Divided and Ruled
Paul Myerscough · The AHRC and the Big Society
In the LRB earlier this month, Iain Pears regretted the government’s progressive undermining of the Haldane principle, ‘the century-old understanding that research should be protected from political interference’, and noted in passing that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) had issued a document stating that the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) ‘will systematically address issues relating to... cultural renewal contributing to the “Big Society” initiative.’
On Sunday, the Observer made quite a bit more capital out of the same story. According to Daniel Boffey, the AHRC had been told ‘research into the “Big Society” was non-negotiable if it wished to maintain its funding at £100m a year.’ Much hand-wringing followed, and much tweeting too. The AHRC issued a testy response the next day, denying that it had been ‘instructed, pressured or otherwise coerced by BIS or anyone else into support’ for the Big Society initiative. And one of the Oberver’s main sources, Peter Mandler, who teaches history at Cambridge, has said:
the Observer misquoted me... I was referring to direct pressure from BIS that I believe was applied to the British Academy, but... the reporter conflated my references to the BA and the AHRC. I don’t know whether there was direct pressure applied to the AHRC – possibly there was – or possibly they don’t need to be pressured any longer.
Iain Pears noticed the vulnerability in the Observer story too. By focusing on the journalistically appealing possibility of direct government coercion, Boffey had missed the true significance of the story, which is, as Mandler suggests, that the AHRC didn’t need to be pressured – because it was already on board. Pears quotes the AHRC’s 'delivery plan' for 2011-15, which explicitly indicates its intentions to contribute to the government’s Big Society agenda. ‘In the case of the AHRC,’ Pears writes, ‘little pressure was necessary: its leadership was all too ready to indulge in sycophantic pandering.’
Tom Sutcliffe in the Independent offers a plausible picture of what might have gone on in the minds of that leadership:
The AHRC, aware that it was operating in a climate of cuts, thought it might be helpful to rephrase part of its mission statement in a way more congenial to its new paymasters. It’s a human enough instinct, after all... where would the harm be in letting the government think we’re on side? Stick it in the document here and there. It’ll make them feel better about signing the cheque, and once we’ve got the money we’ll decide how to spend it as we usually do. And only then did the AHRC find out where the harm lay – as an academic community already maddened by having to fill in 'impact statements' to prove that their research has an effect on wider society... detected another and more serious encroachment on intellectual liberty.
Yet the AHRC itself is made up of members of the academic community. There is an illustration here of something that happens all too often in that community at present. Rather than bend their minds to ways they might collectively resist the government’s reforms, many academics are, as Pears put it in his piece for the LRB, choosing instead to continue their ‘habitual struggle to game the system as best they can’. They do it, just as some of them accept positions of responsibility for implementing the reforms in their departments, because they are afraid for their own positions if they do not. This is understandable; it's understandable, too, that academics feel exhausted, and demoralised, and just want to be left alone to get on with their jobs. But the result, for all the one-day strikes, all the petitions and polemics and angry conversations in the corridors, is a community divided against itself as never before. It’s the oldest and easiest trick in the book – divide and rule – and academics, who are unused to the grit of politics and have little taste for it, haven’t yet found the means, or the shared will, to fight back.