Why is the government imposing ‘Big society’ on academia?


10:54 am - March 27th 2011

by Sunder Katwala    


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Is this the latest “big society” paradox? The Observer reports that senior academics are deeply concerned about the way in which a department of state is alleged to have insisted on the ‘big society’ as a major academic research theme as a condition of renewing academic funding of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

This report of about rather top down insistence on studying the bottom up doctrine speaks to a recurring tension as to how government can get traction for its ‘big idea’ without undermining the point.

The report also captures growing tensions over how to protect academic freedom while enabling scrutiny of how public funding is spent at a time of fiscal restraint.

There is growing anger at what the Royal Historical Society (RHS) described as a “gross and ignoble” move to assert government control over research in favour of what one academic labelled a party political slogan.

Professor Colin Jones, president of the RHS, said the move was potentially dangerous for the future of academic study in the country. “It seems to me to be absolutely gross,” said Jones.

“In a way, the AHRC should be congratulated for securing a good settlement in a difficult spending round, but there is something slightly ignoble about making the ‘big society’ a research priority.”

He added: “It is government money. They have the right to spend it on what they want, but there is a degree of anxiety about the strings being put on. They are being strengthened, which could be dangerous for independent research.”

A principal at an Oxford college, who did not want to be named, said: “With breathtaking speed, a slogan for one political party has become translated into a central intellectual agenda for the academy.”

It is understood that Oxford University intends to discuss the imposition of “big society” research at the next meeting of its sovereign body, the Oxford congregation, in May.

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Reader comments


Of course the government wants academia to research “big society”. After all, they still want to find out what it actually means.

What a bunch of cunts.This is absolutely disgraceful.

These aren’t conservatives, they’re are radicals, and they are doing very, very stupid things.

@2

This strikes me as an interesting observation. I wrote to my tory MP about the forestry sell-off arguing that it was a very un-Conservative policy, which I believe is the reason for the cross-party opposition it suffered. So the question is where has this radicalism come from? We see it in the Republicans in the US too.

This new ideology aims to destroy government and much of what we regard as normal society and is as bonkers as the black-blockers yesterday. The only difference is the amount of money they have.

Cherub is right. Tory/LD spending cuts are aimed not so much at narrowing the deficit as at wrecking the structure of government and public services – they are far too crude to serve their ostensible purpose effectively (and may even be counterproductive). The policies of fragmenting and commercialising the NHS and of privatising education have the same aim – the creation of the minimal state, the perfect environment for money-making and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor.

Universities have always taken money from organisations to carry out research that just coincidentally happens to be of interest to the company/organisation providing the cash.

Why are they suddenly kicking up a fuss about what is just normal practice in the academic world?

Professor Colin Jones, president of the RHS, said the move was potentially dangerous for the future of academic study in the country. “It seems to me to be absolutely gross,” said Jones.

I trust that the good Professor will express his outrage at each and every study currently being carried out that is funded by medical companies, food companies, oil firms etc etc etc.

Ian – but other interests groups only hold out the incentive of extra money. The government has the power to take away all the AHRC’s money.

Thanks for an interesting though disturbing piece.

Cheeky sods! As if it isn’t hard enough to get AHRC funding already, now your research project needs an ideological seal of approval from the Tories?

Oh well – at least we can look forward to some red Tory faces when one piece of research after another demonstrates the importance of government spending in creating the right conditions for a thriving voluntary sector, as well as the superiority of universal state provision of key services to the patchwork of charitable ‘big society’ provision it replaced.

IanVisits

“Why are they suddenly kicking up a fuss about what is just normal practice in the academic world?”

What’s “normal practice,” especially in the sciences, is private funding being made available for research driven by commercial interests. It’s not “normal practice”, especially in the arts and humanities, for public funding to be made available for research driven by party political interests. In any case, “why are they suddenly complaining that a bad situation [its being difficult to get funding for independent reseach] is getting worse?” is a bit of a silly question.

8. Chaise Guevara

@ 5 IanVisits

Firstly, private companies have the right to spend their money how they wish (within the bounds of regulation). When the government starts using tax money to bribe people into furthering the agenda of the party in charge, that’s a totally different issue. In effect, public money is being turned into Tory funding.

Secondly, and more generally, I’d argue that it’s in the common interest for the state to encourage the production of independent and neutral data. What is being proposed here is the opposite of that,

9. Ken McKenzie

The Haldane Principle has been upheld for 90 years – it was one of the most clear-sighted, sensible and laudable commitments to good governance in the last century and this authoritarian gang are trying to trash it. One can only speculate why.

Have a think about that – nobody’s done this in 90 years.

@IanVisits – if the Conservative Party want a piece of research into David Cameron’s useless Christmas cracker mottos, they can bloody well fund it themselves. They are NOT the State, and their interests are NOT the national interest.

@9KenMcKenzie – our language and mindset are incapable of distinguishing between “government” and “state”, partly because of the lack of a formal constitution circumscribing the actions of government. Governments in this country, narrowly based and ideologically driven, regard the state as their private property to do with as they see fit – with hardly so much as a by-your-leave.

Will there be government sponsored ceremonies for the burning of non-compliant theses, histories, and research studies?

As Orwell put it in 1984: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

I’m also reminded of what tended to happen in Stalin’s time to Soviet scientists who didn’t comply with Lysenko’s theories on genetics:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trofim_Lysenko

Willetts statement on the Haldane pinciple here(pdf) would seem to specifically rule out the situation as described above.

Prioritisation of an individual Research Council’s spending within its allocation is not a decision for Ministers. The Coalition Government supports this principle as vital for the protection of academic independence and excellence. We all benefit from its application in the UK.

@12: “Prioritisation of an individual Research Council’s spending within its allocation is not a decision for Ministers. The Coalition Government supports this principle as vital for the protection of academic independence and excellence. We all benefit from its application in the UK.”

Despite extensive searches by historians since WW2, no one has ever found in the archives a piece of paper or an order with Hitler’s signature authorising the Final Solution or the Holocaust.

Are we to therefore conclude that Hitler has been hugely maligned?

Think about it.

Great. There are enough issues with the AHRC as it is.

15. organic cheeseboard

to an extent this had already happened, with the focus on ‘knowledge transfer partnerships’ effectively seeking to make universities shit versions of consulting firms.

The Govt is just rephrasing the KTP plan to try to get someone to actually come up with a decent definition of what ‘the big society’ is.

what I’d like to see is the academics who have a hotline to Tory bigwigs actually doing soemthing about this. But – oh wait – they live and work in America, and have never given a flying fuck about British academia except when they can leech off it.

a pox on the houses of Schama and Ferguson.

Typical brownshirts.

I am sure all our text books are being rewritten as we speak to hail Call me Dave as a great leader.

What worries me is that sharp questions have already been posted about the “Big Society” notion which haven’t had satisfactory answers.

I start from the position that it is logically impossible to prove some claimed entity – real or abstract – doesn’t exist. Anyone can claim there are such creatures as “dragons” or notions of “whozzloonia” and I cannot prove them wrong. But I can reasonably ask to be shown verifiable evidence or manifestations of their existence.

I believe it reasonable to ask as to what time in Britain’s well-documented history did a “Big Society” – whatever that is – prevail? It is also reasonable to ask whether a “Big Society” has been manifested in some other countries and, if so, which and when?

Failing answers, I feel bound to conclude that the whole notion is seriously lacking underpining research and that reports of pressures on academia to come up with answers looks very much like desperation.

@Sunder – hi, I thought I should note that the AHRC have refuted this and that there is a statement on their website.

http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/News/Latest/Pages/Observerarticle.aspx

19. Bryan Chalmers

Perhaps refuting it and confirming it at the same time?

“The AHRC has been working for over two years, since 2008, with four other research councils, on the Connected Communities Research Programme which has been developed through extensive – and continuing – consultation with researchers. At the core of this Programme is research to understand the changing nature of communities in their historical and cultural contexts, and the value of communities in sustaining and enhancing our quality of life. These issues are serious and of major concern. They also happen to be relevant to debates about the ‘Big Society’ which came two years later. To imply that these important areas for investigation constitute a government-directed research programme is false.”

@19: “They also happen to be relevant to debates about the ‘Big Society’ which came two years later.”

Any chance of learning when it was, if ever, that Britain had a Big Society, or which other countries have had it and, if so, when?

I keep posting this fundamental question but haven’t had the joy of an answer so far and that prompts me to wonder why.

The AHRC’s appallingly written non-denial denial hardly inspires confidence but I don’t think we’ll be seeing much research in praise of The Big Society even so; clearly the way forward is to apply for money name-checking The Big Society (or “communities” or whatever) while in fact you’re just proposing to do something interesting.

Grant applications in academia are notoriously full of bullshit for exactly that reason, you have to make it sound like you’re going to do something that ticks the latest boxes.

Speaking of universities those average fees of £7,500 are not looking very likely.


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