Like most people I am filled with anxieties about what the future will bring. I always imagined, though, that the one fixture in my life would always be academia. If all my other dreams failed to materialise, I knew I would enjoy tucking myself away with books and papers, emerging occasionally to share my enthusiasm with students and other academics. This scenario might seem naive, but it brought me comfort. Yet to an extent these aspirations were shattered this week.
I am lucky enough to have been awarded an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) grant funding my postgraduate studies. When encouraged, along with other awardees, to attend a meeting with its head I was happy to oblige. I was greeted, however, not with a ‘casual chat’ allowing us to give feedback, but by an increasingly frantic woman with a notepad who, it turned out, was there to pump us for ideas.
As most of us are aware, universities are currently plagued by cuts and layoffs -with more to come in the next year- and so are funding bodies like the AHRC. Professor West was there not to elicit our genuine feelings about having been awarded a grant (‘I can actually afford higher education’ being the most obvious), but to extract from us a snazzy spiel as to the value of funding arts and humanities research. It seemed we were there for political reasons, to fill her basket-full of buzz-words and politically useful ‘concepts’. Some in the room immediately began to spout appropriately convoluted waffle, at which point Professor West would enthusiastically nod. I felt bafflingly like I was in a board meeting, throwing random pitches towards a chief executive who was shouting ‘I like it, yeah, I like it!’
I red-facedly tried to suggest to Professor West that asking people who are interested in knowledge why they should be allowed to pursue it was a futile exercise. How can you explain the value of culture? As she commented herself, even scientists are the first to admit that their work on curing and preventing diseases would be meaningless if we did not have something to live for. Without cultural development we would live in a bland world of figures and chemicals, 150 years old, maybe, but stuck with an antiquated appreciation of the world around us.
I realised suddenly the difficulty of her position, and sympathised with her: having to stand up to a Treasury determined to cut corners where it is easiest. This is a cruel and well worn trick, and she was effectively the middle-woman. By making her conjure up for us the snobbish image of the disgruntled cabbie demanding to know why the taxpayer should fund some silly ‘kulchural’ scribblings, the government is guilt tripping us into justifying the pursuit of research that is not immediately ‘useful’. The Treasury is making us take a defensive stance by playing on our wishes not to seem elitist, conveniently disregarding the fact that the everyman (and woman) care more about money thrown away on wars and MP’s back-gardens.
However, rather than denouncing this practice, Professor West and others have taken the safer route by pandering to the government’s game, although I’m sure it doesn’t always sit easily on their consciences. But without the support of those in salaried positions of power like Professor West, I feel the only option for students is a depressing retreat into the cynicism we despise.
Perhaps because I naively held onto a cherished notion of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, I had not realised to what extent research has to have a marketable veneer in order to survive political machinations. Maybe I will end up surrounded by books and ideas like I had imagined, but if so I fancy it will be in a hermitage far removed from institutions that could have given so much to the world if only they hadn’t been so cowardly.