Leader: Retain our critical faculties

In dark days, the academy must dare to look beyond arguments for economic impact and restate the case for its intrinsic value

July 19, 2012

The wave of relief that greeted the news that research funding was to be protected from the deep cuts of governmental austerity measures will surely come to be seen as nothing but a fleeting reprieve.

Back in 2010, it was an occasion of genuine joy when the coalition government confirmed that the science budget would be ring-fenced for the duration of the Comprehensive Spending Review period, providing a welcome safety net until 2014-15. Yes, there was some pain - with a frozen budget meaning real-terms cuts and serious reductions in capital funding - but in comparison to other sectors, the settlement looked relatively healthy.

The UK in summer 2012, however, feels like a very different place than it did in the autumn of 2010. We are in a double-dip recession, facing a eurozone meltdown, and as Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England has observed, other parts of the public sector see higher education as "pretty well-heeled".

Any hope that UK higher education has taken its sugar-coated dose of austerity medicine, and that the worst is over, is surely dead.

We should be in no doubt that there is a pressing need for the sector to unite to make the most persuasive case yet for real and sustained investment in university research.

In this context, naturally, economic arguments prevail. Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, has argued in these pages that the sector needs "a collective vision" for its role in the UK economy, and must hammer home the potential of research to drive future prosperity.

This will, of course, be crucial, but there are also well-known dangers in taking this approach, as highlighted, for example, by the Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust in an article for Times Higher Education in 2010.

"When we define higher education's role principally as driving economic development and solving society's most urgent problems, we risk losing sight of the kinds of enquiry that enable the critical stance, that build the humane perspective, that foster the restless scepticism and unbounded curiosity from which our profoundest understandings so often emerge."

In such a climate, all curiosity-driven research is vulnerable, but the arts and humanities may be the most vulnerable of all. So the Arts and Humanities Research Council should be applauded for a new project, reported in our news section this week, to "advance our understanding of the value of culture".

The AHRC's £2 million, two-year project will seek not to demonstrate the clearly significant economic benefit of the arts and humanities but "to stimulate broad public debate on the true value of arts and cultural activity and its vital importance for our future".

The AHRC has at times appeared to be a little too eager to demonstrate its worth to a sceptical government - as with much-ridiculed attempts to shoehorn references to the prime minister's pet project, the "Big Society", into its activities. It is also lamentable that there should be a perceived need for the arts and humanities to justify their existence at all. But this new project should be welcomed, and backed, by the entire university community.

As Professor Faust wrote in THE: "We must work to ensure that the understandable effort to promote what is valuable does not eclipse our support for what is invaluable."

phil.baty@tsleducation.com.

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