05 May 2008

The AHRC's funding decisions

By James Ladyman

Let us accept for the sake of argument that the AHRC is obliged by the government to maximize the economic impact of research in the arts and humanities. Philip Esler contends in the latest THES that funds must be diverted from postgraduate funding to the 'vital strategic initiatives' adopted by the AHRC to ensure this (I refer to the Council's own ring-fenced funding initiatives, not those foisted upon it by the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, or the cross-council initiatives, all of which are equally problematic but for which the AHRC itself cannot be solely blamed). However, there is no evidence that such schemes really do maximize impact. There is no doubt that by hosting some of the most prestigious academic presses, and because of the long tradition of scholarship in our universities, the UK punches well above its weight in research and publishing. The total economic impact of excellent academic work in terms of overseas student fees, book sales and visits to the UK by overseas academics, is very high but easily taken for granted. Indeed, it seems the AHRC has not even attempted to cost it. On the other hand, when you look at the list of the current initiatives I think it is fair to say that they do not reflect the kind of research in which most academics in the arts and humanities have traditionally engaged. I have yet to be convinced that the likes of 'Beyond Text' have any significant intellectual value, and it is the latter that is noticed by those around the world who are currently the most economically valuable end-users of our arts and humanities research. The strategic initiatives are distorting the research agenda of academics because within universities there is now so much pressure to get grants and to adapt one's research in whatever ways necessary to do so. Yet what will be valued by our colleagues internationally is research that follows the agenda set within the disciplines not the schemes dreamed up by the AHRC. If the AHRC uses a proximate criterion of impact rather than pure academic excellence as a criterion for funding this will be to the detriment of the research base that is so economically valuable. This is because the only reliable predictor of the economic impact of academic work in general is its academic excellence, since that is what is valued by scholars and leads to books sales, conference invitations, visits to the UK and so on. The AHRC risks neglecting its responsibility to ensure that the UK continues to benefit, not least economically, from the academic sector.

Philip Esler stated that the AHRC would not ever be able to return to previous levels of postgraduate studentships. Other research councils devote only 30% of their total funding to studentships. The AHRC proportion has been 38%. As of the start of the block grant regime, the percentage will be 32%. The obvious response to this is that the AHRC unlike the other councils has a distinctive role as virtually the only source of funding for postgraduates in its area of research. There is also the point that the demographics pointed out by the recent Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee select committee report (more old arts and humanities academics and fewer young ones) very much call for supporting the entry of young people into arts and humanities research and hence for PG funding. The AHRC has a responsibility to help restock the academy.

The matched research leave scheme allows a large number of scholarly projects to be supported with short but significant amounts of leave for academics, and it allows young researchers to get temporary jobs as replacement teachers. It is a form of spread-betting compared to the large grants that fund huge projects and concentrate funds in the hands of a few academic stars. It is almost universally agreed that the matched leave scheme is a very efficient way of supporting research and the most valuable scheme the AHRC runs. Yet we were told at the meeting with the AHRC on 1st May that the current matched leave scheme is incompatible with Treasury rules about full economic costing. It does not seem to have occurred to them that their job is to tell the Treasury that the scheme is the most efficient use of funds to maximize impact and that therefore the rules need to be bent or changed. As with the proportion spent on PG funding, I have the impression that the leaders of the AHRC do not put the obvious arguments in defence of the scheme, but simply go away with the aim of doing what they are told. Esler repeatedly offered the most lame arguments from critics and used them as an excuse for his policies rather than challenging those arguments. I urge all academics in the arts and humanities to write to the members of the AHRC council and tell them to reverse the cut in postgraduate funding and the shift in funds from many small research grants to a few large ones and even worse to ill-conceived strategic initiatives. I also urge people to write to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee select committee in relation to their recent report (page 44) and AHRC policy.

Professor James Ladyman
Department of Philosophy
University of Bristol