The AHRC and the 'Big Society': reflections on the neo-liberal takeover of the academy

Senior academics across the UK are taking action against the politicisation of research, in response to the announcement that Cameron's 'Big Society' is to be a research funding priority for the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Is this the beginning of a wider resistance from within the institutions against the neo-liberal attack on British universities?
Bob Brecher
28 June 2011

This is the second article in OurKingdom's debate series, 'Capitalism and the University'.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) recently announced that "the Big Society" was to be one of its research funding priorities. Since then it has sought to defuse the growing row over this gross politicisation of research by claiming that it doesn’t impugn academic freedom and was anyway freely chosen, and not imposed by Government. I then resigned as a member of the AHRC’s Peer Review College after a brief exchange of emails with its CEO, Rick Rylance, in the course of which it rapidly became clear that he was sticking with these intended justifications, however disingenuously. Yesterday, another forty-two senior academics resigned from the council. Hopefully many more will follow.


Image: Goodimages

But why the fuss? Why are academics in the arts and humanities taking what is, in the context of British universities, quite unprecedented action? Because how we respond to the AHRC’s brown-nosing pursuit of "the Big Society” agenda is now a touchstone of resistance to the wider neo-liberal attack on critical thinking that is fundamental to the Coalition’s shock and awe programme. It makes no difference whether it’s “the Big Society”, “the Third Way” or “the Great Leap Forward”: once we allow research to be conflated with government propaganda, there is nothing left worth defending. That it should be “our own” – the AHRC – rather than a Minister imposing this corruption is what is particularly insidious. It’s like medical professors putting their name – for a consideration, naturally – to in-house pharmaceutical papers to enable the company to claim them as “research”. And if Rylance and others at the AHRC genuinely can’t see this – if they really are that stupid, naïve or both – then they’re unfit for any academic role at all.

What’s at stake is the instrumentalisation of our universities, whether as tools of government, capital or both. The struggle is over the control, and thus the content and use, of knowledge. Consider the words of John Stuart Mill, the intellectual founding father of “traditional” liberalism:

Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood. Their object is not to make skilful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings. … Education makes a man a more intelligent shoemaker, if that be his occupation, but not by teaching him how to make shoes; it does so by the mental exercise it gives, and the habits it impresses (Inaugural Address to the University of St Andrews, 1867).

And here’s “Lord” Browne, the failed ex-CEO of BP and spear-carrier for the neo-liberal revolutionaries in today’s mandate-free government (Browne Report, 2010, p.14):

Higher education matters because it transforms the lives of individuals. On graduating, graduates are more likely to be employed, more likely to enjoy higher wages and better job satisfaction, and more likely to find it easier to move from one job to the next.   

Education has always served two contrary needs: continuity and renewal. Provided the numbers are small, that’s no problem. The majority of that small minority can be safely relied on to deal with continuity: for centuries, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in particular have performed that task magnificently. And the small minority of the small minority who do concern themselves with renewal are most likely to have in mind only those forms of renewal that serve, rather than undermine, the ruling élites. 

But this internal contradiction means that education, and higher education in particular, presents a problem for contemporary neo-liberal capitalism. As it becomes more technologically complex, so capitalism needs workers with more skills and more information (not knowledge, note); and those workers have to be “flexible”, as Browne so disarmingly tells us. In short, the old division between those fit only for secondary modern schools and those allowed into grammar school needs to go at once deeper and higher. Universities themselves need to instantiate that class divide -- across which a token few may safely be allowed to cross, since they’ll never be a sufficiently large or a sufficiently organised body to constitute a threat. Hence the falsely egalitarian ending of the binary divide between universities and polytechnics in 1992. Hence, too, the supine acceptance of Coalition policy by Universities UK, the Vice-Chancellors’ club, and their craven hangers-on at the AHRC and in the universities; hence, too, “Grayling College”. No wonder the benighted Steve Smith, Chair of UUK, has been knighted; before long it’ll be “Sir Anthony” Grayling too. 

Neo-liberals need to marketise the universities because they need to ensure that most people are taught not to think clearly and not to question what they’re told, in case they rebel. Crucially, if the universities can be made over into vehicles of the neo-liberal creed they’ll do more than most to reproduce and enforce it. Not only will “students” come to believe that everything and everyone is a commodity, but their teachers will become at once products and producers of the same ideology. Only the rich will be able or willing to take on postgraduate work once the rest are already tens of thousands of pounds in debt. The arts, humanities and social sciences, in the few élite institutions in which they remain, will function as finishing schools for the rich, taught – if that’s the right word – by their own. Everything else – from engineering to physics to business to design – will be emptied of critical content, “taught” by people who understand themselves as “delivering” quantifiable commodities to their customers. No wonder the neo-liberal revolutionaries are encouraging the élite universities to go private and forcing the rest into the hands of commercial companies such as Kaplan and BPP.

So what’s to be done? We need to understand the ideological impulse of the government’s attack on universities and not be sidelined by the cost-cutting disguise: compare this one year’s planned bonuses for Deutsche Bank’s employees alone (£4 billion) with the £7.1 billion total current public spending on all the UK’s universities, spending which is to be cut by another £2.9 billion by 2014/15. Students, administrators and academics need to take themselves seriously as members of a university and to join forces with all the other workers, paid and unpaid, whom the fundamentalists around the Cabinet table regard as so much dross. Most pressingly of all, academics have to understand, realise and use the power we have. We must refuse to act as the self-interested egoists too many of us have become and whom the neo-liberals would have us all become; refuse to compete with one another within and across institutions, or with other groups of workers; and make a new reality of what was once known as solidarity. 

Resigning en masse from the AHRC is promising. Let’s hope it presages a refusal to carry on keeping our heads down and delivering our universities to the government on a plate. We have to abandon the traditional “Eichmann position” of British academe. If the AHRC’s idiocy spurs that, it will be a wonderful instantiation of the law of unintended consequences.

Bob Brecher is Professor of Moral Philosophy at University of Brighton.

To sign the petition calling "upon the UK-based Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to remove 'The Big Society' as one of its six strategic areas for research funding", click here.

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