Friday, 11 March 2011

LRB essay on scholarship, research impact, the Browne report

After Browne: Iain Pears, LRB 17 March 2011

Attempts to alter the government’s policy on tuition fees have failed. Dreamed up by Labour, then embraced by the new Coalition government, the proposed reforms triggered large student demonstrations, but these had no impact on any constituency of real influence either in the universities or in politics. Many university vice-chancellors, terrified by the prospect of sizeable deficits, have backed the changes, more or less reluctantly.

It is a peculiar government which lambasts people for getting into debt, then forces them to take on much more; which goes on about the need for an educated workforce, then makes that education more expensive; which attacks bureaucracy, then introduces an even more cumbersome system for the administration of loan payments and repayments, bursaries, partial grants, transfers of money between individuals, government and universities, and so on.

But these are not the only contradictions in a policy which shows every sign of being hastily cobbled together. In both health and education, ministers are hurrying to introduce reforms before they run out of energy and time. In education, they first modified a set of measures inherited from Labour, then modified them again to keep the Liberal Democrats on board. The result is an incoherent mess. The Coalition is creating a market in higher education, but is already interfering in an attempt to rig that market. It has freed universities to charge higher fees, only to announce that it will not allow too many to do so. It is moving from setting targets for the social mix of student applications – which is allowed under Fair Access legislation – to setting quotas for admissions, even though it has no legal authority to do this. And under cover of reasserting the Haldane Principle – the century-old understanding that research should be protected from political interference – it is pursuing a stealthy policy of undermining it.

To manage this revolution, the government is contemplating creating a super-quango with powers to direct the internal affairs of universities, which are precisely the sort of extra-state, autonomous institution that it is supposed to be freeing from the shackles of regulation. The Higher Education Council proposed by Lord Browne in last October’s review would be able to define and enforce standards; fund particular courses and shape what is taught in them; specify teaching hours; take over or shut down institutions it decides are failing; impose ‘access commitments’; set targets for drop-out rates; set admission requirements and adjudicate student complaints. The market the government has in mind is one in which it will determine demand, supply, what is sold and at what price. Powers on such a scale would grossly expand a bureaucracy which already causes a great deal of work for academics and weighs heavily on university budgets. They would also extinguish all meaningful independence in higher education. These proposals have no parallel anywhere in the Western world.

On 20 December, in response to disquiet from the research agencies, the government issued a Written Ministerial Statement asserting that ‘prioritisation of an individual research council’s spending within its allocation is not a decision for ministers.’ But this was followed by so many get-outs that it offered no real safeguards at all. These allow the government to divert money to ‘key national priorities’ – which it can set – and provide for no appeal against its directives. Governments have always had priorities, of course: an administration has the right to commission, say, research into nuclear fusion. This government, however, seems to be going further, using its control of the purse strings to enforce compliance with a political agenda.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council, for example, has been instructed to direct a ‘significant’ part of its funding into six strategic research areas which have been defined for it. Some of these areas have little to do with either the arts or the humanities – ‘civic values and active citizenship’, for example. Other proposals have a political slant: of particular concern is the unelaborated instruction, in a document issued by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, that ‘AHRC will systematically address issues relating to … cultural renewal contributing to the “Big Society” initiative.’

The British Academy has also come under pressure to allocate funds according to government priorities, rather than to what it thinks are the most promising research proposals. It has also been told that it must no longer give out the small grants used to finish off individual projects, although they have proved the cheapest and most cost-effective way of funding research in the humanities (the recipients were selected by a committee of the academy’s fellows, working for free). Stopping such grants is a clear breach of the academy’s independence.

The response of the research councils to all this has been anaemic. This is true not least of their reaction to the issue of ‘impact’. Henceforth a significant part of the assessment of a researcher’s worth – and funding – will be decided according to the impact on society that his or her work is seen to have. The problem is that impact remains poorly defined; it isn’t clear how it will be measured, and the weighting given to it in the overall assessment has been plucked out of the air. It is a bad policy: it will damage research in the sciences and corrupt it in the humanities, as academics will have a strong financial incentive to become liars. Despite the doubts expressed by David Willetts, the minister for universities and science, the institutional momentum behind it has proven to be unstoppable: Hefce recently announced that the measure will go ahead unchanged. ‘Impact’ will account for 20 per cent of an academic’s assessment, but will in effect act as a ‘swing vote’ deciding who will, and who will not, receive funding.

If no one really knows what impact is, it is at least clear what it isn’t: scholarship is seen as of no significance. What the government and Hefce are interested in is work that is useful, in a crudely defined way, for business or policy-making. The effects on the sciences will be unfortunate. Last month Thomson-Reuters published a list of the top 100 chemists in the world. Only four are British, and at least one of these gained his place on the list for work that would not be found to have sufficient impact to warrant a grant under the new system. The effect of impact will be to force researchers to focus even more than they do already on research that pays off – or can be made to appear as if it does – within the assessment cycle, rather than on fundamental work whose significance might take years, even decades, to be appreciated.

Objections that these changes will accelerate the decline of British science have been met with silence. Letters to ministers have gone unanswered or produced only a brush-off; it is asserted instead, without evidence, that the proposals are supported by the academic community. A letter denouncing impact and signed by nine Nobel Prize winners and 24 members of the Royal Society has been ignored. Indeed, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council cited the physicist André Geim as a good example of the virtues of impact assessment, even though Geim had signed the letter opposing it.
Impact will be bad for the sciences, but for the humanities it will be cruel. The intellectual bankruptcy of what is coming can be gauged by a pamphlet produced by the British Academy last June. A short text published in defence of the humanities used the word ‘impact’ 64 times, and highlighted a Humanities for Business programme offering modules to companies like Unilever on topics such as Machiavelli and entrepreneurial success, Rousseau and modern marketing, and inspirational leadership in Shakespeare’s Henry V. Hefce’s pilot assessment noted with approval that one researcher had been called ‘the next David Attenborough’ in the Radio Times, and that the work of another, involving a Henry VIII Twitter feed, had led Which? magazine to name Hampton Court as a Top Heritage Day Out. The future, it seems, lies not in original research, still less in teaching, but in consultancy work, journalism and guided tours.

A less trivial approach to the humanities would involve a proper programme of reform, not tinkering designed to square Conservative wishes with Liberal Democrat needs. And it would require more directness from people in the humanities, rather than their habitual struggle to game the system as best they can. Research in the humanities has little direct economic or social impact in the crude and reductive fashion that Hefce and civil servants wish to impose, and this has to be admitted. To pretend otherwise is a fraud, and to divert resources into ‘outreach’ programmes with no purpose except to satisfy the regulators and acquire funding is a gross waste of money and a perversion of the purpose of research.

That the importance of the humanities cannot be registered on a spreadsheet shows the limitations of spreadsheets, not of the disciplines being measured. With a few exceptions, published research is not designed to be widely disseminated. If the government wanted research to have a real ‘social impact’ it would encourage the broadest possible range of inquiry, unhampered by a bureaucrat’s definition of utility; it would attack the vast and increasingly authoritarian apparatus which has come to distort research across the academic disciplines; and it would lighten the administrative burden on universities, not increase it.


  1. "The future, it seems, lies not in original research, still less in teaching, but in consultancy work, journalism and guided tours." Maybe a lot of teachers feel overwhelmed by the impact of New technologies on their daily work. One has to compete with a permanent content-feeding, without any accuracy standards. The future, as you depict it, seems a good perspective compared to what teaching has become in some parts of the world...

  2. The future, as you depict it, seems a good perspective compared to what teaching has become in some parts of the world...
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