Intangible research funding for the arts and humanities: comments on a proposal

When ideas emerge from right-wing think-tanks, appealing to popular resentments about existing bureaucratic systems and vaguely promising a brighter future for all, maybe we should be prepared for trouble. And so it goes with John Marenbon’s Intangible Assets: Funding Research in the Arts and Humanities, which makes a delightfully subtle case for ‘funding’ by removing the arts and humanities from their two principal funding streams.

Readers of the report might know Marenbon as a distinguished Cambridge professor of Medieval philosophy. Or they might remember him as the author of such articles, released through the Politeia think-tank, as Militancy on the March (attacking the academic strikes earlier this year), or ‘OFFA’s Topsy-Turvy World’ (a critique of widening participation in higher education). From the perspective of a senior research fellow of Trinity College, it is perhaps easy to believe that humanities researchers should not have to scrabble about for state funding, submitting ourselves to scrutiny and public accountability. One’s college does a much better job of supporting one’s research.

 

Intangible resources for intangible assets

Intangible Assets proposes abolishing the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and removing arts and humanities subjects from the Research Excellence Framework (REF). (The latter argument was repackaged for The Guardian last week.) He suggests that the quality-related (QR) funding that flows from the REF would remain the same, but be determined by the performance of all those other subjects which are so manifestly more suited to the REF’s assessments. AHRC funding, meanwhile, would be redirected into the creation of permanent teaching-and-research posts. The British Academy, which accounts for a small fraction of arts and humanities funding, could stay, because its standards are sound – and, well, John is a fellow, of course. How we would continue to fund PhD students remains something of a mystery.

The report’s evidence is heavy with questionable assumptions and back-of-an-envelope statistics. If I was trying to determine how much time a REF panellist devotes to grading an item, I might start by surveying some of them. I might also consider whether their universities relieve them of other duties while working on the REF. But that would be too rigorous for Marenbon, who concocts his way to a figure of 2000 pages of reading a day, to be done outside normal hours. (Conclusion: The REF is a sham.) Similarly, before dismissing the assessment of impact – which he considers pointless for the humanities – I might bother to read some four-star case-studies. I might also enquire about the effect of QR funding on arts and humanities departments across the sector, before asserting that ‘no [QR] money reaches’ them (an outright falsehood by my experience). And I might even consider the achievements of some AHRC-funded projects before pontificating about the ‘damage’ that grant-funding does. Indeed I might consider these to be basic methodological expectations of a researcher.

Some arts and humanities academics – particularly those involved in institutional struggles for resources and recognition – might as a result feel uneasy about Marenbon’s logic. He breezily assumes that if the overall QR pot remains the same, universities will remain well resourced and the arts and humanities will be protected. Hence universities should be required – presumably by the Office for Students, but he doesn’t say – to provide research leave, while somehow or other all that former AHRC money will find its way to the right place. How this all squares with resource allocation models within legally autonomous institutions, a culture of ‘value for money’ in a sector otherwise funded by students’ fees, and a mass higher education system with vastly uneven funding and career structures to begin with, is never really addressed.

 

And is there honey still for tea?

Like so much utopian discourse, Marenbon relies heavily on an idealized representation of an ‘old world’. There was a time, he says, when arts and humanities academics all did some teaching, some research, and paused every day for a three-course lunch at high-table. Ok, so I made up that last bit, but the vision of a world in which nobody was monitoring academics’ work, nor urging them to compete for research support, and assessment was reserved for the rare occasions on which one would apply for promotion, is designed to seduce. What’s not to like?

In truth, this is a blueprint for constraint and elitism. Oxbridge would survive well enough, but what about other universities, where resources are tighter? If no income was generated by research in the arts and humanities, could we confidently expect the vice-chancellor of a university struggling with debt and falling student numbers to maintain staffing levels and protect research time, let alone consider promotions and pay-rises in the humanities faculty? Moreover, it’s worth noting that some universities never experienced the revered ‘old world’, so it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine how, from current working conditions that are often radically different to those familiar to Marenbon, they might now contrive to return to it. And with no research council to make the case for what we do as researchers, could we realistically hope that policy-makers would smile benignly upon us for ever more? Like many who profess to believe in a small state, Marenbon places great trust in its readiness to enforce the regulations that he devises.

As much as we might sometimes wish to deny it, money matters for the arts and humanities. Within a year from now, in the wake of the Augar Review, students could be paying less for arts and humanities degrees. Already many universities are under financial strain, and redundancies and departmental closures are likely to accelerate. The system as a whole is fluid and contested, and in this context both the REF and the AHRC give the arts and humanities visibility, credibility and representation. These things matter. Even to contemplate tossing all that away risks inviting all sorts of insidious and unreliable forces into the conversation. After all, there are plenty of people who would like to see the arts and humanities weaker and poorer.

 

To pretend that we can improve working conditions while evading public accountability and competition for resources is thus to display reckless disregard for the prevailing conditions in which we operate. Right now there are people in this country fighting tirelessly to convince sceptical politicians of the value of the arts and humanities, in the many contexts in which they are taught and researched. John Marenbon is not one of them.

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The REF-erendum of 2018: building the case for remain*

Imagine that academics across the United Kingdom were granted a referendum on membership of the Research Excellence Framework. How would they vote?

This is a facetious question, since there’s never been anything democratic about the way the government distributes research  funds. But if the mood of academics swings against the REF, there will always be politicians and bureaucrats prepared to suggest enticingly simpler systems. So a groundswell of opposition, whipped into life by a distaste for all forms of performance monitoring, should give cause for concern among remainers.

A month ago, I would have predicted a strong vote for remain; after recent experiences with the leave movement on social media, I’m not so sure. It’s therefore worth considering what could be done to secure the vote.

 

Project fear

Any good referendum campaign – I think I’ve got this right – needs fear. If there was no REF, that would surely mean the end of Quality-Related funding, currently one part of the UK’s dual-support structure for the distribution of public research funds. That would mean either a loss to the sector of approximately £2 billion per year, a transfer of that £2 billion into grants, or a combination of these options. (Anyone hoping, by the way, that the government might just hand over QR regardless is misreading the definitions of ‘quality’ and ‘related’.)

Regardless, a REF-less world would mean less autonomy for universities in decisions over research development, at a time when the government is already being more intrusive, most notably through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. It would also be disastrous for humanities and social sciences disciplines, which do disproportionately well out of QR and disproportionately poorly out of grants. Toss in the possibility of variable fees by discipline, and HASS departments could face a generation in the freezer. Armageddon my point across?

But maybe we need a more positive message as well. It’s striking just how many academics don’t see any benefits from QR. Some associate it merely with the few hundred pounds of research allowance that their departments hand them. Others resent central decisions to devote QR to grand projects that seem remote and unimportant.

There are lessons to be learned here for VCs and PVCs. Granted, from their perspective all income falls into one big pot; researchers, however, want to feel the benefit of their labours. And it shouldn’t be difficult: for a start, how about universities transparently cost their research leave policies (for those that have them), and connect the dots with QR?

And there may also be some lessons for UK Research and Innovation. RAEs and REF of the past have generated powerful, inspirational narratives of research success for the benefit of politicians and policy-makers. Might some of this effort be redirected towards researchers themselves, who more commonly experience the REF as an oppressive process than a source of inspiration? Perhaps their good will has been taken for granted.

 

#loveREF

On the evidence of recent social media exchanges, some of the most vocal supporters of REF are immigrants. If the UK’s REF-shaped clarity of expectations has offered an international researcher a career-lifeline, to move from a country in which appointments and promotions are more sluggish and opaque, this can engender a warm glow of affection.

By comparison, academics who have known nothing but the REF are less likely to appreciate what it has done for them – creating jobs, expediting promotions, and so forth – and more likely to view those distant pre-REF days with a sense of wonder. Back then, people spent longer on their big ideas, didn’t they? Britain produced big, serious books, and Nobel prize winners. Academics were left alone to just get on with it.

Too much detail in this table, but it demonstrates the rapid growth of UK research impact, by citation, in the RAE-era. From Adams & Gurney, Funding selectivity, concentration and excellence.

One way of confronting this nostalgia is through data. There is evidence that British research in general was lagging through the 1980s. The surge that has brought the UK to its current position can be traced back to the effects of early RAEs beginning to bite within universities. The UK now UK ranks first amongst its comparator countries by field-weighted citation impact, and this can be explained in part by its broad research base.

But data alone won’t convince people to love the REF. Leavers have the more compelling stories: of poor management in the name of REF preparation; of ECRs being suspended in casualization as they try to build sets of publications to sell to an employer that will immediately push them to repeat the performance for the next cycle.

So there’s work to be done for the remain campaign. Pointing to Professor Ego who has just secured a big pre-REF pay-rise won’t necessarily seize the imagination of a lecturer losing money on the picket-line. UKRI might do well to take some initiative, aiming to make the REF less forbidding. A training programme for line-managers might help, or some research into the effects of REF on appointment decisions. REF might also align itself more explicitly with ethical frameworks such as Athena SWAN or the Vitae Concordat. The ‘real-time review’, announced this week, looks like it might be a step in the right direction.

REF managers may feel burned by the reception of their well-meant proposals on portability, intended to iron out distorting effects of their system on the job market. But now that the rules for REF 2021 are settled there is space for further efforts to inform academic culture. Maybe love is unrealistic; trust, actually, would probably suffice.

 

Close your eyes and it might all go away

There are more important debates to be having than the one about REF. We should be focusing on the overall quantity of public research funding. Then we might consider the balance between grants and QR. And then again there’s the desperate uncertainty over European Union collaboration. Fussing about the mechanism for distributing QR feels insular, and risks giving the impression that academics are not much bothered with accountability.

But perhaps the REF-erendum is a process we need to embrace all the same. The remain camp can win, yet they may need to engage more openly with their critics’ concerns. These won’t just disappear; and if the remainers lose, nobody can expect a second vote on the withdrawal terms.

How much cross-subsidy? Research funding and the British university*

A recent HEPI report exposes the confidence trick that sustains British higher education. Research excellence leads to high international status; this in turn leads to high numbers of international students; and these students underwrite the research. Simple, but maybe not sustainable, especially in the current climate. Indeed an examination of this creaky merry-go-round exposes the risks that face UK universities.

How much is too much?

The report, How much is too much? Cross-subsidies from teaching to research in British universities, by University of Oxford MPhil student Vicky Olive, grabbed headlines for its calculation that international students contribute, on average, £8,000 per year to research funding. The author used Transparent Approach to Costing (TRAC) data (imperfect, yes, but the best information we have) to track income and expenditure, working largely at institutional level. Unsurprisingly, she found that teaching subsidises research. However, it’s almost entirely the surplus value from international students, rather than the income from home students, that is responsible for this effect.

The report’s fundamental point is about the chronic underfunding of research. Research councils never quite pay full economic costs, and increasingly demand match-funding. Charitable trusts and foundations never even pretend to cover full costs; and, again, they can make some stretching demands before releasing funds. Meanwhile, start-up equipment costs, especially in STEM fields, can be prohibitively expensive for many. In the most recent year that it analysed (2014-15), the report calculates a ‘research deficit’ across the UK of £3.3 billion, or 37 per cent of research income. It recommends that the government fills this gap.

There is increasingly intense competition for research resources. Successive rounds of the RAE and REF are driving universities to concentrate efforts on greater research productivity. Competition for grants has intensified as success-rates have waned. The growing trend for grants to be targeted in accordance with government policy (e.g. the Global Challenges Research Fund or the Industrial Strategy Research Fund), is prompting universities to reassess their entire operations. Universities are desperate to stay in the business of high-end research, and are stretching themselves to do so.

One of the ironies of this system is that, because research so consistently incurs losses, the financial strains are greatest on the most successful institutions. The concentration of resources at a select number of universities remains a controversial subject, but in fact it’s old news. The twenty-four Russell Group universities already win 76% of all available research grant and contract income, and 68% of all Quality-Related funding (determined by the REF). Many of the most costly areas of research are already the de facto preserve of a relatively small group of institutions. And these universities, as a result, become the ones that most desperately need to recruit – and charge, at a premium – international students.

Subsidising the cross

‘Cross-subsidy’, however, is an interesting idea. Some parts of university operations have always subsidised other parts. Moreover, in any business the tactical movement of resources from one unit to another is considered normal practice. But, as ‘How much is too much?’ demonstrates, the present circumstances of British higher education are placing practices of cross-subsidy under unprecedented scrutiny.

Critically, age-old tensions between research and teaching are now institutionalised in dual governing agencies: UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and the Office for Students (OfS). And the latter – with a wisdom that remains unproven – has already swathed itself in the discourse of ‘value for money’, which impels in turn a radical unpicking of university finances. People need to know, we’re told, where every penny of those home fees of £9,250 per year actually goes. Now, as this report reminds us, it is surely only a matter of time before students from our main international markets ask their own questions about ‘value for money’, and look towards ambitious and cheaper universities at home. I don’t expect that countries such as China and India intend to underwrite UK research in the long term.

So there is a lesson here about the underlying tensions of cross-subsidy: the ‘how much is too much’ question. Elsewhere on Wonkhe, David Morris argues that the report exposes a ‘dirty secret’ of universities under-valuing teaching. However, I don’t think this was ever really a ‘secret’, nor is it ‘dirty’ to want one’s university to compete in the expensive, noble business of research. There is real value, for everyone, in universities producing world-leading research, as British universities are doing. But there is also value in appreciating the divergent interests of different stakeholders. Trust matters.

I also wonder whether there is a lesson about what Billy Bragg once called “the temptation / To take the precious things we have apart / To see how they work”. Britain did a lot to establish the prevailing international model of the university, as an institution in which research and education co-exist, not always easily yet almost always creatively. Across the world this model is flourishing, and attracting heavy state investment. The international league tables which have assumed such prominence in recent years are derided by many, yet their attention to ‘reputation’ underlines an essentially conservative conception of what a university actually is. That’s one reason why, for the time being, British universities do so well in these tables.

 

So what happens when we take liberties with this model, under-funding research and exploiting the desperation of universities to stay in the game? And what happens when we pick it apart, tracing every incoming pound and every TRAC-hour in the interests of ‘value for money’? Maybe that confidence trick I mentioned above, which is fundamentally a story of success, starts to look a bit rickety. Maybe British universities as a result lose some of their reputation for quality in both research and teaching. And maybe we will find that the idea of the university might be easier to pull apart than to put back together.

* Published first by wonkhe.com