Peter Williams

Pedantry and philistine parsimony

Peter Williams believes that today's academics and scholars face unfair evaluation processes

The Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) was established five years ago to support research and postgraduate study within the UK’s higher education institutions. But to read its website or its voluminous guides to applicants is a depressing experience – even if it is only to familiarise oneself with the hurdles colleagues have to jump to get a bit of money most would not need if they were properly paid in the first place or did not have their creativity consumed by overlarge student bodies and by work assessments of various specious kinds. I am deeply sorry for younger academics today, who will never know how wonderful it used to be to work in a university.

Of course, the AHRB is not the only instance of the degradation to which academics and real scholars have now to submit. The periodic Research Assessment Exercises (RAEs) are an insult from beginning to end, run or acquiesced in by the very people – professors and the like – who should have known better from the start. (If they don’t, who does? Clarke? Hodge? Blackstone?) Disillusion in higher education hits early, quite apart from the question of cost: even before a young person becomes an undergraduate now, he/she may have to read about the vice-chancellor of, say, Bristol University spinning his evasive way out of actually explaining admissions policy. (‘The press got hold of the wrong end of the stick’, etc.) But since vice-chancellors are now more like CEOs of a megastore persuading customers that they are being well served, and since ‘research assessment’ shows no sign of being recognised as merely another of the UK’s childish form-filling-quality-control-statistic-creating evaluations, one expects no better of them.

But one does expect higher things of the AHRB as the standard-bearer for publicly funded work in the arts and humanities, at a level comparable to that of the Science or Medical Research Councils, and to the tune of £70 million a year.

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