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The Arts and Humanities Research Council has accordingly been given a remit to prioritise projects that support these objectives. The idea seems to be that you fund, say, a research project on the Renaissance domestic interior, which then feeds into a public exhibition on that subject at the V & A, and you then commission PriceWaterhouseCoopers to do some sums demonstrating the “economic impact” of said exhibition — this is achieved by totting up the train fares of visitors coming into London to see the show, the profit margin on the merchandise they buy at the gallery shop, the money they spend in local restaurants and so forth. The exercise is entirely artificial: after all, if the exhibition supported by the research funding had not happened, another one would have done. There is no causal relationship between the conduct (let alone the quality) of the research and the punters stoking the economy with their leisure-time expenditure.

Even in the hard sciences, the relationship between original research and commercial exploitation is usually indirect and long-term. More than half a century passed between Arthur C. Clarke’s visionary conception of the communication potential of orbital satellites and the massive economic impact of the manufacture and sale of GPS devices to individual motorists. Medical research, too, has a long history of vast sums of money being spent on journeys up blind alleys, with new breakthroughs often coming by chance in quite unexpected places. Cyclosporin, the immunosuppressive agent that revolutionised organ transplantation, was discovered as part of a general screening programme, not through a research project specifically addressing the problem of graft rejection. Medical history is full of stories of this kind.

DIUS, the new department charged with overseeing the hugely expanded enterprise of higher education in this country, is less than a year old and yet it has already developed a reputation for even greater meddling than its predecessors did. Of course there is a prime duty to account for the expenditure of taxpayers’ money, but a much more subtle style of accountancy is required. There is something especially inappropriate about the attempt to quantify the “value” and “impact” of work in the humanities in economic terms, since the very nature of the humanities is to address the messy, debatable and unquantifiable but essentially human dimensions of life — such as history, beauty, imagination, faith, truth, goodness, justice and freedom. The only test of a philosophical argument, an historical hypothesis or an aesthetic judgement is time. A long period of time, not that of a “funding cycle” determined by the quangocracy.

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Joseph Andrews
June 14th, 2008
9:06 AM
Anonymous wonders why Bate wrote this article - it's pretty clear that he did so because he thinks that higher education is mired in bureaucracy and that the idea of assessment by citation is index is barmy and that by saying this in a new journal linked to a think-tank with strong Tory connections, he might get the Tories thinking about a less interventionist approach.

Anonymous
June 13th, 2008
4:06 PM
Mr Bartram indicates that he is a pedant - ignoring the big issues raised by the author at the expense of a small point. Mr Briggs is entirely wrong - modern economies depend on education at tertiary level as the US case proves. They educate more students and spend a far greater % GDP per capita on each. Their research is in larger volume and at least equal in quantity. An excellent article, we need to open higher education to the market and bring in far more money.

William Briggs
June 11th, 2008
10:06 AM
The main problem is that there are too many universities and too many kids going to universities. Kids go to "get a degree", i.e., to add a notch to their resumes and seemingly make themselves more attractive to employers. Who goes to university to learn anymore? Instead of so many universities, there should be in their place technical or trade schools, where kids can go to learn a useful skill, so that they can really learn how to make an efficient sales call or market a "brand", or whatever else is deemed useful by businesses. This would save universities for those who want to really learn. It would reduce the amount of unnecessary "research" pumped out, too. Never happen, of course. Parents want the "brand" of the better school on their kids' resumes.

John Kidd
June 9th, 2008
5:06 AM
An apt and lucid commentary on regrettable trends in modern universities.As a now retired teacher at a leading Australian university I can confirm that the the same corrupted bureaucratic foolishness has now spread far beyond the United Kingdom. While recognising the difficulties inherent in external assessment of the quality of an academic's work, and conceding the necessity of public accountability for that work,the article highlights that the now prevailing bean-counting risks damage to the core function of a university which must remain the fostering of the highest possible standards of scholarship, research and teaching. In that sense a university, in order to justify that name, must be an elite institution of learning.

John Kidd
June 9th, 2008
5:06 AM
An apt and lucid commentary on regrettable trends in modern universities.As a now retired teacher at a leading Australian university I can confirm that the the same corrupted bureaucratic foolishness has now spread far beyond the United Kingdom. While recognising the difficulties inherent in external assessment of the quality of an academic's work, and conceding the necessity of public accountability for that work,the article highlights that the now prevailing bean-counting risks damage to the core function of a university which must remain the fostering of the highest possible standards of scholarship, research and teaching. In that sense a university, in order to justify that name, must be an elite institution of learning.

David Bartram
June 8th, 2008
1:06 PM
It's a good thing Jonathan Bate writes more here about the humanities than about the sciences - a weak grasp of basic arithmetic might be more consequential in the latter. Five million is not, after all, one percent of five billion. The smaller (correct) percentage hardly makes the RAE a bargain - but it does at the very least raise questions about the fact-checking skills of the editors of this new magazine.

Anonymous
June 8th, 2008
12:06 PM
Speaking of the Rae-driven system which Bate so much deplores: it is not clear why he imagines that the `incestuous citation game` hasn`t been in place already for some time; as well as the (to address Haldane`s example) `incestuous non-citation game`. It`s also not clear why Bate wrote this article. Presumably he did not write it to score on `metrics`.

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