What does a retired historian care about English?

May 4, 2001

The British Academy is not equipped to administer funding for the Arts and Humanities Research Board, argues Martin Dodsworth.

The British Academy's headquarters in Carlton House Terrace, just down the road from the Athenaeum, identifies it as an outpost of establishment power. In many ways, it is a good thing that it exists. Work in the humanities gets little recognition, but a fellowship of the British Academy brings real distinction.

That is not the only reason to be grateful. As far as the general public is concerned the main business of the academy is to organise its various annual lectures, but rather more important is its administration of funds for research. For example, it is one of the funding bodies behind the Arts and Humanities Research Board and consequently one of the bodies to which the AHRB is accountable. But can the establishment effectively legislate for non-establishment academics?

The problem is that the academy is not a representative body. Its interest in the affairs of the AHRB is therefore not clear. Fellows are elected as individuals and it is true that, as individuals, they may choose to take an interest in the national dimensions of research. But since fellowship of the British Academy generally comes late in a career, they have every reason not to be enthralled by such issues.

Plainly, a fellow might find a niche within the academy's capacious structure without getting much sense of what the AHRB - mainly concerned with postgraduate awards and large grants - is on about.

Strikingly, the academy does little to promote the values of research in the arts and humanities to the world at large.

Its defects, as a conduit of funds to the AHRB and as an overseer of the work of that body, must be obvious. The academy has no representative status and is top-heavy with fellows from Oxford and Cambridge and, to a lesser extent, London. In the arts and humanities, it favours historians: four of its 16 sections are given over to history. Its representation of some subjects is poor, and weakened by a categorisation across subject boundaries.

Sections on early modern languages and literatures and modern languages, literatures and other media do not allow English to voice its concerns. The interdisciplinarity of such categorisation might be defended, but it makes the business of overseeing subject areas in the AHRB - which are kept distinct - difficult.

Many academicians are retired and, though barred from voting after the age of 70, their presence cannot make engagement with matters of concern in university research easy for the few who are in post.

Unrepresentative, unbalanced and largely superannuated, the British Academy does not seem an ideal overseer for the affairs of the AHRB. Indeed, its suitability to take part in public affairs at all is questionable. The recent formation of the Academy of Learned Societies for the Social Sciences is a sign that sociologists do not think much of the academy.

It would be better if responsibility for directing funds to the AHRB were given to a consortium of the professional associations in the subject areas with which the AHRB is concerned. This could operate from Carlton House Terrace alongside the academy, making use of the present secretariat. It would provide a more transparent mechanism for control - at present it is difficult to have any clear idea of how appointments are made to AHRB subject panels - and a more informed body of opinion.

The academy functions well enough as a group of distinguished researchers administering a limited range of higher research projects with the help of its secretariat. It does not work well in representing the interests of the academy at large in postgraduate and research matters.

Martin Dodsworth is professor of English literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, and chair of the Higher Education Association of the English Association.

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