The AHRC and the ‘Big Society’

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If you’re a humanities academic in Britain, you’ll almost certainly already know that on Sunday the Observer ran a story headlined Academic Fury over Order to Study the Big Society, claiming that the Department for Business, Information and Skills had forced the Arts and Humanities Research Council to allocate funds to research on the theme of the ‘Big Society’. (For readers not in the UK, the Big Society is, according to the Big Society Network about ‘creating a nation of empowered citizens and communities’.  Or you could say it’s a Tory slogan designed to convince people that cuts to public services are actually a good thing, by promoting the virtue of volunteering to do what used to be someone’s job.)

I was alerted to the Observer article by the deluge of links to it that appeared on the Facebook pages of academic friends within hours.

What was new about the Observer piece was not that the AHRC was supporting the Tories’ ‘Big Society’ slogan: that was clear since the publication of their Delivery Plan 2011-2015 [pdf], which appeared in December last year and used the phrase five times in about twenty pages. What was new was that they had, according to the Observer, been coerced into doing so, under threat of losing their funding entirely.

The AHRC quickly rebutted the story, publishing an Important Statement on Monday:

We did NOT receive our funding settlement on condition that we supported the ‘Big Society’, and we were NOT instructed, pressured or otherwise coerced by BIS or anyone else into support for this initiative.

I am sure they’re telling the truth. But in that case, what’s the phrase doing in the Delivery Plan? The fact that the AHRC decided to adopt the slogan without anyone even telling them to do so is perhaps even more worrying.  It’s certainly a distressing sign of the position of academics who manage research funding in Britain today, especially in the humanities. (The other Research Councils don’t appear to have got into this mess.) They have become so well trained that they do the political bidding of government without being asked.

What’s worse, the rest of the academic community has become so accustomed to this that we hardly challenge it. After all, we’ve all had months to express our outrage on the choice of theme, but with the honourable exception of Peter Mandler, nobody did (as far as I can tell). The petition calling on the AHRC to remove ‘the Big Society’ as a ‘strategic area’ of funding was only started yesterday. I admit that I sat in a meeting about the document in January, groaned, and thought no more about it.  The Observer has over-egged things a bit, but at least the issue is getting discussed.

More flippantly, does anyone seriously think the ‘Big Society’ idea will still be around by 2015? So far, it’s mainly been an embarrassment to the government, what with Liverpool City Council withdrawing from the pilot project in February because of cuts to its budget, and then ‘Big Society Tsar’ Lord Wei cutting his hours because he can’t afford to spend so much time working for nothing. If the AHRC wants to suck up to the Tory party, couldn’t it at least choose something from their policies that is likely to last? Suggestions in the comments please.


  1. The Big Society may not be a big idea or have a big budget, but it has a big website which is part of the Cabinet Office:

    Diana asks whether this notion will survive – I suspect it probably will, vacuous though it seems. Future historians may well find themselves asking their students to compare and contrast the Big Society project (part of the Office for Civil Society which itself sounds like a Habermasian nightmare) with New Labour’s Social Exclusion Unit (part of the Office of the Deputy PM and then the Cabinet Office), established by Tony Blair in 1997, which had a significant influence on shaping policy and debate (and research) before its abolition last year.

    And what of the Research Councils? Well, I have some sympathy for AHRC. They achieved a good budget for arts and humanities research, only to find themselves the targets of more criticism. Research Councils are intermediaries between government and academics, and it is hardly surprising that AHRC should (a) want to show the relevance of humanities research to economy and society; (b) emphasise the impact of their funding in its widest sense (they have been making a case for a wider definition of impact); and (c) exploit opportunities to link ongoing research programmes to new government initiatives. I think the Delivery Plan makes a lot of sense in these terms.

  2. I’m just writing a paper discussing the impact on primary history under the new coalition government. Picking up on this story, could these cuts to humanities have an impact on resourcing and artefacts for education? Is it possible,(probable) that education departments in museums ect will suffer? if so, these cuts certainly go against the promised provisions outlined in the ‘importance of teaching’ white paper!

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