§ 8.16 p.m.
§ Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will establish a Humanities Research Council.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, in asking Her Majesty's Government whether they will establish a Humanities Research Council I wish to emphasise the value to this country and more widely of research into what one may term the liberal arts and to argue that the humanities are currently disadvantaged in not having a research council of their own.
§ I confess that I am a little intimidated by the eminence of the noble Lords who have put their names down to speak in the debate. They include several Fellows of the British Academy and of the Royal Society and also the Chancellor of what in my home town is thought of as another place. I am delighted to see him taking his place.
§ It is also encouraging to see that the reply for the Government is to be given by my noble friend Lady Blatch. Her meticulous care, not least in educational matters, inspires so much confidence, and I greatly hope that she will find herself in agreement with some of the points that I shall raise tonight.
§ It is an exciting time for British universities. The enlargement of the university sector, inaugurated by the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, is undoubtedly increasing access to university education. There had been significant growth—about 25 per cent. in the five years to 1991—in the number of students reading art subjects and the increase continues. But it is not clear that the Government have given such 1211 thorough and careful attention to the development of research in that area as they have perhaps in science and engineering.
§ The hope that underlies my Question is that the Government will modify and improve the arrangements for funding the humanities by setting up a Humanities Research Council. The well-tried device of the research council is already employed in nearly all other areas of research. There are the Science and Engineering Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Agriculture and Food Research Council, the Medical Research Council and the National Environment Research Council.
§ Until now funding for research in the humanities has been channelled through the British Academy by the Department of Education. In general, the British Academy has served the humanities very well in organising the postgraduate studentship scheme, in making grants to researchers and in other ways. But recently the Government changed the environment for research in this field and in others by determining that in the sciences and social sciences the dual support system, in which research in universities is supported via both the Higher Education Funding Council and through the research councils, has shifted significantly in favour of the latter. The humanities have been left out of the change. They alone are not represented at the Advisory Board of Research Councils because they do not have a research council. Therefore, when research funding is discussed they are not present. In that sense they have been overlooked. They need a seat at the table and a significant voice. They need a research council of their own.
§ The matter was reviewed recently by a joint working party of the British Academy and of the Economic and Social Research Council chaired by Sir Brian Follett. It recommended a separate humanities research council within the Office of Science and Technology alongside the other research councils. That view is strongly supported by the British Academy, which now finds itself in an anomalous position because it is working both as a funding channel for the humanities—a surrogate humanities research council—and as the major national learned body in this area and for the social sciences. It is the equivalent in its own field of the Royal Society in the field of the sciences. A national academy is the proper role of the British Academy.
§ The Royal Society exists alongside the Science and Engineering Research Council and the other scientific research councils as the leading academic voice among scientists. It has its own scheme for Royal Society professorships and readerships. The British Academy would likewise continue to represent British scholarship both in the field of the humanities and in the social sciences at home and overseas. It would continue to have a professorship and readership scheme as well as a small grant scheme for grants of up to £2,000, which are the life blood of the research of so many individual scholars in the humanities. It would still be the appropriate base for the organisation and overseeing of the prestigious British research institutions in the humanities overseas such 1212 as the British School at Rome and the British School at Athens. But it would hand over to the new humanities research council the responsibility for postgraduate studentships, project funding and the further developments in the funding of the humanities which accompany the present revolution in information technology.
§ There is a general consensus in the academic world that the humanities now require their own separate research council. There is no good case for assimilating its function with that of the existing Economic and Social Research Council.
§ Admittedly, funding of the humanities is currently at a surprisingly low level, namely some £19 million a year through the British Academy, compared with some £45 million a year through the Social Science Research Council and more than £800 million a year for the sciences through the various scientific research councils. However, the British Academy and the Economic and Social Sciences Research Council agree that the new organisation should be independent, although there could be a case for sharing various administrative services and thus keeping down any additional administrative costs. After all, those two fields—the humanities and the social sciences—together represent more than half the university teachers in this country. At the same time often the humanities practise a different kind of research from that in the social sciences where some form of centralised policy for research can sometimes have a role. The very different character of research in the two fields should be appreciated.
§ This proposal is not a bid for massive new funds. The additional administrative costs are estimated to be of the order of £200,000 or £300,000 a year. Certainly research in the humanities is currently underfunded in comparison with other fields, especially when the number of university teachers in this area is taken into account and the increasing number of students, and perhaps also the diminishing unit of resource for teaching in the humanities. In this context, we are talking of £1 million or £2 million per year of extra money and certainly not in terms of tens of millions of pounds.
§ I should like to make it clear that I am not asking for a change in the dual support system for the humanities which might parallel the change recently implemented for the sciences, and might to some extent undermine the direct funding of the humanities in the universities through the Higher Education Funding Council. The present system for the humanities has worked well in the past. It needs to be improved and upgraded by the institution of a new research council. It does not need more radical restructuring, nor is more than a modest increase in resources required at this time.
§ The proposal which I have made commands the support of the British Academy, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. With the transfer in responsibility for research funding from the Department of Education to the Office for Science and Technology, it is essential that the humanities should be given a role and a level of recognition equal to that 1213 of other disciplines. Literature, philosophy, classics, theology, languages, the law, history, and—dare I say it? —archaeology, have a central role in the intellectual life of any civilised society. Your Lordships will surely agree that while science and technology may facilitate the path of progress, and while economics may dictate its pace to some extent, it is the climate of philosophy and of ideas which conditions the world in which we live and our aspirations for it. It is our responsibility to ensure that the English language and the ideas to which it may give expression continue to develop and to achieve renewal, drawing upon original investigation and enlightened contemplation.
§ I hope that your Lordships will encourage the Government to give these matters the further attention and continuing commitment which they undoubtedly merit.
§ 8.25 p.m.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, as a university teacher in the humanities I must declare an interest in this Question, which I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, for introducing.
Opinions on the proposal have been submitted by a large number of bodies, many of them bodies of which I am a member. We have opinions from King's College, London, the council of the Royal Historical Society, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, the British Academy and the Liberal Democrats. Quite often when a large number of bodies to which one belongs express opinions there may be a need for a certain amount of adjustment. However, on this occasion all those bodies are unanimous, and my personal and private opinion happens to coincide with their view.
The noble Lord, Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, has already mentioned the report by Sir Brian Follett, FRS, commissioned by the British Academy. That report said:It is of paramount importance that the humanities remain part of the mainstream national research effort and in no sense be isolated: only in this way do we believe that long-term excellence can be maintained".Since the shift to dual funding of research and away from the link with student numbers to the research councils, it has become important that the humanities are the only disciplines that do not have their own research council. That creates some risk of being left out. The British Academy does the best it can, but the British Academy is stressing as strongly as any other body the need for a research council. The British Academy is not involved in debate at the stage of formation of policy. That means that on occasion policies for research are evolved without the needs of the humanities being considered as closely as they might otherwise have been.
For example, I do not believe that the new scheme for postgraduate training which is just coming into effect would have been introduced in precisely its present form if the humanities had been consulted at an earlier stage of the process. In the conduct of the recently completed research assessment exercise I do not believe that either the categories of classification or the categories of publication into which our output 1214 was divided would have been described in precisely the way in which they were if the humanities had had rather more input earlier in the process. The crucial argument is that one cannot afford to be left out of the discussions in which policy is formed.
I listened a few moments ago to the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, saying how important it is to be present when important decisions are being taken and to be able to fight one's corner. That puts the case for the humanities as well as it puts the case for the United Kingdom.
Research is often the residuary legatee of an academic's time. It takes what is left over after everything else has been done and, as this House has always known, being the residuary legatee of an encumbered estate is not always a happy situation. There are a great many things going on which take up what might otherwise have been research time. Of course the current expansion has put a lot of pressure on everybody's research time. I think that that pressure is in danger of being particularly acute in the humanities.
If we look at the actual figures for expansion in the five years to 1990–91, the expansion in student numbers in the humanities has been 26 per cent. while in science, medicine and engineering it has been 11 per cent. I suspect that when the next year's figures are taken into account that differential will be a little wider. So there is a danger of pressure on research in the humanities being more acute than pressure in other subjects. If our standing in research in the humanities, which in this country has always been very high indeed, is to be preserved, it is important that the case for the humanities should be heard alongside the cases for science, engineering, medicine and the social sciences. It is only in that way that all the disciplines will be placed on the equality which I think is the only proper and reasonable basis on which they should compete.
There is also a strong point to be made about research libraries. I have some colleagues in the United States working in the same field as I do who cannot check the ordinary basic points that need to be checked every day without travelling to a library 300 miles away. There is nothing in this country that is that far away, but there are a number of places which are quite a long way away from the nearest decent research library. I am not saying that that need to travel can be eliminated but I think that on occasion it could be reduced, and reducing it might in the long term save money on applications for grants for casual travelling to undertake ordinary basic research.
I think there is also a stronger case for a humanities research council in the light of the end of the binary line and the recognition of the research potential of the new universities. There are a considerable number of people in the new universities whose research abilities are excellent and the recognition they have hitherto had is not always commensurate with their abilities. Their institutions are not used to funding research; they are not used to thinking in research terms sometimes. They do not always have basic research facilities. If we are to make a genuine commitment out of that ending of the binary line and develop the 1215 talents of those people, there is a need for central funding and also a need for an institution which can recognise the excellence and guide the central funding in the direction it should go.
There is a final question—and on this also the policy of the Liberal Democrats is in entire agreement with what the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, has asked. The question is whether it should be a joint humanities research council or a joint humanities and social sciences research council. Anyone who is a spokesman on social security has a profound respect for work done in the social sciences. I use it very often and am deeply grateful for it. However, the point is that the research methods are slightly different, the questions are different, the skills are different and the discipline is different. My noble kinsman Lord Henley has many times rebuked me for the use of anecdotal evidence, but I think he is well aware of this point. So because the humanities are in research funding terms a small part of the total effort, and also because our interests are in some ways separate and different, I think there is a case for a separate humanities research council which can be argued in terms very similar to the case for having a Scottish Office and a Welsh Office.
§ 8.35 p.m.
§ Lord Dainton
My Lords, I must confess to feeling a little lonely in this company, as the only scientist here and one who many years ago deserved a headline in the national press which referred to "that illiterate Dainton". My mind goes back to some 60 years ago when I went to Cambridge and the late Lord Rutherford was then, in the early 1930s, reputed to be facing a financial cutback in the funds of the Cavendish Laboratory. He called his staff together —there were no ladies—and said "Gentlemen, we have less money: we must think harder." Forty years after that, Rutherford's words came back to my mind with great force during my first year as chairman of the University Grants Committee. In the financial year 1973–74 inflation was rising to reach ultimately almost 30 per cent. and the Government broke with past practice and withheld the supplementation that would have maintained in real terms the value of the UGC grant.
This created a financial crisis for many universities, with real prospects of insolvency for some of them. I am not going to weary your Lordships with the stratagems we had to adopt to get through the following year, because I want to emphasise that it was this financial stringency which focused the minds of myself and the then secretary, Mr. John Carswell, on the uniquely vulnerable position of British university research in the humanities, to the plight of which the Arts Sub-Committee of the University Grants Committee had drawn my attention.
As the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, has explained, the natural scientists and engineers, the medical scientists, the agricultural scientists, the environmental scientists and the social scientists each had and still have a research council empowered to make grants to academics, either individually or in teams, to finance 1216 their research. In marked contrast, the humanists had to rely for their help on whatever their universities could afford to give from the block grant. The experience of 1974 showed that when times were hard one of the easiest areas in which universities could make economies was in financial help to academic staff in the humanities, despite the fact that work in these areas often could not progress without travels to institutions which had unique collections of artefacts or historical or literary material. We therefore decided to discuss these issues with the British Academy and during these consultations the case for a humanities research council was advanced, I think for the first time. It was hoped that it would resemble in some respects arrangements which already existed in some other countries of comparable size and development to Britain.
Because of the certainty at that time that a humanities research council would not be established, the University Grants Committee decided to make available to the British Academy in 1975 £125,000 per annum for an initial period of five years. They succeeded in persuading the Department of Education and Science, the Scottish Education Department and the Department of Education in Northern Ireland to cough up from their resources a year later. That was all done with the idea of fostering research work of high quality in the arts and humanities. Earmarking the money in this way, they passed it on to the British Academy to act as agent in its distribution, simply because the Academy knew most about the individuals who would be applying. We guessed that would be a good way of protecting the funds available for arts and humanities research from erosion in individual universities. As I say, a year later the other departments in other parts of the country, in Northern Ireland and Scotland, joined in. Later of course came the development which resulted in more work being put upon the British Academy, which became responsible for the award of research studentships, as the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, has described.
I have recounted this history not just to explain the origin of the responsibilities which the British Academy now discharges, but also to illustrate how financial adversity can concentrate thought. Furthermore that adversity is now afflicting the universities once again but for rather different, and perhaps more importantly, more permanent reasons.
The first is that part of the price which the Government have decided must be paid by the universities for expansion of higher education is that the unit of resource for undergraduate students in humanities and the arts shall decrease. In fact an immediate decrease of 30 per cent. was announced recently. Secondly, large funds hitherto allotted to, but unearmarked within, the universities' own block grants to enable them to meet the indirect costs of research grants made to universities in subjects other than the arts and humanities, are now being transferred, as we have heard, from the funding councils to the various science research councils for the latter to distribute as they think fit, thereby further diminishing the resources over which universities have individual and complete control.
1217 If one adds to those two factors the increased cost in pounds, due to deflation of our currency, for those scholars whose research work necessitates foreign visits to libraries and archaeological sites, it is certain that funds from university sources for humanities research are facing a disproportionate squeeze. Therefore it is clear to me at any rate that the time is ripe, if not over-ripe, for a reconsideration of the role and responsibilities of the United Kingdom in humanities research and of the means by which policy in that area can be reviewed, made and implemented.
The British Academy considered this problem and two-and-a-half years ago recommended the establishment of a humanities research council. Then it held discussions with the Economic and Social Research Council through the mechanism of a joint working party under an independent chairman, and that group came down firmly against a joint research council embracing all these three subjects and on the side of an additional humanities research council. It is evident that this conclusion will be widely supported by the research community in arts and humanities. The Academy has thought further about these matters and considered which of its existing activities, at present funded by the Government, should be transferred to the proposed humanities research council. Broadly speaking I agree with the division that it has proposed, and for a reason which has not yet been mentioned but which I believe is fundamental to the proper development of the world of learning in this country. It is that the learned societies, among which the British Academy is an acknowledged leader in its field, should not become, or in any way appear to become, the merely mechanical agents of whatever Government are in power, but should be completely free to express their unfettered and, if necessary, critical opinions on any matter which is within their competence. Any step which would put that independence at risk by making them too dependent on government funding should, in my view, be avoided at all costs.
So far, I am at one with the Academy. But on one issue I would part company. The British Academy would like to see a humanities research council as an additional and therefore sixth research council and funded by the new Office of Public Service and Science. I must take this opportunity to reiterate once again my view that to have six independent research councils each protected by a Royal Charter, each doing essentially similar administrative tasks in subject areas whose boundaries cannot be precisely drawn because the areas overlap, and within a single one of which several fields of research cannot be confined, is undesirable because it is inflexible, wasteful, productive of excessive bureaucracy and emphasises distinctions in the map of learning and of knowledge where none should exist. To my mind the argument of a single research council or national research foundation drawing its resources from the Office of Public Service and Science (which might be renamed the Office of Public Service and Research) is overwhelming.
In conclusion, therefore, I would urge the Government to take very seriously what is being said today and, forgetting about nomenclature, accept the 1218 case for the humanities and arts research to be treated in a similar manner to research in other subjects, thus giving some degree of policy coherence and protecting good research in whatever institution it may be being carried out.
§ 8.44 p.m.
§ Baroness Perry of Southwark
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Renfrew for having tabled this Question. I welcome very much the opportunity to support his proposal. I do so as a former member of the Economic and Social Research Council and as a one time student and then teacher of philosophy. I might claim to have my foot both in the social science and in the humanities camps.
I support the proposal for a separate humanities research council for three main reasons. First—this has been well rehearsed—the present arrangements are not working. The British Academy is not happy with its present role and it is not right that the humanities are treated in a way which is totally different from all other research. The importance of being able to argue the case for the humanities alongside the case for science, technology, social sciences, agriculture and other subjects has been well made.
Secondly, I wish strongly to contradict the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, as regards the idea that any kind of amalgamation of research councils into one overall body would be desirable. Experience on the Economic and Social Research Council led me strongly to believe in the importance of having a lead body for research and scholarship in a particular area not only because of the practical work it was able to do—the ESRC has carried out splendidly practical work in the past few years particularly in the provision of regulations for postgraduate training—but also because of the focus it provided for the academic community in that particular field. I have never been persuaded by the argument of amalgamation or of a single research council. I believe that the Advisory Board for the Research Councils, properly strengthened and perhaps somewhat reorganised, could do the job that the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, requests.
In particular, I believe it would be wrong for the humanities council and the Economic and Social Research Council to become one and the same, if that were to be proposed, not least because the splendid work which has been done, most particularly under the chairmanship of Professor Newby in the past few years at ESRC, has done so much to raise the standards and the standing of British social science. That is something that could only be detracted from if we were to ask that body to take on the substantial responsibilities for humanities as well.
My third reason, however, concerns what I believe is the crucial importance of research and postgraduate training in the humanities. I was moved recently to hear, on a visit to Lithuania, the rector of Vilnius University talk about the immense and daunting task which universities in the former Soviet Union face to recreate, so to speak, the idea of a modern university. He made the point that the universities in the former Soviet Union need to catch up with technology and 1219 science. It is right that we in the West have placed tremendous emphasis on the importance of technology and science to take us into the future. I thought the rector's words constituted a wise lesson for us when he said how tremendously difficult and how important it would be for the universities in the former Soviet Union to recreate the concept of humanities and liberal education. He said we live in a society where for the past 70 years the qualification for being either a senior administrator or a politician has been to have as little education as possible. He said that we in the West take it for granted that we produce people with a liberal education who can take their place as senior members of government and senior politicians whereas the universities in the former Soviet Union have to recreate that from nothing.
It seems to me that he had well described the reasons why we have not only university education but also postgraduate training and research across the whole gamut of the academic spectrum. I believe that a humanities research council would enable us to keep that balance right. There is a danger in that in our quite proper anxiety to increase the vocational and technological nature of our education and of our academic community we may forget the foundations of what a civilised society needs. That could be only further strengthened by the creation of a humanities research council.
§ 8.50 p.m.
§ Lord Bullock
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Dainton suggested that the present structure of research councils is far from perfect, and that, while sympathetic to the cause of the humanities, it would be a mistake to add yet one more embattled research council. We have five, which is already too many. I understand his argument, but the real point that strikes me about it is why, in that situation, should it be the humanities that is the one left out? That is what troubles me, and where there has been a serious lack.
It is because they have no research council of their own that those teaching and working in the humanities have not had the opportunity to contribute to, and take part in, discussions, perhaps the battles, between the various research councils on the Advisory Body for Research Councils by which the division of their grants is settled. They are also alone in having no access to the Office of Science and Technology, which has taken over responsibility for funding project-based research in everything except the humanities.
This anomalous position, if continued, will work still more to the disadvantage of the humanities in the future for two reasons. The first is because of the changed arrangements for the funding of universities, the effect of which has already been mentioned, and I shall not go further into it. But clearly, unless there is a change there, the humanities will just lose out more than they do at the moment. The second is because the burden of student expansion has fallen disproportionately on the humanities and social sciences, 1220 leading to a continued deterioration in the staff-student ratio for the humanities and a steady increase in the amount of time demanded of academic staff for teaching undergraduates.
There is a tendency to speak about research in the humanities as if it were a form of self indulgence, or self promotion, when what dons are really paid to do is to teach. But hitherto it has been the hallmark of university teaching in this country that it has been in the hands of men and women who are not only able but, as part of their duties, are required to keep up with and contribute to the development of their subject. This double obligation to teach and to research seems to me to be to the benefit of both sides. My own experience of teaching is that it continually stimulated many thoughts that I might otherwise not have had. As for the benefit in teaching, there is nothing that can equal the intellectual excitement and benefit of contact with a teacher who is also actively engaged in research and in forwarding his subject.
It may be that the expansion of student numbers is going to make that less common than it was. I was taught by people who today would be very unlikely, because it would either be vice-chancellors or regius professors who would have that contact with undergraduates, but it was decisive for me. It was that element of teaching by somebody who not only knew about the subject but was continually adding to what could be known about the subject that was important. Even today, with the expansion of numbers, at some time in their three or four years an undergraduate should have experience of that contact with somebody who is actively engaged in research.
Even to do that means that we have to make special provision to provide protected time for research at least for our ablest people. Above all it means time, because it is that that is always encroached on when there is competition between teaching and research —time in the form of postgraduate studentships to begin with; full-time post-doctoral research fellowships in the early stages of a career, and, what is most important, grants, also competitive, enabling established scholars to "buy out" time off from teaching and administration for up to two years of full-time research.
These are provided under the present arrangements to a small degree, but they are not on a scale comparable to the percentage of academic staff in our universities—which I am told is 15 per cent. to 20 per cent. of the total—engaged in the humanities. Leaving aside the support grants received from the Universities Funding Council, the 1991 figure for research income from all sources for humanities, language-based studies and the creative arts together, was £16.5 million. When compared with £860 million for all other subjects this shows how serious is the disadvantage that the humanities suffer, and will continue to suffer, so long as they are excluded from the research council set-up.
This still leaves open the question whether there needs to be a separate research council for the humanities. It is striking that a joint committee of the Economic and Social Research Council and the British Academy considered this alternative seriously 1221 and rejected it unanimously. They showed in their report that the financial saving was not important, would not be more than £500,000 a year, and was far outweighed by the disadvantages.
One disadvantage that has not been mentioned is that such a combined research council for social sciences and the humanities would have to cover over half—52 per cent.—of the academic community, while the other four research councils would share the responsibility for less than half. If it is to be representative, that would mean a large, unwieldy council, and still risk leaving important areas of research unrepresented. The social science constituency would resent having to give up places and would be concerned at the drain of funds from social science research to the humanities, while those working in the humanities would never overcome the feeling that, as the only branch of the academic community denied a research council of their own, they were being treated as second-rate citizens.
There would be—and I think that the Follett Committee was right on this—a risk of perpetual friction between the two disciplines. It is a set-up designed to produce that. I am sure that it is not only those who are working in the humanities who would urge the Government to think again and to create a humanities research council, but equally strongly those who are working in the social sciences. Those two together represent 52 per cent. of the academic community.
Finally, I am equally sure that the present arrangement has also worked to the disadvantage of the British Academy simply because it was unable to bring sufficient weight to bear, and because of its status—it was not a research council—to secure what many of the Fellows felt was a proper provision for the humanities. If the present makeshift arrangements could be got rid of and replaced, that would not only be welcomed by the academy but would do a great deal for the academy.
The responsibility for public support for the academy would be transferred to the Office for Science and Technology, which would place the academy on an equal footing with the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineers. That seems to me to be most important. Secondly, relieved of the burden of acting as a substitute for a humanities research council, the academy would then be in a much better position to take much-needed steps to give more adequate representation to social scientists in its membership than it can at present.
§ 8.58 p.m.
§ Lord Blake
My Lords, as a Fellow of the British Academy since 1967 I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Renfrew for asking this Unstarred Question. I strongly support the establishment of a humanities research council and always have. The reasons have been well set out by other noble Lords, so I shall not speak at any length this evening. The situation about the humanities in relation to the Government is anomalous and confused. The position of the British Academy, as the noble Lord, Lord Bullock, points out, is curiously ambivalent.
1222 I am clear in my own mind that it ought to be as an essentially private institution or society, having the same sort of relationship with the Government as the Royal Society. It ought to have been transferred after the general election to the responsibility of the newly-created Office of Science and Technology, the OST, as the Royal Society was transferred. More important, the humanities ought to be given the same status of having a research council of their own, as with every other branch of academic learning. It would be possible to amalgamate humanities with the Economic and Social Research Council. One could not say that that was impracticable. But that would save little money and would involve a built-in formula for friction. I believe that such an amalgamation should be avoided at any cost.
The truth is that under the existing structure the humanities have only a muffled voice in the Government's consideration of academic research. They can make their views known only indirectly to the Advisory Board for the Research Councils (ABRC). The British Academy has no direct access. Its president is unable to fight his corner with the advisory board or whatever other authority is involved, as do heads of research councils. That cannot be right.
The academy accepted the role given to it in 1974–75 with considerable doubt. There was much misgiving about being a conduit for government funding of the humanities. At the time I was either a current member of the council of the British Academy or had been a member. However, I remember the discussions and general anxiety. It seemed somehow dishonourable at that time to reject that role, and the British Academy would have appeared in a bad light if it had done so.
The academic world and its problems have greatly changed since that time for reasons set out by several noble Lords. I believe that a humanities research council is the only satisfactory way forward if we are to avoid the humanities becoming metaphorically neglected, second-class citizens of the academic world. In many respects that is what they are at present. If matters continue as they are they will become third-class citizens.
I do not know what my noble friend Lady Blatch will say in reply. However, I hope that she will not take the view, since the arrangement with the British Academy has worked up to a point, that all is well and that there is no need for change. It is not a matter of changing the role simply because it is anomalous and peculiar. Many things are anomalous and peculiar in life, including perhaps your Lordships' House. But the system is not functioning well. What worked 18 years ago does not work well now. I hope that my noble friend will reflect on that point when she replies.
§ 9.2 p.m.
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, I believe that I am safe in saying that your Lordships' House has never heard five Fellows of the British Academy among the first seven contributors in a debate. It is all the more surprising that they all agree with each other. The case has been well put by my colleagues. However, I wish 1223 to approach it from a slightly different angle: that is, to explain historically why part of what we seek is to clear up an anomaly in the organisation of this country's intellectual life.
The Royal Society was founded by His Majesty King Charles II and therefore has a long and distinguished history in this country, in Europe and in world science generally. It was the only internationally-recognised learned body until the end of the last century. Only then did the humanities and social sciences begin to be organised for research purposes.
Part of its important task, as my noble friend Lady Perry pointed out, was to maintain intellectual contacts with other countries. At that time most other countries had academies. Many still have. Everyone knows that the Academy of Sciences in the former Soviet Union covers almost every form of knowledge. Most countries had academies which stretched across the divide. Therefore we created an academy which would do for those left out of the Royal Society what the Royal Society did for those included in.
Over almost the century that has elapsed, that has produced this curious fact. The academy includes fellows in the humanities and the social sciences. However, through developments over the past few years in public funding of research the social scientists have a research council of their own, and the British Academy has been asked to act for the remnant. As the noble Lord, Lord Bullock, said, that could produce a neglect of the importance of the humanities in our general intellectual world.
Therefore to leave the situation as it exists at present would be a mistake from both the national point of view and that of the academy. It is not that the academy cannot do the job that it has been assigned, as my noble friend Lord Blake pointed out. But it does so by going outside the normal activities of what is essentially a private learned society. No one imagines that the fellows of the academy spend their time controlling the distribution of postgraduate studentships, for instance. As soon as one has large sums of public money for which one is an agent, it is bound to distort the central activity.
Another serious point has been touched upon by preceding speakers. The expansion of the university community to something approaching 100 institutions needs the machinery to make sure that those who teach in some of the more remote or newer institutions are not discriminated against in any way and do not feel themselves discriminated against when public money is spent to assist their researches.
Given the slowness with which academies renew their membership, it would take decades before we had anything like an even representation. Without a fairly even representation, there is always the possibility that some promising scholar who needs financial assistance will be overlooked. That is particularly true in the humanities, because the necessary concentration of humanities research near major deposit libraries—the noble Earl, Lord Russell, talked about this—and also near the great national archives makes the Oxford-Cambridge-London 1224 triangle difficult to steer against. Therefore, it seems to me that from the national point of view it would be a great advantage to have a separate body with a single purpose—the distribution of public funds in a way that could at the different levels promote research in the humanities.
It would be good for the academy, as the noble Lord, Lord Bullock, said, to be able to limit itself to its prime tasks. The schools overseas have been mentioned. But equally the proposal would include a certain number of senior research posts and, above all, I repeat, building up what the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, pointed out—the important element which ought now to enter into our relations in the world generally, if you like, but in Europe particularly and in the newly enfranchised countries which are beginning to feel their way towards the idea of free research in a free society.
I believe that the arguments against trying to do that with the social sciences within a single research council have been amply stated. I only add to them something which was alluded to but was perhaps not sufficiently emphasised. It is difficult to harness an elephant and a donkey. We require in the social sciences—particularly as they now develop—the idea of project research, teams and rather large expenditure on major projects of different kinds. The Economic and Social Research Council has now developed this on the whole in a satisfactory way.
Humanists are mostly—there are exceptions such as the new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary —concerned with relatively small impediments to their individual pieces of research. It may make all the difference if someone can have £500, not, as may be the case, for a huge team in the social sciences, but to visit a particular library in a city which they would otherwise be unable to afford, especially in the current straitened circumstances of universities. I am sure that it is even truer of those who are still active on the university scene that one constantly comes up against relatively small needs which, even taken together, would probably do no more than match a single major project in the social sciences, let alone a single major project in the natural sciences.
Therefore, although I can see that there is a temptation to say, "Well, either leave things as they are or let us have a joint research council", the argument for an independent humanities research council has been made. I hope that the noble Baroness will take that with her to her colleagues.
§ 9.13 p.m.
§ Lord Bridges
My Lords, I intervene briefly in the debate in order to draw attention to one matter which would be involved in a decision to fund humanities research in a new and different way. It concerns the 11 British scholarly institutions which operate abroad and which are at present funded through the British Academy. Those bodies are engaged in academic field work with a prime concern for archaeology and history, although they also have other interests and cover a wide range of disciplines. Typically, their origin lies in archaeological research conducted by British scholars in the last century. I should explain 1225 that I am interested in the subject because I am a member of the council of the British School at Rome, which is an institution I have known for over 40 years. I am also familiar with the British School at Athens which I came to know well when I lived in Greece some years ago.
The present arrangements by which the British Academy supervises the funding of the schools from official sources is generally held to be satisfactory. Budgetary supervision by the academy is thorough and effective. Also there is the advantage that the academy understands very well the nature of the research which is going on in the schools themselves.
The British School at Rome greatly hopes that its financial relationship with the Government can continue to be conducted through the academy in future, should a humanities research council be established in one form or another. I cannot speak for the academy, but I understand that that is also its view.
A strong reason for such a solution is that supervision of the schools would fit in well with the academy's role, which is shared only with the Royal Society, as a point of focus for relations with learned bodies in foreign countries.
The sums involved in supporting the schools are not small; namely, about £2.4 million in the current year, which is about 8 per cent. of the academy's total budget. Most of the schools have other sources of finance and are attempting to do all they can to maximise revenue at the present time.
I should add that the schools which I happen to know personally are very important as acknowledged centres of British academic activity. They operate in areas of study where our scholars have a deservedly high reputation. It is important that a solution can be adopted for the future to fund humanities research so as to safeguard their position. It is very much in the national interest that that should be done.
I mention the subject tonight not because I believe it to be controversial, but because of its importance. If the noble Baroness could find time to visit some of those schools in the course of her travels, I am sure that she would find much to interest her. I also believe that she would be very welcome.
§ 9.16 p.m.
§ Lord Quinton
My Lords, I am inclined to believe that the difficult situation in which the humanities find themselves at the moment in regard to research may partly be due to certain sniffiness on their part in the past as to the whole idea of research. I do not think that Gibbon and Macaulay would have described their activities as engaging in research. It was study; it was something different. It is true that the style of study or investigation carried out in the traditional humanities is different from that which prevails in other forms of intellectual inquiry. As my noble friend Lord Beloff pointed out, it is more individualistic and is not a matter of large collective projects. That is reflected on the whole by the fact that what scholars in the humanities most require to assist them is comparatively small grants of money, in so far as we are talking about money. Humanists (if I may so call 1226 them), or persons engaged in study of the humanities, have been reluctant for a long time to regard their activity as describable as research. That does not mean that it is not or that their situation is not difficult.
Let us get down to the concrete basis of the whole matter. It has two aspects: first, providing for youngsters emerging with their first degrees who want to go on for one purpose or another to further graduate study; and, secondly, supporting established scholars in their work. In the humanities, both have been conducted by the British Academy. But the British Academy was the sole agent for the support of the young emerging student seeking a grant for graduate study; whereas all it could do was provide rather modest sums in the form of small grants for individual scholars who applied to it. It acted as an agent for the Government who gave it substantial, if not exactly generous, sums for young, newly-graduated people. But it had extraordinarily little influence on how that was to be done, who was to get it or, in particular, how much was to be received. They exercised a remote control over the selection of successful candidates.
Besides that, they had a very small role in distributing moneys to mature, established scholars. One says that the position of the British Academy is anomalous. It is a peculiar kind of anomaly—that is to say, it is a deep, or real or "not British" anomaly. What I mean by a "British anomaly" is the MCC. Why should that salubrious but not particularly rural borough exercise through its cricket club such an extraordinary imperial control over English cricket? It does not matter; it is just a name.
The British Academy is not like that. As has been said, the British Academy is a private, learned society primarily concerned to arrange foreign exchanges, organise lectures and support rather refined kinds of research and publication. It is certainly not well-suited to the major task which one would hope a Humanities Research Council would be able to carry out.
It is therefore a great illusion that the British Academy is a kind of humanities MCC. It is nothing of the sort. If anything, it is a kind of Wisden editorial committee, much more distantly related to the hard nuts and bolts of life for a person doing research in the humanities. What researchers in humanities are short of, as has been pointed out in recent reports on the subject, are two things—time and money. British universities are becoming more like the trains in India one sees in news programmes where one cannot actually see the train because of the number of people who are hanging on to the outside of it. With the British Academy it means that the staff of universities are so busy preventing the passengers falling off beside the track that they have little time to polish the door handles, clean the seats and generally render the train a more fit and adequate mode of transport.
The way to deal with that is to provide tracts of time in which research can be pursued. In humanities that is thin on the ground. At the highest professorial level at the moment there are two such posts, both provided by a private benefactor. There is no publicly-supported professorial research post in the humanities. There are some readerships, and they are 1227 gratefully received and valuable. But they do not remotely compare in volume with the support that is given to other fields of learning.
The other point—which has already been touched on and I have already prepared the way for it in a Freudian slip—is that students in humanities, pursuers of knowledge, need libraries. Libraries are very much Cinderellas. In the general ambit or view of the university budget they are the facility on which economies can be made so that the absolute front line activities can be carried on. It is said, "The library has a lot of stuff in it; it does not matter if we do not buy books for a few years. A lot of the books are decayed, but they decay fairly slowly". In fact a lot of the material that researchers in the humanities require is the kind that is particularly in need of conservation. That is something which has fallen completely between all possible stools of public funding which a Humanities Research Council might have the force to address.
To return to the limitations of the British Academy—I do not suggest anything more than the most devoted filial attitude to the organisation; it would be a limitation that the academy would admit—it is in no position to exercise any pressure to bring about the desirable purposes it envisages but does not see as its task to realise. All it can do to approach the centres of power is to make occasional visits, rather in the manner of the Burghers of Calais hoping that some Queen Philippa—if my humanities research has not hopelessly gone to pieces—will be there to control the frown of the cruel king. They have no regular institutionalised method of bringing pressure to bear on the ultimate funding authorities, whichever government department it happens to be.
The case for a Humanities Research Council is extremely strong. It rests on three things; first, that there really is research in the humanities and it is vitally important nowadays that it is not carried on by people in velvet coats living on private means but that it will be carried on by variously hard-driven university teachers; secondly, the circumstances of university teachers nowadays with pressure on time because of the enormous expansion of student numbers without increase of teaching personnel; and, thirdly, the neglect and decay of the libraries which are the essential tools, as the laboratories are for the scientists, on which humanistic research depends.
It is perfectly clear, as other noble Lords have said, that for all its excellent qualities, the British Academy cannot do this. It is in an embarrassing position as the powerless distributor of grants which the recipients all feel to be inadequate. It has a minute quantity of genuine patronage for research by established scholars. In a sense its position is extremely invidious. It should not have these responsibilities loaded on it.
The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, specifically mentioned the overseas schools, which have always been a central part of the British Academy's activities. These, one would hope, it would continue to support, administer and oversee. The responsibilities which it has discharged are not appropriate to it and it has not been equipped to discharge responsibilities which no 1228 one else is discharging—which provide for exponents of the humanities in this country things that they get everywhere else. We have no Collège d'Angleterre here; but for the serious, advanced scholar in France there is the Collège de France, where one is required to give one lecture a year. That might be abused a little; be that as it may.
In the United States there is the concept, admittedly not generally publicly-funded, of the distinguished service professor, who is released from the normal pressures of academic duty. There is in America the National Endowment for the Humanities; but no such thing exists here. Equally, as other noble Lords have mentioned, there are academies or research organisations in other countries where the humanities figure alongside everything else. It is an absurd anomaly that the humanities should not be accorded a position comparable with everyone else—not identical to everyone else but comparable with everyone else—at the research table.
§ 9.27 p.m.
§ Lord Stewartby
My Lords, I begin by joining other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn for giving us the opportunity of discussing this subject. I immediately move on from that to say that I enter this debate with some trepidation as an unreconstructed amateur following so many very distinguished professionals in the academic field. Although, to my permanent astonishment, I am a Fellow of the British Academy, I have never been engaged in funded research as a participant, a supervisor, an administrator or in any other way. This gives me the opportunity to see some of these questions not in a different way but perhaps from a different perspective. I wish to comment only briefly on these matters because they have been covered thoroughly by those who have already spoken.
I want in particular to deal with three points. The first is the question of money. It seems indisputable that the humanities are not generously endowed with public funds in relation to the research activities across the spectrum of other subjects. The academy and those who represent the humanities are fully justified in making that point powerfully and clearly to government even if by seeking extra resources the consequence might be at least in part disadvantageous to other areas of research and scholarship. That point is an important one but it is a separate point from the question of whether there should be a humanities research council.
It could be thought that one of the motives—perhaps an unspoken motive—for seeking a humanities research council would be to put the humanities in a better bidding position and that the proposal is financially driven. It could be suspected by government that this might be a consequence of setting up a humanities research council. We should be absolutely plain in saying this that the humanities need and deserve more funding for research but that that is a separate issue and the case for a Humanities Research Council exists on intrinsic grounds quite apart from the financial issue.
1229 My second point is about the anomalous position of the academy itself. Not being a professional academic or engaged in that field, I have been very struck by the awkwardness which is faced by the academy in having to fulfil this dual role and these two rather incompatible functions. The first role is that of a direct agent of government fulfilling the same kind of function as research councils do for other purposes and carrying on the administrative, functional and financial exercise of the research funding programme, and the second is that of an independent body of academic specialists in the field of the humanities which clearly look at matters from an entirely different viewpoint.
Having passed a little of my misspent youth as a Treasury Minister, I know how tempting it is from a government point of view to look at a body, whether it is the British Academy or any other body, in relation to the single basis on which that body is in communication with government. If a second basis is very different and the two may cut across each other, I believe that the effectiveness of each role may be complicated and probably diminished. I see a difficulty which has been expressed, and which genuinely exists, that the academy is not entirely free, particularly in its role as an independent academic body, but it is perhaps equally not entirely free to fulfil the administrative role in relation to being a proxy for a research council as it would be if it were pursuing only one of those two roles. I hope that that point can be fully registered.
The other side of that particular coin is that because the academy covers not only the humanities but also the social sciences, it seems to me that there is inevitably a tendency for the structure of the academy to be skewed towards the humanities because it has to provide an administrative role for the humanities which it does not provide for the social sciences. Although it is something which the academy manages at least adequately, it is an anomaly and the academy would be in a much more comfortable and sensible position as regards its own internal affairs if it did not have to face that problem.
The final point I want to touch on is the question of what kind of humanities research council might be needed. I share the view which a number of noble Lords have expressed this evening that a combined research council covering the ESRC and the humanities, although possibly superficially attractive in that it might appear to enable administrative economies to be made, would, if the amalgamation related to anything other than the secretarial and administrative infrastructure, and if the council itself was a joint body, impose impossible tensions between the two different strands within that joint council.
I have some experience of what kind of thing goes on in the way of social research because for many years I have been a trustee of my family's charitable foundation, which funds research of that kind. Although not on any formal basis, I have also been involved in a good deal of research in the historical field. I am therefore very conscious of the differences in the approach to research in these different areas. It is not just that different sorts of people are involved; 1230 the objectives of the research are often different. They are defined differently in the social sciences and in the field of the Economic and Social Research Council as compared with the humanities. ESRC projects may be jointly run by a number of people and may have a specific end in sight for a practical purpose for which they may have been commissioned. In the humanities, however, the work is inevitably more personal and less structured, but that does not mean that it is totally unstructured. One of the advantages of a humanities research council which might appeal to the Government is that there are areas in humanities research—let us not be shy about saying this—which could do with a little more structure. The completion rates for work by postgraduate PhD candidates in the humanities do not measure well against those of candidates in other fields. It is perfectly right that such issues should and could be addressed by a humanities research council, if one existed.
Equally, it is extraordinarily difficult for the British Academy, given its constitution and nature, to tackle such problems. I believe that there would be advantages for both the Government and the academy (as well as for the universe of the humanities) if the proposals which my noble friend Lord Renfrew has outlined this evening were accepted. I hope that they will be considered seriously by the Government in that light.
§ 9.36 p.m.
§ Lord Jenkins of Hillhead
My Lords, the normal purpose of making a wind-up speech on behalf of one's party is to reply to the debate and to endeavour to deal with any hostile points that may have been made. However, that is not possible this evening because there is nothing to reply to. Your Lordships have shown a powerful, surprising and welcome unanimity, and that unanimity can be a many-faceted thing. It is not the same thing as repetition. Agreement has been expressed in a way that is a tribute to the plural traditions of the British humanitarian tradition. I hope that the Minister will take due notice of that remarkable unanimity when she replies.
Not only can I not make a normal winding-up speech but, as the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, hinted —we are most grateful to him for initiating this debate —I am here as much in my capacity as Chancellor of the University of Oxford as of Leader of the Liberal Democrats. I was reassured, therefore, to be informed by my noble friend Lord Russell that my views are fully in accordance with party policy. I was not wholly aware of that previously, although I had assumed that that might be so as my views are very sensible on this issue.
In my chancellerian capacity, I am more worried about the future of research into the humanities at Oxford than I am about the future of research into the natural and applied sciences and medicine. If that is true in Oxford, which some may think of as the home of the humanities in this country—and compared to the university of the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, it is a comparative newcomer to, at any rate, large-scale research into the sciences—how much more true is it likely to be of other universities.
1231 There are at present several factors working against research in the humanities. The first is the increase in the number of undergraduates—much more in the arts subjects than in the science subjects, a point to which my noble friend Lord Russell referred—and the pressures that go with that when it is not accompanied by any comparable increase in the numbers of academic staff. A balance has to be struck. It is important that teachers do research. It is also important that those who are outstanding in research also do some teaching. I would venture to claim that Oxford is a better undergraduate university than Harvard because that is more true of Oxford than it is at present of Harvard, where good people are not prepared to devote time to teach undergraduates.
In the interests of fairness, I do not believe that Oxford, as a graduate school, would be able to hold a candle to that of the vast graduate school of Harvard which has 22,000 graduates compared with our 4,000. As an undergraduate university, Oxford is bigger and in many ways better than that most distinguished of American academic institutions.
Secondly, working against effective research in the humanities is the fact that, nonetheless, we are all becoming relatively more important graduate schools. Graduate studies hardly existed in Oxford in my days as an undergraduate. Now they are becoming, as is the fashion throughout all academic institutions, more important than previously. Having graduate students helps research in the sciences; they rather get in the way of research in the arts.
Scientific research is more of a team effort. Graduates can be useful to those who are conducting it, whereas, to some extent, they are a necessary and desirable distraction for those who are conducting it in humanities.
However, humanities research—the case for which I do not believe needs to be argued in your Lordships' House, although it was most neatly done by the noble Baroness, Lady Perry,—needs a little fostering and cosseting at present if this country is to maintain its tradition of research in the humanities. That, as has been strongly argued this evening, requires a humanities research council.
There is one last point I should like to make in relation to the British Academy. I, unlike nearly all noble Lords who have spoken this evening, am not a Fellow of the British Academy and so I can perhaps speak more freely about it than others can. Looking at the papers relating to this issue, I have been struck by the British Academy's unselfish approach. Some of the things it is required to do in the absence of a humanities research council may not fit well with other aspects of its work. Nevertheless, empire building, or at any rate empire holding, is a tradition in institutions even of considerable academic repute.
I have been struck by how the academy, under the leadership of Sir Anthony Kenny, has recently shown no desire to pursue a policy of, "what we have, we hold", but has been much more interested in achieving a sensible structure for humanities research in this 1232 country. As has been so well argued by many of your Lordships tonight, that points strongly in the direction of a humanities research council.
§ 9.44 p.m.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, in one way, this is the easiest speech I have ever had to make in your Lordships' House. The subject was cogently and persuasively introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, who covered pretty well all the ground. If he missed any points, other noble Lords covered them.
The logic of the case is clear cut. Although I am sympathetic to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, about an umbrella body, in so far as we are discussing present realities, we need a separate funding body for the humanities. That follows logically with no problem at the present time and I did not understand the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, to be saying anything other than that. He merely had a few additional ideas.
I have always had a slight difficulty about using the word "research". I know that in order to impress the powers that be one must use the word "research". I always assumed that the humanities engaged in scholarship and that the rest of us engaged in research. However, I have a feeling that in the present climate there is no money in scholarship but there is money in research.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stewartby, that logically the issue is not about money; logically the humanities deserve their own body. However, in practice it is all about money and about nothing else. The humanities need money and because the dual support system is ending they are being squeezed. I wish to convey the message to my colleagues in the humanities that I am sensitive to the fact that they need money rather than being told that they are jolly good chaps and women.
I agree and disagree with the noble Lords, Lord Beloff and Lord Quinton. Of course, they were right in saying that in respect of the humanities one is mostly talking about relatively small sums. It is amazing how productive of scholarship small sums can be. However, I do not believe that one should go to the other extreme and assume that there are not areas of work which require large sums, not least in the field of the noble Lord, Lord Quinton. I discovered that in the United States philosophers are spending vast sums of money. I am not clear about what they do with it but scholars have no difficulty in feeling that they need it. I do not believe that we do a great deal of justice to our colleagues in the humanities when we say that they need only small sums of money. Some need large sums and I hope that when the time comes the relevant body will bear that in mind.
I have been a member of what is now called the Economic and Social Research Council. It was the Social Science Research Council, a title which I much prefer. I have also sat on sub-committees of the Medical Research Council, the Science Research Council and so on. I have always been struck by the way in which my colleagues in the humanities are like church mice; they do not like to ask for money. They 1233 ought to be persuaded to say that the small change of the scientists is a great deal of money to the social scientists let alone to those in the humanities. Therefore, one should not say that only small sums are involved; although small sums are important. I hope that my colleagues in the humanities will push themselves forward more. I should like to see the setting up of the new body because it would give leadership and confidence to those people enabling them to push themselves forward more. That is another good reason for supporting them.
I wish to refer to an error of omission. I had always assumed that the beginnings of the humanities were the classics and that the other subjects—English literature, philosophy and history—followed on. I do not believe that any noble Lord mentioned the classics. There is one area of academic life of this country about which I am worried. Because no one can see any connection between the classics, economic performance and all the other issues which dominate us today they are being more and more neglected. The classics department of my own college does not exist any more, although it was quite brilliant. It is the easiest department to get rid of and perhaps it will not be long before only Oxford and Cambridge have classics departments.
An area in which big money is required is libraries. Even if we were to argue that everyone else does not need a great deal of money, a modern library requires millions of pounds not only in capital investment but in order to keep it going. I have argued previously in your Lordships' House that in comparison with the library facilities which my Alma Mater, Princeton, enjoys no university in this country has anything comparable or can even begin to understand the ambitions of the great American universities for libraries. That involves very large sums of money, on the same scale as the physicists used to enjoy. I hope that we shall not forget that.
Those are my main points. I have managed to find enough to say to fill five minutes, although I was fairly desperate to think of anything to say. My main purpose has been to be as supportive as possible of the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn. Like other noble Lords, I hope that we shall receive a sympathetic response from the Government which will encourage us and our colleagues in the humanities to feel that they have a worthwhile academic future.
§ 9.50 p.m.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, we have had a most distinguished list of speakers in the debate. It has made it a special evening for me and has resulted in a most interesting debate. I am grateful to all noble Lords, but particularly to those noble Lords who have stalwartly sat through a number of debates today and spoken in at least two of them.
I welcome this opportunity which my noble friend Lord Renfrew has given us to consider some important questions about research in the humanities. First, I can reaffirm the Government's commitment to promoting high quality research in this area. For reasons which noble Lords will understand, I shall not be able this evening to respond to all the requests 1234 made of the Government during the debate. However, I shall say what the Government have done in recent years to sustain research in the humanities. I shall briefly describe the present structures for supporting that work and the proposals which have been made for changing those structures. I shall also explain the Government's stance towards those proposals.
As many noble Lords know, there is a dual system of public funding of research in the humanities analogous to the funding of scientific research. Our universities have a well-deserved reputation for academic excellence. The Government want to ensure that the excellence of British scholarship in the humanities is maintained and developed. The bulk of the funding comes through the general institutional grants from the Higher Education Funding Councils. In addition, the Government provide specific support for humanities research through their funding of the British Academy.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, were concerned that the new dual support system could mean reduced funding for the humanities. The new dual support arrangements involve a switch from funding council to research council support. They will not affect total funding for university research. The new arrangements apply only to scientific research. The Universities Funding Council has made no reduction in its funding for humanities research and there is no reason why individual institutions should do so.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord Bullock, referred to the status of the humanities without research council status. The Government do not accept that the needs of the humanities are overlooked in national research policy. It is true that a research council could act as a voice for the humanities, but so can the British Academy. That is not to say that a research council would bring no benefits to humanities research. Indeed, I have heard a very pressing case for that this evening. The Government are considering carefully where the balance of advantage would lie.
The noble Lord, Lord Blake, implied, as did a number of speakers, I hope unintentionally, that there might be grounds for dissatisfaction with the way in which the British Academy discharges its functions. The noble Lord, Lord Blake, in particular addressed that question. I do not believe that any criticism of the British Academy was intended and I wish to take this opportunity to say plainly that my department is far from dissatisfied with the academy's stewardship. I hope that the increase in grant for next year—11 per cent. in a very difficult PES round —is proof of that. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Blake, will accept my assurance that there is certainly a basis for serious debate and that the issue must be addressed in the forthcoming White Paper, to which I shall refer again in a moment.
I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, will use his influence to persuade my department to send me out to see the schools abroad. I would very much welcome an opportunity to do so: I seem to find myself in Bognor Regis and other unattractive places. I apologise to anybody in the Chamber who might 1235 come from Bognor Regis. Perhaps I could use, as a reason for going out, inspecting the new roof which I know is under way up there.
The noble Lord, Lord Quinton, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, my noble friend Lord Beloff and the noble Lord, Lord Peston, made the very important point about libraries. I want to say that the Government recognise the particular importance to humanities scholars of good library facilities. In his initial guidance to the Higher Education Funding Council, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State asked the council to consider what initiatives it might launch in support of libraries for teaching and research, recognising in particular the needs of the humanities. The council has established a working party, again chaired by Sir Brian Follett, to consider library provision in higher education. Indeed, the President of the British Academy is a member of that working party, and thus I can say that the humanities are well represented.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, pointed out the particular connection between this kind of research and teaching in the humanities. It is of course true that for some the policy of research selectivity may mean an increased emphasis on teaching and would reduce time allocated for research. This applies in all disciplines and is intended to ensure that research funds are used effectively. Funding for scholarship, on which high-quality teaching depends, will continue to flow through funds for teaching. Universities will be able to support talented individuals from their general funds.
We attach great importance to the work of the academy. The Government's grant-in-aid enables the academy to make awards for fees and maintenance to research students in the humanities, to provide post-doctoral fellowships and readerships, and to support a variety of research projects and institutes, including the overseas archaeological schools.
The Government's grant-in-aid to the academy in the current financial year is some £19.5 million. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has recently announced an increase to £21.5 million for the next financial year 1993–94. This represents, as I have just said, a cash increase of some 11 per cent. Given the current pressures on public expenditure, I believe that this substantial increase provides clear evidence of the Government's commitment to the work of the academy.
As I have also said, in addition to the grant-in-aid to the academy, resources for humanities research are included in the allocations to universities and colleges by the Higher Education Funding Councils. The allocation by the Universities Funding Council in the 1992–93 academic year includes £78 million for research in the humanities.
As your Lordships know, the resources allocated to institutions by the funding councils are not earmarked: it is for each university and college to determine how the funds available to it will be deployed. As a number of noble Lords have made clear, the proposal for a research council for the humanities is not a new one. There has for some time 1236 been a debate within the humanities community about the need for such a development and the form that it might take. Different proposals have been discussed with my department and most recently, as has been mentioned, there has been a report on the matter from the joint working party established by the British Academy and the Economic and Social Science Research Council under the chairmanship of Sir Brian Follett.
The Follett Report argues that, as a result of changes in structures and funding for higher education and scientific research, the existing arrangements for the public funding of humanities research are no longer satisfactory. It recommends that a new agency should be established for the public funding of project-based humanities research, to bring it into a position comparable to that of the social and natural sciences. The new agency would take over certain of the British Academy's responsibilities in this area.
The Follett Report further recommends that the new agency should form part of the research council structure under the Office of Science and Technology, and that it should offer the full range of functions appropriate to a research council. The report asserts that the success of the new body would depend on extra resources being devoted to project-based humanities research.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, informed the House that he, the Liberal Democrats and the Follett Report—I understand he informed the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, of this—have considered whether there should be a joint research council covering both the humanities and the social sciences, or whether there should be a separate research council for the humanities alone. The report concludes that it would be technically feasible for a single research council to administer project-based funding across both sets of disciplines. It argues, however, that such a change would disrupt the present Economic and Social Research Council and that, relative to the alternative of the ESRC and a new humanities research council, it would save little in administrative costs. Accordingly, the report recommends the establishment of a humanities research council. It also recommends that the responsibility for continuing public funding for the British Academy be transferred to the Office of Science and Technology. I noted the conflicting views that the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, and my noble friend Lady Perry of Southwark held on these matters.
The Follett Report has been endorsed and commended to the Government both by the British Academy and by the Economic and Social Research Council. As will have become clear, the report raises a number of important issues. Several of them have been raised during the debate. Some of them also need to be considered within government, and they have of course already been the subject of discussions between the departments concerned. My honourable friend the Minister for Further and Higher Education—I am absolutely delighted he has given his time to hear the entire debate from.below the Bar in our Chamber this evening—only yesterday evening had a discussion 1237 with the president of the British Academy. I understand that that was a useful and constructive dialogue between my honourable friend and Sir Anthony Kenny.
As I explained to your Lordships at the beginning, I am not in a position to give the Government's response now: it is our intention to announce our response in the Science and Technology White Paper, which we will he producing later this year.
The Government recognise the strong views within the humanities community about the need for a research council to provide a distinctive voice for the humanities and to enhance the status of humanities research. We are aware that some see the humanities as somewhat isolated under the present arrangements; and we understand the argument that bringing the humanities within the research council system would enable the humanities to be considered alongside the scientific disciplines when decisions are being taken about the allocation of resources for research.
I noted the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, about timorous mice. However, the noble Lord has never been reticent about asking for money. It is possible that he could teach a humanities research council some lessons in that respect. But proposals for change can have disadvantages as well as advantages. The Government need to consider the issues fully before they can decide how the interests of the humanities would best be served.
An important question is the pattern on which any research council for the humanities should be established. Would it make best sense to establish a humanities research council on the model of the existing research councils? Such a body could certainly be expected to provide greater coherence, direction and control over research in the humanities. But is that type of management appropriate for humanities research? As your Lordships are aware, humanities research is in most cases very different in nature from research in the sciences.
Most humanities research requires the time of individual scholars who have access to good library facilities. These activities are integrated with the basic functions of higher education institutions, which are supported by the grant from the funding councils. This system gives scholars the flexibility they need to pursue their interests. Would it be helpful to the humanities to have a research council which identified a limited list of priority areas for research, as the existing research councils do, and directed resources accordingly? Is there a risk that such a process would unhelpfully distort the pattern of research in the humanities?
A further issue is what functions a humanities research council would assume. A research council on the existing pattern might be expected to be active in monitoring and evaluating the quality of research projects, in promoting inter-disciplinary work and, as highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Stewartby, in monitoring the health of the humanities community through such activities as forecasting the demand for new scholars to replace existing staff as they retire and in co-ordinating library provision, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has suggested. However, in practice the 1238 British Academy already discharges many of these functions in collaboration, as appropriate, with the ABRC and other agencies. The higher education institutions have responsibilities in these areas too. Do we need a humanities research council to take over and develop these functions; and what would be the division of responsibilities between a humanities research council and the British Academy? Which of the academy's current functions would a research council assume? It is generally supposed that a research council would take over from the academy the responsibility for the administration of the postgraduate studentship scheme in the humanities. The Follett Report so recommends. But what other functions would be assigned to a humanities research council?
The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, raised the question of the location of the responsibilities for schools and institutions abroad. Given that there are few large-scale projects in the humanities that would require research council support, should the Government be considering a rather different type of body than the research councils we have at present? If so, what form should it take?
There is also the question of the basis on which a humanities research council would be funded. The academy has made no secret of its wish to see additional funding provided for a new body. That is perfectly understandable. But the reality is that any new body would probably have to be funded within the existing resources available for humanities research. The Government have always made that clear. When my honourable friend the Higher Education Minister met with the British Academy only yesterday, the academy assured him that for its part it would want to see a humanities research council even if the new body was funded initially on the relevant proportion of the academy's existing budget. It is helpful to have that clarification of the academy's position. Of course, as I have made clear, the Government's position on the question of a research council for the humanities is wholly reserved.
My noble friend Lord Stewartby pressed us to consider these two issues as separate issues, one of finance and one of structure. The question for the Government is whether a research council would be a more effective mechanism for distributing the resources available for humanities research. That is a structural question which must be looked at on its merits aside from the question of the size of the sum to be distributed. Presumably a research council would concentrate resources. Would that be helpful for the humanities, given the distribution of humanities scholars and the patterns of humanities research; and might the existence of a humanities research council make it harder for the humanities to argue for a fair share of universities' general funds?
I make no judgment on these questions. I hope that noble Lords will understand that I am unable to give your Lordships an answer this evening. The issues I have outlined are currently the subject of active consideration by the Government. We recognise that our consideration of these matters cannot go on indefinitely.
1239 The science and technology White Paper provides an opportunity to determine the appropriate structures for supporting humanities research. There are essentially two options: to bring the humanities within the research council system under the Office of Science and Technology or to retain the existing arrangements. We intend to consider in the White Paper whether any changes are necessary to the organisation of the existing research councils, and it is right that the proposal for a humanities research council should be considered in that context.
I have listened carefully to the points made during this debate. They will make an important contribution to the deliberations of the two departments. I can assure your Lordships that I shall report your views to my right honourable friends the Secretary of State and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I am sure that they will want to consider them most carefully. I know that they will appreciate this debate tonight, and they will consider all that has been said before 1240 reaching a decision on this important matter. I again thank my noble friend Lord Renfrew for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important matter.