been forced to retreat on a raft of measures – selling forests, prison policy, the National Health Service – and it needs a display of resolve if it is not to be deemed weak-willed and spineless. Higher Education, unfortunately, looks as though it will be the sector called upon to provide that proof.

The government does not need its position weakened by a controversy for which, for once, it is not responsible. The move to back the “Big Society” does indeed seem as though it was little more than a piece of amateur manoeuvring of the sort normally associated with student politics. It was neither necessary, nor required to gain funding – the ESRC won its money without a display of servility -- and it is now a political liability.

So David Willetts signalled as clearly as politicians ever signal anything that he wants the AHRC to close the matter down. In an article the Times Higher Education Supplement at the end of May, he wrote:

“Our commitments on teaching and research also respect the autonomy of universities and have avoided any pernicious temptation to steer the money towards ministers' pet priorities (although the research councils will doubtless want to reflect on the hazards of referring at all to current political slogans!).”

Only the head of a research council could fail to take the meaning in Willetts' remark -- not least because if one of the architects of the "Big Society" can refer to it as a political slogan, it becomes that much more difficult to maintain that it is, in fact, a serious subject for academic research. [. . .]"

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