Marriage made in heaven

August 15, 1997

While researchers rejoice over Dearing there are those who believe that tuition should remain free and that part-time students deserve more support

DEARING recommended that an Arts and Humanities Research Council should be set up as soon as possible, ramping up over three years to Pounds 45-Pounds 50 million funding per year. The council should re-place the Humanities Research Board of the British Academy, absorbing the HRB's budget of Pounds 21.5 million per year from the Department for Education and Employment, as well as getting Pounds 25 million of new money.

The Dearing committee heard supportive evidence from many sources, with the submission from the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals being particularly influential. Thus the most radical option for reorganisation was favoured - bringing the arts and humanities together under their own research council.

An AHRC will strengthen the dual support system for the 12,000 research-active arts and humanities academic staff. Establishing a new research council requires legislation, so it is doubtful that the AHRC could be launched before the summer of 1999. A transitional period of up to two years lies ahead of the HRB. Canvassing the views of researchers about the oncoming research council's priorities will be a key task before the handover.

With an AHRC, research in the arts and humanities will become more productive and cost-effective. There will be scope for longer projects, more collaborative research, more research assistants, and more computer-assisted research, though research by single scholars is likely to remain the principal mode. A small increase in postgraduate studentships will also be possible.

Three vital decisions face the Government as it prepares its response to Dearing: the scale of new funding for an AHRC; the ministry under which it should operate; and where it should be sited. The proposed funding assumed that research in the arts and humanities is less expensive than in the sciences. Dearing suggested the Department of Trade and Industry as the parent ministry, with the AHRC alongside the science-based research councils. And it was recommended that the AHRC should be in Swindon, because of common infrastructure (especially computing) and access to advisory expertise in the ESRC.

Decisions about the remit of the AHRC will partly shape the latter two decisions. The justification for an AHRC emphasised the indirect but substantial socioeconomic benefit of investing in arts and humanities research. All the cultural and heritage industries, including aspects of tourism and leisure, benefit significantly from such research work.

In this sense, arts and humanities research is mostly basic, rather than applied. With such a difference of remit from the other research councils, the DFEE perhaps remains a candidate for the home of the AHRC.

A London location would reflect a related aspect of the role of the AHRC - the chief beneficiary of research in the arts and humanities, apart from the academic community, will be the national system of libraries, museums, archives and galleries. Essential liaison would be easier with the British Library and the British Museum, with which joint initiatives will be important, and with the Arts Council and other arts organisations.

John Laver, chairman, Humanities Research Board of the British Academy.

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