Via my colleague Chris Brooke, I’ve just come across the letter published in The Times on Saturday by Professor Sir Fergus Millar, which notes the concerns of the Minister for Universities about the increasing emphasis on research over teaching in UK HEIs, but emphasises both the extent to which this has been driven by government policies, rather than idle academics neglecting their students in favour of their pet projects, and the extent to which this has warped the research activities themselves. Funding for research, Sir Fergus argues, has shifted more and more from direct grants to individual projects; universities are ever more desperate for the overheads and estate costs that come with such projects, and so individual academics (who have now lost tenure and so are at the mercy of their managers) are compelled to expend effort on writing grant applications, at the expense of their teaching and the research they actually want to do. “It is not that funding is sought in order to carry out research, but that research projects are formulated in order to get funding.” Long-term research projects, with uncertain outcomes (let alone impact), are rendered impossible, not least by short REF cycles.
There are several points in this letter where, despite the fact that I agree with almost all of it and can get just as worked up about the pernicious effect of the REF on universities, I feel slightly uncomfortable. The one which prompted me to write this post when I really should be finishing the article that should have been finished six weeks ago is the critique of research projects, presenting the time spent on writing applications as a dereliction of duty (“So much for the education, or the wider culture, of students”) and implying that such projects won’t yield genuinely ground-breaking results (“I am not joking when I say that a physics lecturer called Einstein, who just thought about the Universe, would risk being sacked because he brought in no grants.”). No, it’s not explicitly stated that all research projects are bad and useless – the target is rather the requirement for everyone to have to work in this way – but that’s the impression created on first reading.
Well, I am now into the final month of my own research project, and feeling thoroughly depressed at the prospect of it ending, so this doesn’t come at the best time… I can confirm from my own experience that some research projects are formulated with the aim of being able to apply for funding, because that was to a great extent true of my own first attempt – or, to be exact, a project that lent itself more to the traditional ‘lone scholar’ approach (partly because of the nature of the subject and partly because that was how I was still tending to think) was made into something bigger because that was what was expected; on that basis, no wonder it didn’t get funding. On the other hand, my next attempt was for a project that could be done properly only with several people and more substantial amounts of money, rather than the traditional approach. Equally, I can speak from recent experience of the amount of work involved in putting together such an application, especially with the new requirements for collaboration (even if I interpret the role of PI and lead applicant in the spirit of benevolent dictatorship, I still have to spend some time keeping collaborators informed of what I’m up to, and pretending to consider their suggestions…); this is why the current paper is six weeks late and counting, and undoubtedly my teaching as well as my other research has received a bit less of my energy and attention recently than might otherwise have been the case, But I’m doing this because I like having people around who are focused on the same project as I am – if I have to pay people to talk to me about what I want to talk about, so be it – and because the project needs a series of workshops and conference panels and research trips. Here, at least, the dog is wagging the tail; the funding application arises from the project, not the other way round.
I would like to think that Professor Millar would favour the continuation of some sort of mixed economy, so to speak, just with a rebalancing of resources between direct funding for everyone’s research without any strings attached and funding that has to be applied for (not sure how this will work in the absence of a massive increase in funding; surely there cannot be any wish to suggest that, absent some sort of RAE/REF, funding should simply be channelled to the ‘top’ universities to do what they like with it and hang the rest?). It is simply that, in the absence of any explicit statement to the contrary, I’m left with the suspicion that perhaps he regards all research projects as alien to the humanities, a misguided import from the sciences, driven only by financial imperatives and government initiatives. The main problems with UK higher education are under-funding and government interference on ideological lines; setting up a division between different kinds of research activity isn’t going to help.