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Willetts and the AHRC: Big Society or Big Brother?

In response to the  Observer article which claimed that “the AHRC was told that research into the “big society” was non-negotiable if it wished to maintain its funding at £100m a year“, the AHRC has been embarrassed into posting an ‘Important Statement’ in which it ‘unconditionally and absolutely refutes the allegations reported in the Observer’.

The refutation is in fact only a denial. The denial consists in asserting that they “were NOT instructed, pressured or otherwise coerced by BIS or anyone else into support for this initiative”. They offer little evidence for this assertion, apart fromthe fact that the “Big Society’ initiative connects up with the Connected Communities Research Programme they have been running since 2008. They also point out that the Observer offers no evidence for its assertion either. This is true, but then the Observer would be unlikely to disclose its sources, if they are appropriately placed in Government or the Research Council, and thus credible.

So which account is true? For they surely cannot both be.

It does not matter. It may well be that the Observer is right that the Government and David Willetts coerced the AHRC into doing its bidding. This would not be surprising. For, under the guise of robustly ‘reinterpreting’ and clarifying the Haldane principle, - the principle that decisions about how to spend research funds should be made by researchers rather than politicians is, and which Labour abandoned in favour of its policy of micromanaging university research in the interests of the global and national economy – they have effectively traduced it. In so doing they have also violated one of the first rules of the ‘Big Society’ which is to Give away Power, not Money. No government willingly does this. And David Willetts, for whom I used to have some respect, immediately after finishing a book about the inter-generational injustice done to the young by the baby boomers, introduced the policy whereby the costs of University Education are largely borne by students themselves, rather than by those who benefited from free education like he did.

Or it may be the AHRC came up with the idea themselves. But why would they do that?


The answer is that the AHRC is craven, because it is scared of being legislated out of existence. As a consequence they instinctively try to anticipate what the Government wants them to do, and to do it in advance of being given a steer or an order. They suffer from an institutional version of Stockholm syndrome. They know that if they play the tune that the Government is about to call, the Government will be glad to pay. Their priority is to continue to attract funding, not to preserve academic freedom. That is what makes them feel important and counts as ‘success’. They probably had a break out session, in diiferent groups. One group was given the question: What research theme can you come up with that is  most likely to attract large sums of Government money? Answer: The Big Society! Then when the group reported back, everyone thought it was a tremendously good idea.

If the AHRC did come up with this idea on their own, then this shows that they are craven and subservient institution that is in fear of its very existence. If the AHRC were pressurized and coerced then this shows that it is too craven and spineless to stand up to Government pressure. It would also show that the coalition government is both illiberal, and hypocritical. For this development takes what New Labour did to a new level. Where Blair, Brown and Mandelson only dared to set cross council strategic research priorities, and to ring fence public funds for these, thus reducing the funds available for open research and free inquiry, Cameron and Willetts are willing to use public funds to get University researchers to give some intellectual substance to their somewhat nebulous (if not entirely vacuous) party political campaign slogan.

Either the AHRC is being treated as an administrative arm of the Government, or they are behaving like one. In either case few will now believe that they are not one.

The irony is of course that the ‘idea’ of the Big Society, if it is not entirely vacuous, is designed not only to soften Thatcherism, but to be the correlate of the Small State, a doctrine shared by arch-conservatives and liberals alike. Yet the AHRCs embrace of the initiative smacks more of Big Brother than it does of the Big Society.




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