Our cowed leaders must stand up for academic freedom

The Government wants to dictate the trajectory of research and the funding bodies are complicit. This must stop, says Thomas Docherty

April 9, 2009

There is a crisis of leadership in higher education, particularly in funding bodies such as the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the research councils.

That is a big claim, but what supports it is the story of how these bodies have been complicit with a Government that is making a definitive break with the 91-year-old Haldane principle. Named after Liberal politician Richard Burdon Haldane, chair of the committee that recommended the policy, it enshrined the notion that government should not interfere in decisions about academic research.

For good reason, such decisions should be left to disinterested researchers pursuing knowledge, not politicians operating according to principles determined by ideology or party. But now, Whitehall recklessly interferes and its handmaidens sit in the institutions that should be defending research autonomy.

For example, the Arts and Humanities Research Council's primary responsibility should be to research in these fields. Instead, it has in effect become an arm of the Government, encouraging our compliance with policy and the kind of research our political masters deem appropriate.

How did we get here? Over the past 30 years, the research community has borne witness to new fashions, central among them "interdisciplinarity": nearly all the research councils love this idea.

It is a conversation stopper, producing sighs of assent - who can speak against such a noble, exciting notion? Interdisciplinarity, though, is cant: like "modernisation", it is meaningless, but no less powerful for that. It has been the primary vehicle through which the Government has broken with Haldane.

The rhetoric of interdisciplinarity goes back to talk in the 1970s about "breaking down barriers". Back then, we were apparently constrained by our disciplines, hampered by the boundaries between philosophy and literature, sociology and biology, engineering and architecture. Just as the 1960s let it all hang out, so we let our disciplines overflow into each other like anarchic lava lamps.

In a banal sense, this equated with an idea of research and socio-political freedom. Research would no longer be constrained by punitively exclusivist disciplinary regimes. The fact that I specialised in the study of texts should not preclude - indeed would enhance - my analysis of the Falklands War, say. Such a view, despite itself, was complicit with a marketisation approach that suggests research is about the production of new, commodifiable ideas, and endless novelty: fresh configurations of the lava.

Now, 30 years on, the AHRC and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council combine to fund, for example, an interdisciplinary programme in "science and heritage". Six key thematic questions have been identified into which researchers will shoehorn their work to secure funding. No doubt good work will ensue, but we should be clear about what is at stake by funding research this way.

That cant term - interdisciplinarity - must mean something. Take my own discipline, English. It has contested historical roots, but all versions demonstrate that it grows out of other disciplines: rhetoric and philosophy (if you are ancient or Scottish); but, more popularly, from the work of three people in Cambridge a century ago.

Mansfield Forbes (historian), fond of hillwalking, introduced I.A. Richards (psychology) to the Lake District, where they discussed William Wordsworth. Back home, they dined with E.M.W. Tillyard (Classics).

Historical detail, cognitive response and formal rhetoric combined to yield the specific content of a new literary discipline, English literature. The point is straightforward: English literature is already interdisciplinary, and so is virtually every other discipline.

The bigger question is political. The Government endorses interdisciplinarity as a key principle of good research. But the way it deals with it is to set out a number of "non-disciplinary" themes that it wants to establish as its key (politicised) priorities. They include "ageing", "the environment", "security" and others. Then the funding bodies, especially the research councils, tell the academy that these areas will attract funding. Haldane - and academic freedom - be damned.

The usual response to this is: it is taxpayers' money. But we are taxpayers, too, and our research, although costly, generates massive benefits. Hefce and the research councils must reassert some autonomy and stand up for the academic community and its research. Then we will be able to fund genuine research, some of which may combine disciplines and create future fields of study. It is a grave error to suggest that those emergent disciplines should be dictated by the priorities of an all-seeing Government.

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