How will teaching be affected by the Big society curriculum?


2:41 pm - March 29th 2011

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contribution by Martin Paul Eve

Over the weekend, the Observer reported that the Arts and Humanities Research Council had come under pressure to divert its already scant resources into research prioritising the values of the Big Society.

There has been a lively and informed debate on both sides and it is worth bearing in mind that the so-called “Haldane Principle” is not a sacred binding constitutional document whose altar has been violated.

Furthermore, the AHRC has issued a retort stating that all the allegations are false, but this has not quelled the debate, especially since the council can use the get-out clause of an “impact agenda” to claim distance from, yet still kowtow to, government approved initiatives. There are, however, several unspoken interesting points that are worth mentioning.

Firstly, it is interesting that it is the AHRC and not the Economic and Social Research Council that has been at the forefront of these discussions. In times of austerity, the arts struggle to defend themselves except through recourse to a utilitarianism that often runs counter to the very principle of art.

Although the council has often funded “trendy” research topics in the hope of securing additional funds, even under the previous government, the prioritisation of areas they believe will please the regime of the day is an alarming precedent.

Secondly, research is being pushed towards greater integration with teaching in higher education. This is as it should be. The problem is that when the research agenda is tailored towards specific ideological, or even moral, stances that are relative to current government, an entire generation of undergraduates will be taught around these thematics.

Many of these graduates will then move into the teaching profession themselves and the agenda will, to use a favourite phrase of right of centre economists in a situation where it actually works, trickle down.

Finally, however, the government should perhaps be a little more wary. Many researchers working in the arts are extremely displeased about the dismantling of the higher education system and particularly the withdrawal of the teaching budget for their subjects. The point of research is that one does not know the outcome of the work in advance.

For all the government knows, the research could lead to entirely unfavourable pronouncements on their Big Society. The same is not true for teaching, though. If the purpose, to quote one discipline’s subject benchmark, is to sustain “in the general community a constantly renewed knowledge and critical appreciation” of the arts, then the mere fact that the themes of this renewal have been dictated and must, therefore, permeate university teaching, is extremely troubling.


Martin Paul Eve is a doctoral researcher and associate tutor in English Literature at the University of Sussex.

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Reader comments


The best solution is not to fund academic research through taxation at all. It only crowds out other (voluntary) sources of support. And trust me, there won’t be an under supply of doctoral dissertations as a result.

I see from their website that

“Established in April 2005, the Arts and Humanities Research Council [AHRC] is a Non-Departmental Public body. AHRC evolved from the Arts and Humanities Research Board, which was founded in 1998.”

How on earth did anything at all get done before 1998?!

cjcjc,

British Academy used to fund arts and humanities research, before Labour decided it shouldn’t do this any more. No idea why.

Have to admit a vested interest here – I was funded by the AHRB (as it was then – I fully expect the AHRC to morph into the AHRD any day now…). My research was (I believed) apolitical, and it deliberately didn’t tick trendy boxes even within the subject. My feeling about the AHRC is that I would have been less likely to get funding (my funding was an outlier in terms of results obtained and institution) due to a more rigorous and controlled distribution formula, often linking funding to research projects initiated by staff (as is the norm in other fields). This would just appear to be a continuation of this trend – a funding body reflecting government desire for control and centralisation (ironically, by possibly funding research into local action and response (which even more ironically, would describe my PhD…)).

4. Torquil Macneil

” In times of austerity, the arts struggle to defend themselves except through recourse to a utilitarianism that often runs counter to the very principle of art.”

Public funding of the arts can only have a utilitarian justification. It may be that art as a private activity does not need such a justification and it may be that it runs counter to the central values of artistic endeavour, but without a case being made for the utility of art, it is impossible to justify public funding. I don’t know where that truism takes us but it isn’t sensible to ignore it. It may seem to be less obvious when the money is flowing freely but that does not make it any the less true.

Odd thing about this “utilitarianism” is that it runs in the exact opposite direction to schools policy. I can’t help wondering if the universities would have been better off if they’d remained under the jurisdiction of the education department.

Torquil,

In this context art includes academic subjects such as History and English, for which there are also indirectly utilitarian arguments – if you train people to think about these subjects, they can be trained to think about anything (obviously this requires teaching Marxist history as a theory, not a fact, for example…).

The best solution is not to fund academic research through taxation at all. It only crowds out other (voluntary) sources of support. And trust me, there won’t be an under supply of doctoral dissertations as a result.

LoL! The old ones are the best!

You can almost tell the time by libertarians and the repetition of their quack responses.

BenM,

He’s probably right mind you – my major concern would be that all the doctorates would be (even more) granted to people from well-off backgrounds. Or overseas students, since in many institutions they are the majority of PhD students already…

9. Torquil Macneil

Watchman, not in the quotation I was responding to it doesn’t. But the point holds: public financing of the arts (no matter how defined) can only be justified by the utility gained. Shrinking from that just means you have nothing left to defend (not you, but those who do). Art for art’s sake might be a rallying cry in the salons of West London, but it isn’t going to win many friends on the finance committees.

10. Ken McKenzie

@8

No he isn’t right at all.

There is (potentially) an issue with the backgrounds of people taking doctoral study (which are well-to-do), but that may be because the choices needed to take the first steps towards a PhD tend to need to take place quite early in young people’s career at a time when those with less family exposure to HE may not even be aware that these options exist and how to access them.

But, even with that taken into account, it is unlikely that some as-yet-unidentified cash source would cover the cost necessary to train the current number of A+H PhDs.

Especially when we don’t yet know how much it’s going to cost to do a PhD in the future, and won’t until the Smith panel has re-reported.

To decisively settle the controversy about whether “the” or “a” Big Society really exists, perhaps they will erect totem poles at suitably prominent locations where the public can stick lighted candles, burn incense or lay wreaths, according to personal preferences,

Ken,

There is (potentially) an issue with the backgrounds of people taking doctoral study (which are well-to-do), but that may be because the choices needed to take the first steps towards a PhD tend to need to take place quite early in young people’s career at a time when those with less family exposure to HE may not even be aware that these options exist and how to access them.

I’m calling bullshit on that one I’m afraid. I went to a comprehensive (pretty average – generally poor intake but good staff evening out), and did well enough to go to uni, where towards the end of my penultimate year I realised I enjoyed my subject so much I’d like to keep doing it. No choices (other than passing exams) were made up to that point. From speaking to younger PhD students, it remains the same. Unless you are planning on studying something incredibly specific, it is the decision of which masters to take that is perhaps generally the most important decision, because you will be accepted for a PhD with a broadly-interpreted relevant qualification!

Second or subsequent generation of families going to university are more likely to do PhDs, yes, and that is an issue. But this is perhaps more perceptions of what is possible or advisable, rather than anything to do with early life choices. And I know enough first-generation university PhDs to wonder whether even that is changing.

Have any companies or institutions started to offer sponsorships to PhD students researching for theses on Big Society issues?

It’s a shame they didn’t take the opportunity in the recent Population Census to slip in a few questions about whether respondents belonged to a/the Big Society. We might have been able to tell if there are any Big Societies around and, if so, how many. All that data would have been wonderful grist for PhD mills.

Big Soc news update on Wednesday:

Most people in Britain are unwilling to get involved in their community despite wanting to engage more with local issues, research suggests.

Only one in ten definitely intended to do voluntary work in the next two years, Hansard Society’s post-general election poll of 1,200 people found.

While interest in politics was up, civic participation levels – key to the PM’s Big Society – were not, it said.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12900961

Of dear, that’s not looking any too encouraging so the increasing signs of desperation on the part of the coalition government shouldn’t come as a surprise.

One consideration possibly discouraging volunteering is that many anticipate having to cope with the most troublesome case problems resulting from their local council’s spending cuts. The more volunteers take on the challenging tasks which ought to be the responsibility of paid professionals, the more councils will feel confident about getting away with spending cuts. How about the savings from stopping those freebie council propaganda mags which drop through my letterbox every month? I wasn’t even asked if I wanted it delivered.

15. Ken McKenzie

@12

Your individual anecdote, is counteracted by my personal anecdote (working class child on grammar school assisted place decided to aim for PhD at 11. I was weird, mind), and is not matched by the bulk of research into the field.

You made choices right from your O-level (in my case)/GCSE choices, and for many young people those choices would have been even earlier when they took options at 14.

The ongoing Futuretrack research from the University of Warwick on career choice suggests that for many prospective PhDs (not all, of course), personal career choice is effectively made well before the student chooses whether or not to choice whether or not to do a Masters is made, and even now a Masters is not actually necessary to do a PhD, although MRes or equivalent is strongly encouraged.

The proportions of physical science graduates taking PhDs, for example, and the requirements of a career in science, mean that for a significant proportion of PhD graduates they have consciously or unconsciously begun a journey towards PhD at 16, not at 20/21 in the final year. Of course, the slightly different career journey for doctoral graduates in the arts and social science means that many can make their decision in the final year; but make no mistake – there is a difference between ‘final’ decision, and all the necessary career choices made before that to tee the student up for that final decision.

Career choice for PhDs is understudied (like almost everything in HE) – Vitae have a lot of interesting information, but to be blunt, if you’re making all your career choices in your final year, in the current climate you’re leaving it far too late.

16. Flowerpower

..when the research agenda is tailored towards specific ideological, or even moral, stances that are relative to current government, an entire generation of undergraduates will be taught around these thematics.

As opposed, say, to being taught around clapped out Marxist thematics that have no relevance to anything other than the long march certain academics have been taking through the institutions of higher education since the 70s?


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    How will teaching be affected by the Big society curriculum? http://bit.ly/gsCFDI

  2. Lianne

    How will teaching be affected by the Big society curriculum? – at @libcon and by my dear friend @martin_eve http://bit.ly/gLgOLb

  3. Martin Eve

    How will teaching be affected by the Big Society curriculum? My post for @libcon: http://bit.ly/eY9eue

  4. John D

    RT @martin_eve Martin Eve How will teaching be affected by the Big Society curriculum? My post for @libcon: http://bit.ly/eY9eue

  5. Jonathan Waring

    RT @martin_eve: How will teaching be affected by the Big Society curriculum? My post for @libcon: http://bit.ly/eY9eue

  6. Pucci Dellanno

    RT @libcon: How will teaching be affected by the Big society curriculum? http://bit.ly/gsCFDI

  7. Jennifer O'Mahony

    How will teaching be affected by the Big society curriculum? | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/GkKdnVn via @libcon @benjamin_madden

  8. Martin Eve

    @GdnHigherEd on AHRC revelations, rebukes & impact agenda affecting teaching (me for @libcon) http://bit.ly/eY9eue #HigherEdWed

  9. gdnhighered

    Interesting read by @martin_eve: How will teaching be affected by the Big Society [agenda]? http://t.co/IFDkFhp #HigherEdWed

  10. Jennifer Jones

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  11. Routledge

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