Why we should abolish almost all research grants in the arts and humanities

Abstract: the UK should deal with casualisation in arts and humanities academia by abolishing almost all arts and humanities research grants. It should instead distribute the same money in the form of research leave, more or less equally, to all arts and humanities academics on permanent contracts. This would lead to replacing the majority of fixed-term roles with permanent ones, improving staff wellbeing, teaching, and research.

NB: this post only attempts to talk about the arts and humanities in UK higher education. The hard sciences, medicine, etc., have their own ecosystems and I don’t claim to have intelligent opinions on those.

It’s also a largely off-the-top-of-my-head thing rather than the product of plunging into whatever secondary literature might be out there on the subject. I want to see if there’s any prospect of kicking off a conversation, because I’m not seeing anyone talking about what I see as the elephant in the room regarding casualisation.

Research grants cause casualisation

Cover of a University of Leeds 'Guidance on the Employment of Researchers' document, with oak leaves on.

Oaks only actually give their best timber after the first three hundred years…

Over the last couple of years, the UK’s University and College Union has made a lot of noise about the casualisation of higher education employment (including unprecedented strikes in 2019-20 that, at the time of writing, have been overshadowed by the Coronacrisis).

What UCU mean by ‘casualisation’ is that a growing proportion of academic teaching and research is being done by people on fixed-term contracts (or, worse, paid by the hour). Moreover, the number of people with PhDs is growing relative to the number of academic jobs, so the chances of graduating from a PhD into a steady row of fixed-term contracts that lead to permanent employment has diminished sharply.

I won’t linger on the painful instability that fixed-term contracts create for the precarious staff who try to patch together a career out of these gigs, since most people I know have some understanding of the many consequences of insecure contracts for individual wellbeing, for equalities, and for students’ education. Most sensible people get that casualisation is bad news.

And I won’t linger on the incremental but important improvements that can be made by individual departments and universities to ameliorate this trend. (Respecting the letter and, better still, the spirit of the law that people should be made permanent after four years’ continuous employment would be a start…)

What bothers me is that I see so little discussion let alone questioning of what I think is the main cause of casualisation: research grants.

Just for the benefit of any non-higher-education readers: various agencies grant fixed-term funding for particular research projects, usually of around one to three years. Money is distributed through competitions where perhaps 5-20% of applications succeed. This funding is used to employ a fixed-term academic to do their own research; for a permanent academic to hire a fixed-term academic to do research on their behalf; or for a permanent academic to do their own research while a fixed-term academic is hired to cover their teaching.

This system surely accounts for most fixed-term contracts in UK arts and humanities Higher Education. (Some fixed-term staff are hired to fill other kinds of genuine, short-term need, like parental leave or long-term staff sickness, and I’m not objecting to that here.)

Research grant money could be distributed more effectively

So I suggest that the UK should scrap almost all research grants and the fixed-term contracts associated with them, and just distribute the money to departments proportionally to the number of their permanent staff to increase the amount of time that staff can routinely spend researching.

To put this another way: just imagine that everyone in your department currently on a research-grant-funded fixed-term contract (either doing research or filling in for someone who’s doing research) was made permanent tomorrow, and that their research time was shared out around your department in the form of regular statutory research leave.

Obviously I know that, since I have not yet achieved world domination, this is merely a utopian idea, but if we keep talking about casualisation without talking about the underlying problem then we’re not going to get far. So let’s at least talk about the elephant in the room.

I’m pretty sure that UK academia wasn’t always like this. But UK academics have certainly grown habituated to the culture of competitive research grants: league tables rank universities by grant income, so universities see grants not as a means to the end of advancing knowledge but as an end in themselves; departments encourage members to gain grants in order to increase staffing levels; universities make ‘grant capture’ a criterion for academics to be promoted (or even to pass probation); and academics also seek grants out of a sense of duty to their particular fields, to give opportunities to junior scholars in their area and to enable that area to flourish in competition with other ones.

So when I suggest that we should abolish research grants, my friends — in addition to telling me I have my head in the clouds — often think that I’m suggesting that their disciplines should wither and their departments shrink; that the careers of permanent staff should stall and that fixed-term staff should be thrown to the wolves.

But wouldn’t the redistribution of research grant money be a good thing? The money that is currently keeping people on fixed-term contracts would instead flow into permanent teaching-and-research contracts: hallelujah! There would be no fewer jobs than there are now, but people graduating from their PhDs would generally either get a permanent job fairly soon after graduating or realise that it was time to switch to plan B — rather than going down the brutal path of attrition that they do at the moment. Permanent staff would no longer waste time writing elaborate applications for competitive research grants that they have at best a 20% chance of getting. Money that universities currently spend employing people to help academics get research grants could now be spent on the salaries of teachers and researchers. Departments wouldn’t have to keep hiring at short notice to patch gaps left in the curriculum by staff getting grants and disappearing from the teaching team: they would hire a stable body of staff and could plan their research leave rota reliably. Correspondingly, students would get a better education, from better organised and happier staff including some permanent staff who were still young enough to function as plausible role-models.

My admittedly brief searches haven’t produced precise figures on how many UK arts and humanities staff are paid via research grants (23% of all UK academics are at least partly funded in this way), but I had a quick look at the stats for the monetary value of research grants disbursed in 2017-18 by the main UK arts funders. Since in the arts we don’t spend this money on large hadron colliders, almost all this expendituate ultimately pays the salaries and overheads of people doing research:

Funding body Funding disbursed, £million
Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) £63
British Academy £45
Leverhulme Trust £109
Total £217

In the same period there were around 30,000 full-time-equivalent academic staff in what the Higher Education Statistics Agency call ‘humanities, language based studies, and archaeology’ and ‘design, creative and performing arts’ on contracts not described as ‘atypical’. This is a decent proxy for the number of permanent and fixed-term arts and humanities staff in the UK.

By sharing £217 million between 30,000 staff, we could make all research-grant-funded staff permanent and allot each staff member £7233 per year. With average UK academic pay at £40,500 (probably lower in the arts and humanities), that might allow each staff member to have one semester’s research leave for every five spent teaching (if you assume direct salary replacement rather than assuming that the money also has to pay for imaginary overheads like hiring their office from their own university).

I assume here that all departments are treated equally: unlike current research grants, which are concentrated in a few ‘research-intensive’ universities, I’m assuming that everyone gets an equal share. So if you’re in a department where you don’t have statutory research leave, now you would. If you’re in a rich department that has a generous five-semesters-on, one-semester-off research leave scheme, you’d roughly double your research leave time.

Even if you assume that research leave really costs staff salary × 2, to account for overheads, I reckon this would still be a good deal. What would you rather have: an occasional long shot at winning some big grant that wins the applause of your bosses and employs people on precarious contracts, or guaranteed research leave every few years in a department where nearly everyone was permanent?

But what about my grand research projects?

Sometimes when I talk about this, people say ‘but I need grants to do the research I want to do’. This is potentially a fair objection. But do we?

There are some massive, long-term projects of really major importance national-level intellectual-capital investments, you might say that truly might need dedicated funding. Things like making a dictionary of a whole language, digitising the entirety of a large archive, or cataloguing every book published in the eighteenth century. Moreover, these are the kinds of projects which, running for decades, can provide secure, long-term jobs. That’s fine! Let’s put some money aside for those.

But most research funding goes into making monographs, articles, smallish databases, and the like. We can do these at least as well if we have regular, predictable research leave rather than scrapping over occasional big grants.

What about collaboration with other researchers? OK, so you might not be able to get a grant that would pay for a bunch of people all to work together at the same time. But with decent planning of predictable research leave, people at different institutions who wanted to collaborate could plan projects to fit with their research leave cycles, and arrange with their departments to synchronise leave, rather than just having to hope that they’ll get that shot-in-the-dark research grant.

Of course, everything I’m imagining here assumes that UK research does not benefit from the competitive distribution of research grants. I doubt that many humanities academics really think the nation gets more bang for its buck because we’re competing with each other for big chunks of scarce funds. We care about our research: we want to do it and to do it well. We build up ideas and enthusiasm while teaching, and when research leave comes around we make the most of it, before returning to teaching and refilling the ideas tank. This article caught my eye a few years ago: it found that ‘impact was generally a decelerating function of funding. Impact per dollar was therefore lower for large grant-holders’. That is, if you give everyone a little research time you get more and better research than if you give a few people a lot. If you disagree, I’m happy to debate it.

Conclusion

Casualisation in the arts and humanities in the UK is driven by the development of a counterproductive culture of competitive research grants. The money could be better spent, producing happier staff, better teaching, and more efficient use of research time. The AHRC, British Academy, and Leverhulme Trust should just pool most of their cash and distribute it equally to staff on permanent contracts. There would be no fewer jobs in UK academia, but a lot fewer precarious ones.

Epilogue

Just as a bit of historical/autobiographical context, these musings are (for better or worse) quite deep-rooted in my academic formation. In 2000-2004 I was a postgrad at Glasgow, and in 2003-4 and 2005-7 I studied and worked in at Helsinki. People older and wiser than me might remember otherwise, but the way I understood it at the time, the UK ecosystem was much closer to what I propose than it is now (albeit with the government research money being distributed via the hated Research Assessment Exercise).

Meanwhile, a more extreme form of the situation we’re experiencing in the UK held in Finland. Research foundations poured money into bloated but temporary research units, while university departments seldom had mechanisms to give their teaching staff statutory research leave. This created a two-tier system of researchers who had the track record to keep winning research funding and teachers who never had a chance, depriving staff of a rounded career and undergraduates of research-led tuition. Getting a permanent lectureship in your twenties was unheard of and people would be happy to land one in their forties; again, undergraduates were deprived of tuition by young, permanently-employed staff whom they could identify with. As well as the fixed-term postdoctoral researchers, there was a proletariat of precariously employed sub-doctoral research assistants whose names seldom if ever appeared on the papers for which they did the research.

This (anecdotal) historical experience emphasises that the UK’s arts and humanities research ecosystem could be worse than it is and worse is what it will be if current trends don’t change. But it also emphasises that the UK’s ecosystem could be much better, and, if I understand things right, it has been. It could be again.

About alarichall

http://www.alarichall.org.uk
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