Letters – 22 November 2018

November 22, 2018

On meddling, merit and accountability

The situation that Mark Steven describes in his opinion article “The political becomes personal when a grant is killed by a minister”, outlining how his personal life was affected by an Australian minister’s veto of funding for his research proposal, is a frustrating one, but not one that illustrates, I think, loss of academic freedom.

The various statements on academic freedom discuss freedom to pursue research, and freedom of discourse, without punishment or censorship. They do not mention any right to receive public funds. The funder – the government – is entitled to make recipients accountable. If the law allows ministerial review, then that is part of the accountability mechanism.

The real problem, in Steven’s own words, lies here: “Winning a large research grant, I was told by my head of school, was the only way to make my position permanent.”

The university has abandoned the concept of appointment on academic merit and replaced it with appointment according to income-earning potential. This is a decision not of the government but of the self-governed university.

In Australia, the shifts to a more overtly commercialised university began with the Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s, which made universities more open to working-class people, shifting university attendance from 15 per cent to 40 per cent. But the way in which universities responded to these demands (by looking at their academics as money-producing units of labour) was arguably one possible response. The question is: Was it the only possible response?

Via timeshighereducation.com

The Arts and Humanities Alliance, an association of learned societies that work together to promote the interests of the arts and humanities in the UK, expresses its serious concern at the vetoing by Simon Birmingham, when he was education minister of Australia, of applications to the Australian Research Council. As revealed in the Senate’s estimates committee on 25 October, and detailed in Times Higher Education , the minister “in an extraordinary departure from protocol” blocked the allocation of some £2.3 million in grants. The 11 blocked projects had been rigorously peer-reviewed, considered by a selection advisory committee drawn from the ARC’s college of experts, and recommended by the ARC’s CEO for funding.

The AHA condemns political interference in decisions over research grant funding, and in particular the attack on the arts and humanities inherent in the ministerial veto, which affected only humanities grant applications. The AHA further expresses solidarity with the 11 research teams from across Australia whose funding applications were secretly vetoed despite the ARC’s recommendation to fund them.

Susan Bruce (Keele University), co-chair of the Arts and Humanities Alliance
Martin Halliwell (University of Leicester), co-chair of the Arts and Humanities Alliance
Claire Squires (University of Stirling), chair of the Association for Publishing Education
Lucinda Matthews-Jones (Liverpool John Moores University) and Jamie Wood (University of Lincoln), co-conveners of History UK
Simon McVeigh (Goldsmiths, University of London), president of the Royal Musical Association
Claire Taylor (University of Liverpool), president of the Association of Hispanists of Great Britain and Ireland
David Wood (University of Sheffield), president of the Society for Latin American Studies
Marion Schmid (University of Edinburgh), president of the Association of University Professors and Heads of French
Robert Stern (University of Sheffield) and Fiona Macpherson (University of Glasgow), president and president-elect of the British Philosophical Association
Alex Thomson (University of Edinburgh), chair of University English
Bettina Schmidt (University of Wales Trinity Saint David), president of the British Association for the Study of Religions
Maureen Galbraith (University of Glasgow), Economic History Society
Jennifer Richards (Newcastle University), chair of the English Association’s HE Committee
Michelle Sheehan (Anglia Ruskin University), Linguistics Association of Great Britain
Judith Still (University of Nottingham), Society for French Studies
Brian Ward (Northumbria University), chair of the British Association for American Studies
Jonathan Hale (University of Nottingham), Architectural Humanities Research Association
Naomi Standen (University of Birmingham), president of the British Association for Chinese Studies
Greg Woolf (Institute of Classical Studies, University of London), chair of the Council of University Classical Departments
Graham Smith (Newcastle University), Oral History Society
Margot Finn (UCL), president of the Royal Historical Society
Judith Pallot (University of Oxford), president of the British Association for Russian and Slavonic Studies

Steady as she goes

I read with interest the article by Anna Notaro in which she criticises Nobel prizewinner Donna Strickland for her lack of interest in being a role model for women in science (“ A duty to fight for equality”, 15 November), and also a letter by Jane Norman and others in the same edition of THE in which Norman et al. criticise Notaro for arguing that Strickland, just because she is a woman in science and has won a Nobel prize, has a duty to promote gender equality (“Prize enough”, Letters). But I thought that both Notaro and her critics missed the main point of Strickland’s achievement, which was that Strickland, although now a Nobel laureate, was not already a professor.

As reported in THE on 11 October, Strickland said that she had often been approached by her university and asked if she would like to be made a professor, but she had always turned this offer down (“More than a woman: Nobel laureate wary of gender focus”, News). Rather oddly, Strickland said that she could see no advantage in taking this promotion but preferred to stay as she was, a senior lecturer. Perhaps this then, as Catherine Hakim has argued for some time now, has some bearing on the debate over why there are so few female professors relative to men in higher education? For whatever reason, it seems that Strickland simply preferred to stay as she was and to be left alone to get on with her groundbreaking work in physics.

Kenneth Smith
Reader in criminology and sociology
Bucks New University

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