More on the AHRC philistines

by Chris Bertram on May 12, 2008

I’ve posted “before”: about the gradgrindesque policy priorities of Britain’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (the main public funding body for the humanities in the UK). My colleague, the philosopher of science James Ladyman, who has been waging something of a campaign on the subject, “has written a piece”: for a blog dedicated to resisting the “marketization and instrumentalization of higher education”.



praisegod barebones 05.12.08 at 2:59 pm

Last time I saw any blogospheric discussion of this, the objection seemed to be that the AHRC was taking money away from the humanities and giving them to the performing arts.

There might be all sorts of things wrong with that – but Gradgrindesque doesn’t seem the right way to characterise either them, or indeed the suggestion, that I have heard – umm, what’s the phrase – ‘informally attributed’ to another colleague of yours that Bristol philosophers should ‘get with the program’ and produce works on Rousseau and the philosophy of quantum mechanics in the medium of modern dance.

That’s, of course, a nitpick and shouldn’t be taken to detract from the importance of the issue, or of what Ladyman has to say.

(Still, if he’d been able to present his points in the medium of modern dance maybe he’d have been able to get AHRC funding for his blog post.)


Dave 05.12.08 at 3:29 pm

The image of James Ladyman performing righteous anger in dance form just made me spray coffee over my laptop. But I seem to remember that puppet shows are more up James’ performing arts street.


Naadir Jeewa 05.12.08 at 10:39 pm

While you’re at it, can someone mention dropping equivalent and lower qualification (ELQ).

The government wants to save £100 million out of a £7.2 billion higher education budget, which would displace a million mature students out of university.

Nothing speaks volumes about the government’s two faced attitude to lifelong learning than that.


seth edenbaum 05.13.08 at 5:22 am

It would make more sense to frame your argument as being against short term and short sighted “practical” instrumentalism in favor of “instrumentalism for instrumentalism’s sake.”
As I’ve said again and again, instrumentalism as such is what this site is about: science as opposed to culture and the intensive study of externalities, and of what you imagine to be externalities, as opposed to the nurturing of a conscientious, ironic, and humane self-awareness. The Humanities in the Anglo-American world, post Sputnik, have become wannabe sciences. Your argument is an argument for “pure” research.

You put yourselves on this slippery slope a few generations ago (or maybe a few hundred years ago).


James Ladyman 05.13.08 at 7:31 am

Dave the problem is muppets not puppets.


Mike Otsuka 05.13.08 at 8:47 am

The AHRC has a CEO. On May 1, he gave a speech defending the severe cutbacks in funding for PhD students and faculty research leave and the accompanying increase in the funding of ‘strategic priority areas, such as the creative economy and heritage’ that have been justly derided by Simon Blackburn and others.

The CEO argues that these policies are necessitated by the fact that the AHRC and the other main governmental sources of funding of arts and humanities in the Universities have recently been placed under a single Department of State – that of Innovation, Universities, and Skills. Since these other sources could fund PhD students and faculty research leave, the AHRC runs the risk of being deemed redundant by the single Secretary of State who now oversees these different sources. Hence, the AHRC now stands in need of a ‘Unique Selling Point’ (the CEO’s phrase, not mine) in order to retain its distinctiveness in the eyes of governmental ministers and civil servants. That USP is the funding of the strategic priority areas. How to fund these? The CEO explains that “The only source of extra resource here was our Postgraduate budget [i.e., PhD and other research students]. Up to now we have been spending about 38% of our budget on postgraduate provision. This is much higher than the other Research Councils, where 30% is a more typical figure. So Council decided to reduce the 38% figure to the still healthy figure of 32% over three years.”

Note the nature of the above case. The CEO doesn’t argue that the quality of research in the arts and humanities will be improved by a diversion of funding into the strategic priority areas. He would have been laughed off the stage if he had tried to do that. Rather his argument comes down to bureaucratic imperative plus a meaningless statistical comparison with the other research councils (meaningless because the budgets of the other research councils are vastly different in size from that of the AHRC, and there are also enormous differences in the proportion of their overall research funding that different disciplines receive from their particular research councils).

The CEO worries that, if the AHRC doesn’t develop a USP, “what would prevent Government just saying, why don’t we give that money to” the other governmental bodies that fund the arts and humanities. Now that would be a disaster for him, since his bureaucracy would lose money. The latest policies of the AHRC make it increasing clear, however, that it would be a good thing for arts and humanities researchers – both PhD students and faculty – if the AHRC were to wither on the vine and its funding diverted to the British Academy and any other body whose leadership is more willing to defend the value of research in the arts and humanities (including the work of the now-much-maligned ‘lone scholar’) and is not so inclined to bend to the latest mindless governmental initiative.

Scholars in British Universities have made extraordinary contributions to the humanities over the past several decades. (Think of their contributions to philosophy, history, and classics, to name just three obvious examples.) They continue to make such contributions in spite of all efforts to herd them into interdisciplinary research teams and the like. They will be around for much longer than this New Labour government, which is now set to expire in 2010. They shouldn’t abandon their values for short-term profit as dictated by the latest governmental incentives scheme. Just sit tight and continue doing what you do best.


MR. Bill 05.13.08 at 11:07 am

Say, rather, not “Gradgrindesque” but “McChockumchildesque”.


MR. Bill 05.13.08 at 11:08 am

Or “McChokeumchild”, to be more correctly Dickenesian.


MR. Bill 05.13.08 at 11:24 am

Wrong, it’s “McChoakumchild”, and I’m not fully awake.


Praisegod Barebones 05.13.08 at 12:32 pm

M’Choakumchild, I think. But you may be right about not being properly awake.

Comments on this entry are closed.