AHRC plans spark mixed response

Humanities subject leaders welcome meeting but remain worried about funding, writes Zoe Corbyn

May 8, 2008

Academics remain concerned over the Arts and Humanities Research Council's decision to slash its funding of postgraduate students despite attempts by the council to outline new strategic funding priorities.

The AHRC met with about 100 heads of subject associations last week in an attempt to reassure them over the council's plans to cut research grants, researcher leave and postgraduate funding to deal with a poor settlement in the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR).

At the meeting, described by some attendees as constructive and helpful, Philip Esler, the AHRC's chief executive, explained that a £12 million cut to postgraduate awards was necessary to preserve the council's budget for strategic research programmes.

He also said he intended to protect the council's government funding levels in the future by moving away from funding individual academics' "monographs" in order to focus on making the AHRC distinctive as a funder of collaborative large-scale research that had an "economic impact".

Shearer West, the AHRC's new director of research, also addressed the meeting, promising to work with academics to interpret the way forward for the next CSR in a manner that was "meaningful" to the sector and "compatible" with the way it did research.

She suggested that the "rapid response group" being set up by subject associations to give a voice to their concerns should become a "personal critical friend" rather than the "focus of a civil war".

After the meeting, subject association heads told Times Higher Education they were generally positive that the AHRC was listening.

James Ladyman, who represents the British Society for the Philosophy of Science, said the AHRC "seems to have realised" that it needs to communicate better with its constituency. "If they do that and properly take account of the arguments we put to them, then hopefully they will regain some of the confidence of arts and humanities academics."

But the council was criticised for its poor justification of its cuts to postgraduate funding.

"I got the sense that colleagues remained unhappy and disappointed with this issue and the AHRC's response," said Peter Kitson, representing the English Association.

Professor Ladyman said: "I would ... still like an explanation of the cut in postgraduate funding and why the council didn't defend the distinctive role it has as virtually the only source of funding for postgraduates in the arts and humanities."

He added that the "stage management" of the morning event, where participants were not given the chance to ask direct questions, had not been helpful.

Robin Osborne, representing the Council of University Classical Departments, said the AHRC's new vision for distinctiveness "showed a complete lack of imagination". He also criticised the council for not being open enough about why it wanted to move away from funding monographs.

"Scientists produce papers on the basis of (Higher Education Funding Council for England) QR funding as well as (funding from) the science research councils ... Obviously it isn't the form of the publication that is at issue but the nature of the content."

Professor Kitson added: "Encouraging and supporting the individual scholar working on excellent research is not being done with sufficient vigour (by the AHRC)."

The AHRC also used the meeting to set out plans to develop a new leave scheme for researchers and to ask the community to come forward with ideas for future strategic research programmes.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

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