Most of the time I’m reasonably proud to be British. Not in an excessive way I hope: indeed, to be too unquestioningly proud to be British is somehow not British — part of our national character is to take a kind of masochistic pleasure in the country’s failures, such as being beaten to the South Pole by the Norwegians, never winning a tennis Grand Slam, regularly going out of the soccer World Cup at the quarter-final stage, letting other countries derive the economic benefit from research we do that has practical applications, etc. etc.
But recently two things have happened that are highly relevant to academic life and that make being British a straightforward embarrassment. One is that an immigration quota system has recently been introduced that has absolutely nothing to do with national interest and everything to do with pandering to the unsavoury instincts of certain kinds of voter. As a result of this system, many academics who would like to visit this country have been unable to do so because they have been denied visas, and others have had to be removed from shortlists for academic jobs (sometimes not because they have been denied visas but because the appointments committees in question cannot afford to offer a job to somebody who might discover a few months later that they are unable to accept it).
But my main reason for posting is to publicize a proposed measure that I heard about today. Usually when I feel outrage of the kind that it provoked in me, I suddenly realize that it is April 1st and I think to myself, “You had me there!” But this one appears to be real. The background is that David Cameron has a big idea (or so he perceives it) that he calls The Big Society. He unveiled it during last year’s general election campaign, and my guess is that it lost him votes because it was so embarrassingly naff. Nobody, least of all David Cameron himself, seemed to be able to say what would be done differently if the Big Society was in full swing. It has something to do with everyone chipping in, a lot of voluntary work, a new ethos, slogans like “We’re all in this together,” and so on. But a policy (or perhaps what I mean is a general framework for setting policy) that depends on the hypothesis that there are vast untapped reservoirs of altruism is a policy that needs fleshing out with some detail, to put it mildly. Government exhortation certainly won’t do the job. After all, much of the country voted against the government, and many who voted for it are now angry about cuts, so a large proportion of the country has no interest in the Big Society succeeding. (There is one policy that David Cameron likes that makes some kind of sense, which is to give government money to charities that are doing good work, to help them expand. However, it seems that the general effect of cuts is in the opposite direction.)
The proposed measure is to force the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which distributes £100m of government money to support research in the arts and humanities, to make The Big Society a “research priority”. If they do not, then their grant will be withheld. I don’t know the precise details of this, and perhaps the reality is less bad than that sounds. But on the face of it, an academic research council is being told that it is obliged to promote a party political idea. (In theory it could fund research that would end up showing that The Big Society doesn’t work, but something tells me that isn’t what the government has in mind.) If you want to know more, then you can read about it in this Guardian article.
Update: it now seems that it was an early April fool after all. So my main irritation becomes the much smaller one that the AHRC doesn’t know the meaning of the word “refutes”. You had me there …