A common feature of government-commissioned higher education reviews in a number of countries in recent years has been the suggestion that publicly funded research (and indeed teaching programmes) should take account of national strategic priorities. Put another way, what this means is that if university researchers are spending public money on research projects, these should at least in some measure address issues and problems that the government has identified as being important.
So for example, this imperative was set out in New Horizons, the final report of the Scottish Joint Future Thinking Taskforce on Universities, as follows:
‘Universities already contribute and will expect to continue to contribute significantly to making Scotland a more prosperous place. In future, though, the Scottish Government will expect the university sector to demonstrate more explicitly how the funding it receives from the Government contributes to delivering against the National Outcomes, thereby ensuring there is alignment of publicly funded activity against the Scottish Government’s Purpose – its vision for the whole of Scotland – as set out in the National Performance Framework.’
Similarly in Ireland the Hunt report (National Strategy for Higher Education) suggested that research should be more focused and should address areas of strategic priority identified by the government.
The case for these recommendations would be that as significant public money is being spent, at least some of it should be spent on finding solutions to national problems identified by elected governments. The case – maybe not against this proposition, but at least in partial qualification of it – might be that the academy cannot constantly be conscripted to follow the latest political fad; and that society benefits greatly from general research capacity building, and that curiosity based research is often responsible for some of our greatest advances.
An example of the problems this kind of approach may encounter can be found in the recent decision by the British government to make David Cameron’s concept of the ‘big society’ a required subject for at least some funded research. Apparently the government made the maintenance of the full funding for the Arts and Humanities Research Council conditional on a ‘significant’ amount of the money being spent on the ‘big society’ idea. This has generated accusations that the government is using public money to give academic respectability to what is really just a political slogan.
It is a tricky issue. The ‘big society’ concept has already been the subject of some academic analysis anyway: for example, in this seminar at the University of Southampton. If public money were being allocated on the condition that researchers validate a political slogan or a particular party’s policies, then we would be moving into territory that might more comfortably be left to Libyan leader Colonel Gadaffi. But a more impartial approach to analyzing government policies, including analysis of a central policy platform, may be less of a problem. But even then some may feel that any government direction of the subject areas for academic research crosses a line.
It seems likely to me that it is no longer realistic to expect governments, with scarce resources to distribute, to stay away from any kind of prioritisation of research areas. However, what could not be acceptable would be any attempt to make research focus on partisan political concepts. Furthermore, what must also be ensured is that any such process does not take over the whole academy, and that independent research, including research with no particular policy agenda or strategic focus, is also maintained in significant volume. That is the deal that higher education must aim to strike.