With Gordon Brown’s restructuring of government departments, higher education is now under the control of the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (“DIUS”). We no longer have a Department for Education in this country. The idea of a university as “a place of teaching universal knowledge” — Cardinal Newman’s phrase — has, it seems, no relevance in Brown’s Britain. Higher education must now justify itself in terms of the “innovation and skills agenda”. Crudely put, academic research must pay its way by generating real returns in the wider economy. The Research Councils’ big new idea, driven by DIUS, is “knowledge transfer”. This is defined as “improving exploitation of the research base to meet national economic and public service objectives” to be achieved by means of “people and knowledge flow” together with “commercialisation, including Intellectual Property exploitation and entrepreneurial activities”.
The Wrong Idea of a University
The downgrading of university humanities teaching in the name of research has been exacerbated by another factor. Historically, funding for scientific research has been given to the universities under a “dual support” system. The “QR” stream from the Funding Council supports the basic infrastructure, while the Research Councils (“RCUK” — not to be confused with the clothing brand “FCUK”) run competitive schemes for particular projects. When scientists tell you that they have to spend an inordinate amount of time writing grant applications, they are referring to Research Council grants, as well as comparable competitions run with a great deal less bureaucratic blather by the great educational charities such as the Leverhulme and Wellcome Trusts. After a long campaign, an Arts and Humanities Research Council (“AHRC”) was established in 2005. It has about £100m per year at its disposal, a tiny proportion of the £2.8bn overall funding provided by RCUK, within which the Medical Research Council is, quite properly, by far the most generously served. The opportunity to bring their universities some part of the new AHRC money is another incentive for humanities academics to concentrate more on their research than on their teaching.