Get your politics out of our research! Universities fight on against 'Big Society' plans

UK universities are under pressure to research one of the government's key policy ideas - but they are resisting. The campaign to remove the 'Big Society' from the AHRC's research delivery plan is crucial for the integrity of higher education
Thom Brooks
17 September 2011

This article is paired with 'What is research for?...' by John Corner.

It was a Monday morning unlike many others. I logged into Facebook in late March and saw several links to a particular story. The Observer had published allegations that the government had applied pressure on the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to include the Conservatives’ Big Society policy idea in its research delivery plan. Never before had a political party’s slogan found its way into the council’s funding plans. Several AHRC Peer Review College members contacted me soon after: should we resign?

Before contemplating this more drastic step, I launched a petition campaign to cut the Big Society out of the AHRC delivery plan for strategic research priorities. The petitions attracted some 4,000+ signatures including Fellows of the British Academy and Royal Society. They were supported by a joint statement agreed by more than 30 learned societies. Our campaign lasted several months and peaked with the resignations of more than 40 senior members of the AHRC Peer Review College, including myself - as outlined by Bob Brecher in his OurKingdom article.

The AHRC greeted our resignations with (relative) public silence. All queries were met with referrals to earlier statements.

Now it appears that the council is keen to draw a line under this issue. We must not let it do so.

The campaign up till now has been a force for much good. We have reminded the council's CEO on several occasions that the reason why so many of us were quick to sign the petitions and contact his office was because we care about the AHRC and its activities. We argued that there was much good will that could be used for positive ends. If the AHRC was to listen to thousands of colleagues and make this small (but highly symbolic) change, then this would be a really positive act, which could provide a foundation of solidarity for the future. Research councils are not democracies, but this need not mean that voices from below should go unnoticed, especially when they raise important points of principle.

Alas, the AHRC remains unconvinced.

So, as a new academic year has started. What should we do next? I suggest the following plan of action to tackle the council’s silence in the face of our campaign:

The first thing we can do is to broaden our solidarity within academia and beyond. This might take the form of a new joint statement that brings together an even wider array of learned societies from the arts and humanities and beyond to include the sciences.

In recent days, we have seen other research councils coming under similar fire. For example, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has been criticized for falsely claiming that it had consulted with the Institute of Physics and Royal Society of Chemistry on new funding plans. Critics claim the council has made little effort to engage their academic community. Anthony Barrett, an organic chemist at Imperial College London, has described the EPSRC as ‘a quango that’s totally out of control’. Such claims highlight a breakdown in trust between research councils and the academic communities they are intended to serve.

If research councils require reform, then we need to demonstrate a clear resolve across academia and its research councils that changes are needed. The general public will never support such an effort if we appear divided or disinterested. There can be many reasons to do nothing, such as the potential consequences of taking a stand, but we should not lose sight of our ambition to ensure that research councils interact and communicate effectively and meaningfully with the academic community.

A second concrete action is more specific and concerns the AHRC’s Code of Practice. The current code has been in place since December 2008. In the section on ‘Openness and accountability’, the Code of Practice clearly states that:

You should ensure you can demonstrate that you are using resources to good effect, with probity, and without grounds for criticism that public funds are being used for private, partisan or party political purposes.

I believe that there is evidence that the AHRC is in breach of its Code of Practice. Its decision to include the ‘Big Society’ in its recent delivery plan has raised unprecedented criticism that public funds are being used for partisan or party political purposes: namely, the contribution to a political party’s campaign slogan.

In a recent letter to me, David Willetts, the universities minister, actually advised me to contact the AHRC on this matter through their complaints and appeals procedure. Colleagues should be encouraged to submit individual complaints about this possible breach of the Code of Practice without delay. There is a Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman for any appeals. We have strength in numbers and together this route may convince the AHRC to remove the Big Society from its delivery plan at last or risk the embarrassment of being forced to make this change by a Parliamentary ombudsman to uphold its own Code of Practice.

There is much more we can do together and through new bridges formed with colleagues elsewhere. Our concerns with the AHRC cohere with the concerns of colleagues working with other research councils. If we have the courage of our convictions and stand together to challenge this grotesque politicisation of our research agendas, then we will have done both our profession and the wider society proud. 

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