Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Defending the 'Haldane Principle'?

You may not have heard, but academics are warring over something called the 'Haldane Principle'. This is the concept that governments stump up the cash for research, but they shouldn't interfere with how its spent, instead working 'at arms length' to the academics actually using the money. The name in its title referes to Richard Haldane (above), whose 1918 report of the University Grants Committee is thought to have recommended just this idea. Otherwise, it's always been said, politically-motivated Ministers and officials could ask for congenial findings and useful agendas that would both compromise academic freedom. Why fund universities at all if they're not to engage in 'blue skies' thinking that the private sector - usually through no fault of it own - will not or cannot?

Now that embattled Universities Minister David Willetts has announced that ideas of the 'Big Society' will be one theme for the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), there's been a lot of angry talk that the body is getting to keep its £100m a year budget in return for some form of Danegeld. The head of the Royal Historical Society has called this new definition 'absolutely gross'; Tristram Hunt, the historian and Labour MP, used the word 'disgraceful'. Mary Beard, the Cambridge Classics don who has been teaching at Jamie's 'Dream School' on TV, has called the change 'truly disastrous'. 69 academics have written to The Observer to condemn the idea; one has resigned from the AHRC's grants panel; 1,600 other academics have signed an online petition against the idea. Free marketeers have countered that the whole idea is 'eminently reasonable'. Why not, asks the Adam Smith Institute, when the taxpayers are picking up the tab in the first place? In his defence, the head of the AHRC, has vigorously rebutted all of these allegations.

I think we need a bit of perspective and a bit of history here.

For one thing, the famous Report of Haldane's Committee certainly did not contain that principle. Quintin Hogg, that wily Conservative laywer (later Lord Hailsham) invented the concept in order to oppose Labour's setting up of a Ministry for Science in 1964-65. Both the Select Committee looking into this, and Labour's own Universities Ministers, questioned the 'myth' of Haldane while they were in power, and argued that governments could set 'broad agendas' for research while universities and staff worked out the detail. That, to be honest, is how it's always worked. Labour asked for the 'Third Sector' - its own Big Society agenda - to be worked over in the early years of this century. It's just that now there's a particularly egregious example that academics don't like. 'Civic engagement and values' - the actual title of the AHRC's 'Big Society' theme, isn't that far from this agenda.

For another, the Research Councils do not fund most of British research in any subject. Universities do that, both from their own funds, through benefactions, or from the 'Quality Related' (QR) funding that's won or lost through the Research Assessment Exercise or now the Research Excellence Framework. Good and bad (often bad), these structures ensure a good deal of independence whatever the Research Councils do. It is meant to work that way: this 'dual funding mechanism' means that 'top' universities get loads of QR cash, while newer or less prestigious places can still apply for Research Council funding in their own right.

One of the main challenges facing universities at the moment isn't so much an attack on 'Haldane', that historical fiction, but rather the massive overall state funding reductions and concentration agenda that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is imposing on the sector. Research Councils are being asked to 'cluster' their money together to ensure 'impact' and 'efficiency' - as if it matters where a few hundred thousand pounds is actually spent in the age of the internet and the mobile phone. So the Economic and Social Research Council has just announced a round of bidding for PhD funding that gave not a single penny to post-1992 institutions.

But is there anything that should stop, say, Hertfordshire's historians putting in a big bid with UCL, or Warwick with Coventry, or Sussex with Brighton (apologies for those geographical clusters, but you know what I mean)? The answer? Er, no. But the concentration agenda would posit that there is, or should be - incidentally, helping to drive a coach and horses through the Government's absurd student loans scheme, by encouraging new universities to charge the maximum to make up for both this and the new visa regime. More of those two misguided adventures anon, but for now it's important to say that both 'Haldane' and a truly vibrant, variegated and competitive sector go together. At the moment they're both in doubt. That's worse than if the Research Councils were asking for present-minded research alone.

This twin agenda might well be as much of a challenge to academic freedom as the regrettable erosion of freedom contained in the AHRC's 'directions'. They're both directed by central government; they both make life harder for some researchers, and easier for others, on an entirely arbitrary basis; they're both part of the generally anaemic opposition academics have offered to their marginalisation; they're both subject to fashionable reversal.

I have a hunch that, like me, you'll think that this isn't the best way to make policy.