Sunday, 27 March 2011

Is the state imposing the big society on academia?

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 a 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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Kenneth Armstrong said...

The AHRC has today issued a statement refuting allegations made by The Observer. You can read its statement here: