A takeaway delivery

Reducing numbers of arts postgrads was bad enough, but the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s cuts in grants and funding are the final straw for Simon Blackburn

January 31, 2008

I have been reading the Arts and Humanities Research Council document called the Delivery Plan, 2008-2011. It is available as a PDF (see box on right).

At first I thought it must be a spoof, substituted for a sensible document by some internet prankster. I thought that even the title wittily gave it away, for as a colleague of mine said, the only things most of us know that need delivering are babies, newspapers and milk.

Anyhow, the document reminded me of the brag sheet I once caught a glimpse of when a rather porcine business man left his laptop open and facing me on a train. It was full of sentences like “I have considerable experience of progressing hands-on product delivery serving a variety of stakeholders in a fast-moving and challenging commercial environment”, which I interpreted as meaning something like I drive a van in Gateshead. But after the joke had gone on a little long, it dawned on me that the delivery plan was serious. They actually do think in terms like “Fostering knowledge transfer by our researchers with an increasing range of partners to produce greater economic and social impact”, and yes, they do scatter bold type everywhere to show just how serious and forward-looking they are. I imagine some poor copy-editor had a terrific tussle to stop them from finishing every sentence with an exclamation mark.

Mere lapses of taste can be forgiven, but as in the movies when the slightly unnerving character with the gold tooth and the unfortunate wig suddenly reveals that he is a cannibal, so the AHRC soon reveal the black-hearted villainy behind the clowning. The essence of its delivery plan (also in bold) is that “over 2008-11 we will, via the new Block Grant Partnerships, move the percentage of our postgraduate budget falling within strategic themes from a low base to some 50%... A large number of the studentships we fund will fall within our strategic priority areas, such as the creative economy and heritage.” Not only the creative economy and heritage, but also lifelong health and wellbeing, and living with environmental change, and, well, just heaps of things that make up the challenging drivers and value chains piloted with our partner stakeholders. Not classics, or history (unless it is heritage), languages, literature, law or philosophy, of course.

We heard last week that the number of postgraduate studentships is to fall next year from 1,500 to 1000, although it would then go back up to some 1,300. That seemed bad enough. But now take away half of the support for anything that most people in universities would recognise as a subject, and we are down to between 500 and 650 students a year in classics, philosophy, languages, literature and the rest. That might be defensible if there were any evidence that there had been gross overproduction of MPhils and PhDs in the years before. But the AHRC itself admits that this is not so. 55 per cent of current AHRC graduates take up academic appointments, and 45 per cent go to key positions in the public and private sectors. One wonders what the equivalent figures will be for those who have done a PhD in heritage studies.

It must never occur to those who produce this kind of document that the current specialisations have evolved by a Darwinian process, as the modes of analysis appropriate to some range of problems began to separate themselves off from those appropriate to others. Interdisciplinary work is possible, of course, but only when those who collaborate have a thorough grounding in some integrated realm of learning and research. But as in the old Soviet command economies, the planners think they can ignore all that. They know best, and we can be sure that the current crop will enjoy every bit as much success as those who made up delivery plans for tractors and bathtubs.

Still, we can all have a lot of fun helping our students to contour themselves to favoured topics. Perhaps designing ways around the guidelines might become a priority of the new doctors in creative studies. Stoicism and environmental change. Personal identity and heritage. The paradox of the heap and its application to ageing. Or perhaps the game is not worth the candle, and it will be much better to try to find and to fund our students elsewhere.

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