In March of this year the Arts and Humanities Research Council suffered the wrath of the academic community after it misguidedly chose to cite in its delivery plan the government’s ‘Big Society’ agenda as one of its ‘strategic research areas’. Petitions were compiled, letters were written, and the AHRC was forced to release a statement refuting claims, first raised in The Observer, of government interference. In my opinion this whole sorry incident was more a case of the AHRC’s clumsy attempt to report back its expenditure to government, in language that new Coalition Ministers understood, spectacularly backfiring on them, rather than any serious attempt by the Tories to impose a party political research theme on the Humanities. Much was said at the time about how David Willetts was seeking to abandon the so-called Haldane Principles, forcing the Minister to articulate his own understanding of them: namely, that research grant awards should be determined by peer review but funding-governments should be able to set strategic priorities for the good of the nation and the economy. It was far from a ringing endorsement for the arms-length traditions that safeguard academic autonomy in the UK. However, we are now faced with an improbable conflation between academic peer review and party politics that makes the AHRC’s Big Society imbroglio look like small beer.
The government wishes to limit immigration to the UK, and to this end it has introduced the CAS (Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies) visa system that is currently making it extraordinarily difficult for universities to recruit effectively non-EU international students. The cost of this to universities and the wider economy at a time of recession and post-2012 shrinking participation in Higher Education is plain for all to see. In this system universities who wish to continue recruiting international students without limits must hold a ‘Highly Trusted Sponsor’ status and so have grudgingly agreed to monitor the attendance and movements of ‘sponsored’ students. In effect our universities are now acting in conjunction with the UK Border’s Agency to manage Tier 4 immigration. Even more worrying is the difficulty experienced by anyone who has attempted to organise an academic conference in the last 12 months that involved inviting any non-EU academic who requires a visa to enter the UK. The private company, Worldbridge, employed to process visa claims is working to a contract target of 90% refusal of first applications. The result has been to demonstrate to the world that the UK is inhospitable to thought.
However, this deplorable situation has just taken a new, and to my mind, more disturbing turn. After lobbying from universities that immigration controls would adversely affect their ability to remain competitive by recruiting the best international staff, a new Tier 1 ‘Exceptional Talent’ route was opened in August to allow up to 1,000 ‘exceptionally talented migrants’ into the UK annually. Applicants wishing to enter the UK now require the endorsement of one of four bodies designated as competent by the UKBA to assess their exceptional or otherwise talent. They are the Royal Society (able to endorse up to 300 candidates), the Arts Council (up to 300 candidates), the Royal Academy of Engineering (up to 200) and the British Academy (up to 200). In a recent letter to universities Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, notes that this ancient scientific fellowship ‘has reluctantly agreed’ to act as a ‘competent body’ and concludes his letter by saying that ‘the Royal Society has undertaken to monitor the impact of the recent changes in immigration policy… to ascertain if the current immigration arrangements are having a negative impact on the movement of scientists to the UK’.
This situation is a real cause for concern. The British Academy, for example, is a fellowship of nominated peers (members of the BA invite others to join it) that acts as both a learned society and funding body (I have been fortunate enough to have received funding several times from the BA). It is not an agent for the UK Borders Agency. The British Academy is a body competent to conduct academic peer review, it is not a competent body to determine who should and should not enter the country. It should not be put in the position where it is asked to undertake such a function for government. Nor should it agree, however reluctantly, to do so. The same is true of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. The Arts Council is an arms-length Quango charged with the regional distribution of funding in the creative arts. Its website now states that ‘applications will be assessed by artform and other sector specialists within the Arts Council who will review all documents submitted and judge the extent to which they provide clear evidence that the application meets the published criteria’. The qualification of these ‘sector specialists’ to judge immigration applications is not at all clear.
There are practical considerations here:
- These arrangements strike at the autonomy of universities to appoint whatever staff they wish. The calculation of an appointing institution will no longer be ‘can we obtain a work permit for this candidate’ but ‘will this candidate be acceptable to a designated competent body’?
- Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of London heavily dominate the British Academy, it is not representative of wider UK academia (it is after all a society based on internal nomination). According to the list of Fellows on the website no practising academic from a post-92 ‘modern’ university or a monotechnic is a member of the BA.
- Accordingly, who will undertake the task of assessing sponsorship cases of exceptional talent, according to what criteria, and across which selection of institutions will the 200 possible sponsorships be distributed?
- This is the latest scenario in a developing trend in which political decisions are being passed to the academy to manage. As with cuts to arts and humanities postgraduate funding in which the peer-led establishment of regional consortia will determine which institutions will continue to receive funding and which will not, the capping of immigration candidates passes a government cut onto academics to sort out according to perceptions of ‘excellence’ and mission group interests.
No doubt the learned societies will say, like the CAS sponsoring universities, that they are trying to make the best of a bad lot and, as the Lib Dems like to say, without them things would be much worse. However, this situation is an intolerable conflation of a xenophobic immigration policy with the role of the UK’s academic institutions. What is particularly insidious is the conflation of peer review as the determination of research excellence (‘exceptional talent’), the competing interests of imaginary mission groups, and moral panic over the immigration of non-European citizens. Once the academic community has accepted the false-consciousness of mission groups, the bogus arguments for research concentration, and economic expediency over academic purpose, it is a short step to endorsing reluctantly the necessity of acting as an agent in the capping of entrants to the UK. This sort of piecemeal accommodation of the unacceptable and previously unthinkable cannot be allowed to stand. At a recent meeting of Universities UK, its chair Eric Thomas said ‘it is in nobody’s interests that Universities UK falls out with the government’. Now that our learned societies have been transformed into a branch of the UK’s Borders Agency it is time for us all to reassess such derisory realpolitik.