Can British Academics Speak Truth to Power?

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Policy research and Government: “speaking truth to power?”
Notes for Seminar on 20 October 1995 at SPRU, University of Sussex.     

Peter Senker

I make no apologies for concentrating on Britain in this talk, insofar as I believe that Britain has led the way in terms of the phenomena which I propose to discuss, and has provided a bad example which has been copied in much of the rest of the world.

In the ‘Thatcher and Major’ years, ideology and Ministers’ impulses have played a greater role in policy design than before. With the ostensible aim of giving free rein to competitive forces, the Government has set up monopolistic, monopsonistic, or rigged markets. There is no reason to assume that the establishment of such markets benefits consumers, customers, clients or patients. There is a presumption deriving from neo-classical economic theory that competitive markets in which there are a large number of consumers and a large number of producers can produce results of benefit to the consumer. There is no presumption that monopolistic or monopsonistic markets convey benefits to customers. However, because of the nature of the activities -ranging from health, to education and training , to water, energy and railways -which have been subjected increasingly to ‘market forces’, it is extremely difficult to set up competitive markets of the sort which neo-classical economic theory tells us will benefit consumers .

Guy Routh, late of this University, whose work is still not appreciated as much as it should be, wrote:

The theory of perfect competition is sold with the argument: start with this and, having mastered its implications, you may drop its simplifying assumptions one by one until you are back in the real world. But bad theories do not lead to good theories: they lead to worse theories. The theory of the invisible hand operating through the instrument of demand-and supply to the benefit of all was a bad theory that stultified enquiry, and led to the worse theory of marginal utility, marginal productivity and general equilibrium…in the social sciences, the worse the theory, the more questions it pretends to answer, the more embracing it is, the more it is likely to grip people’s minds. Universities are hot-beds of theory, for academics peddle theories for a living and students are drilled to reproduce them as a condition for getting degrees. This activity is pointless without doing much damage, but every now and then one of these theories escapes , like a virus from Porton Down and attacks the public like a plague.’

Not only is the theory irrelevant because it assumes perfect competition, it is irrelevant in many cases because it assumes that the costs of setting and administering prices are handled automatically and costlessly by the market, whereas this is often far from the truth.

Setting up markets does, however, convey political advantages to the Government, in terms of making it possible to establish what Will Hutton calls Conservative hegemony. The concept of hegemony owes its origins to Gramsci, subsequently Ralph Miliband. The Gramsci/Miliband concept is of capitalists covertly using their influence to distort the operation of the state in their favour.

Following Will Hutton in his book “The State we are in” , I’ve adapted the concept of hegemony : my concept is of Conservative ministers ostensibly and openly using their power to support capital by promoting competition -to promote economic growth, and support industry in its efforts to grow, but in the outcome, actually decreasing the efficiency of resource utilisation.

Instead of being allocated government money administratively, organisations (schools, hospitals, and so on) have increasingly to compete for it. There has been tremendous effort devoted to costing everything in detail. Heads of schools now spend much more time on administering budgets and much less on ensuring high standards in education. The Health Service is forced to spend more resources on measuring and allocating costs, and less on patient care.

With hospitals, schools being increasingly forced to compete for resources instead of being allocated them administratively, the managers of those organisations are increasingly concerned to suppress their staffs’ criticisms of the system. In effect, managers seek to convert their staff’s professional loyalties into loyalties to the “company” for whom they are working.

When the pressure of criticism builds up, the government does not admit its policies are wrong and reform them radically. It puts in a ‘fixer’ -a Ron Dearing into education or a Brian Fender into higher education – men of undoubted integrity and common-sense – to make the best of the intolerable mess the government has made. Of course, the ‘fixing’ is much to be welcomed, but it would surely be better not to introduce such absurd policies in the first place.

I do not wish to claim that British government policy-making was much good before 1979, but merely that it has become even worse since then. It used to be the role of civil servants to make sure that the consequences of a course of action have been worked out and understood by Ministers before a decision is taken. The traditional view was that officials’ relationship with Ministers should not be one of passive obedience: they should be willing to tell Ministers things that the Ministers do not want to hear.

But the relationship does not work if Ministers are not prepared to listen to their officials. Reflecting Lady Thatcher’s attitudes, many Ministers are contemptuous of civil servants feeling that if the civil servants were any good they would be doing something else. They believe that determined Ministers should not be deflected from their chosen paths by the ingenious objections of civil servants. They should not use civil servants as policy advisers, but as instruments for implementing their original intentions. In line with this approach, senior officials have become as committed to partisan policies as their ministerial bosses.

With the decline of the influence of civil servant analysis over government ministers, I suggest that the critical role of universities is becoming more important. But with the increasing central government control of universities- through research and teaching assessments etc., it becomes increasingly difficult for researchers to carry out critical research and analysis.

Research findings can rarely if ever provide complete guidance for policy-makers for several reasons Rarely, if ever, has sufficient research been carried out in an area to provide a complete “policy menu”. Moreover, policy-makers’ decisions are rightly influenced by their own values or ideologies to some extent. Similarly, and inevitably , researchers have their own values and their values affect their research, most particularly the choice of questions they seek to address and the methodologies they deploy in their search for answers.

Nevertheless, research can help policy-makers, for example by setting out alternative options, the costs and benefits of choices made, and by predicting the consequences of decisions, whether intended or unintended. By increasing our understanding, researchers can contribute to informing public opinion and increasing its capacity to exert its democratic rights over the public authorities.

I suggest that one of the important roles of social science departments in universities is to contribute to policy analysis: to try to ‘speak truth to power’ in Wildawsky’s’ words . It is the central theme of this talk that recent developments in the way in which Britain, its universities and Research Councils are governed are tending to undermine this function, and that this is a tendency which needs to be reversed.

There is a paradox here. Society. through the agency of government, pays most of the cost of social science research. It is, therefore, entitled to expect value for money. However, part of that value for money should be secured by subjecting Government policy to critical analysis. In other words, in this case ‘he who pays the piper should not call the tune’, or at least should not call all the tunes. To switch and mix metaphors, the policy researcher should sometimes bite the hand that feeds him or her as I am doing in this talk.

The way to achieve a good balance between society’s need for research to serve the Government and, at the same time, to be in a position to criticise it is through creating appropriate intermediary institutions between the Government and researchers. The ESRC is a key intermediary institution in this context, and it is my contention that there are dangers that its ability to perform this role effectively is being eroded.

The Government is increasing its influence on research agendas. This inevitably involves a tendency to fund research which is designed to help implement government policy in preference to research which might take a more critical stance in relation to the policies themselves.

The ESRC’s influence on Research Agendas

ESRC operations are very decentralised. In the extreme case -“responsive mode”, ESRC committees may well often continue to make decisions on which individual project to support mainly on academic grounds – on consideration of academic referees’ assessment of research proposals – and completely independent of official ESRC policy. Even where there are “users” – mainly industrialists and civil servants – represented on such committees, their influence may not always -or even often – be decisive. However, unfortunately, responsive mode now only accounts for about 20% of ESRC funding, most of which is now used to fund Centres and Initiatives. Decisions on the topic areas in which Centres and Initiatives should be established are inevitably influenced to a considerable extent by ESRC official policy.

The ESRC has been entering into Concordats with Government Departments, and including representatives from Government Department in committees responsible for deciding which research to fund. It is probable that Government representatives on research funding bodies will favour research projects which are perceived as unthreatening to Government policy. Of course, ESRC decisions are made by committees, and it is difficult to predict exactly what each committee will decide. We cannot assume that the adoption of a policy centrally by ESRC will have direct and predictable effects on the nature of the research it sponsors. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to assume that polices adopted centrally by ESRC have no effect on the deliberations of its committees.

Juliet Webster argues that research workers have come under pressure to conduct research which is relevant to the needs of business, the imperatives of British economic performance, and thus to the programmes of British industrial and government policy makers. She points our that this insistence on ‘policy-relevance’ is not neutral: it relates to the policy agenda of industry, business and business management. It represents an instruction to academic research workers to address the agendas and requirements of particular sections of the community, not all sections. The definition of ‘users’ of research as consisting first and foremost as those engaged in wealth creation has not only marginalised the needs of other members of the community, but it has had a critical effect upon the formation and conduct of studies of technology and technological change. The question is whether academic research should focus only on the social and technical factors which promote business success, or whether the agenda should be broadened to find ways to use new technology to enhance the quality of life for everyone(p18).

These are important points, but I would enter a reservation. I do not believe that the interests of the State – or of Conservative hegemony as termed by Will Hutton – are identical to that of business. Government policy is now driven by an ideology of supporting business in achieving its goals, but is often counter-productive even in terms of the Government’s ostensible objectives of promoting business interests and economic growth. There is an implicit assumption increasingly underlying ESRC policy that Government policies are fundamentally sound and working in the right direction, and that social scientists should concentrate on “relevant” research, i.e. research designed to help to implement those policies. Moreover, the ESRC has entered into Concordats with the Department of Trade and Industry, with the Treasury and with the Department of the Environment. These specify, for example that “the Department (of Trade and Industry) will have the opportunity to be represented … on committees of the Council which cover areas identified in the overlap of interests.”

Examples of ESRC acceptance of Government Agendas

1. Foresight

The ESRC Council has announced that the ESRC ‘will seek to respond proactively to the challenges of the Foresight recommendations.” That does not appear to embrace a critical review of Foresight methodology and approach. Nigel Gilbert, Vice-Chairman of the technology Foresight Panel on Manufacturing, points out that there was an unacknowledged assumption behind the deliberations of the panels that technological developments would have the most influence on the UK’s futures, and that this domination was apparent on the choice of items in the questionnaires. I rejected an invitation to join one such panel, on the grounds that the issues addressed were largely irrelevant.

Webster points out that there is now a strong preoccupation in the social science research community with the obstacles to successful innovation and implementation of new technologies, the ways in which technologies prompt the redesign of business processes, the strategies which are necessary for the exploitation of new technologies and with overall notions of “change management”.. The ESRC’s “Innovation Agenda “is explicitly concerned with improving Britain’ s competitive edge through technological capability”.

I argue that such issues should form an important part of the research agenda, but that they should not dominate it. It would seem that ESRC is implicitly adopting the radical right assumption that the only way to improve society is through increasing national income, and that issues relating to the distribution of the benefits flowing from faster economic growth and potentially harmful effects of technology should be relegated to secondary priorities. Rather than carrying out research which questions the dominant radical right ideology that the benefits of economic growth and technology can only ‘trickle down’ from the rich to the poor, the academic community is being invited to adopt this assumption unquestioningly and to carry out research on how best to implement this agenda.

2. The National Vocational Qualification System

The National Vocational Qualification system is certainly intended to help promote economic growth, but, almost as certainly, mainly serves to create inefficiency in education and training.
National Vocational Qualifications formally recognise competences used in employment. They differ from academic qualifications in that they are not based on success in written examinations and do not involve attendance at pre-specified training courses. Underlying NVQs is the concept that the standards specified should be developed by industry for industry. While some academic learning and theory should be involved, NVQs are designed to contain significant practical elements and are supposed to be awarded to those who demonstrate evidence of competence in defined workplace tasks.

I contend that there is overwhelming evidence that the NCVQ system is misconceived in principle and ineffective and harmful to the country’s education and training system in practice. The most fundamental objection is that NCVQ has specified a single methodology for design of qualifications and assessment of those who aspire to be awarded them. NCVQ has specified that to secure a national seal of approval, qualifications must be based on the methodology it specifies itself. It has taken advantage of its monopolistic power to insist on a particular “product specification”.

NCVQ and the Employment Department have been responsible for introducing an enormous quantity of counter-productive bureaucratic procedures into the country’s education and training system. A single methodology for design of qualifications and assessment of those who aspire to be awarded them has been specified. But vocational education and training is complex and diverse, and there are a large number of purposes which it needs to satisfy. Several surveys have shown that the single approach fails to meet these diverse needs adequately. The model NCVQ has been seeking to impose throughout the education and training system was untried and untested. There is now a vast volume of research and analysis which demonstrates that it is fundamentally unsound in both principle and practice.

The take-up of NVQs has been poor, despite the fact that government funds are available through Training and Enterprise Councils for training only to NVQ specifications. Several surveys have shown that failure to acquire NVQs cannot be attributed solely or even mainly to poor marketing. The most important reasons for poor take-up are that NVQs do not meet either employers’ or employees’ needs, and that the design of assessment methods is poor. Driven by the rush to meet targets, implementation has been hurried and piloting inadequate. In addition, output-related funding is tending to undermine the establishment of high and consistent standards of education and training, and tending to give vocational qualifications a bad name.
I argue that the methodological basis of national qualifications should be determined by consultation between experts in each occupation not through central imposition. NCVQ has taken advantage of the monopolistic position it has been granted by Government in relation to the approval of National Vocational Qualifications both to suppress criticism wherever possible, and to ignore it in the development and implementation of its policies where suppression has been impossible. The Government has established a regime in which organisations now have to compete to produce standards and qualifications to meet NCVQ requirements. It promotes the myth that bodies producing qualifications are ‘industry led’, i.e. that the Boards and Councils which run them consist principally of representatives from industry. But this is mainly a cover-up for Government Department and NCVQ domination of their policies. Competition and direct Government and NCVQ pressure inhibits complaints.
Academics are also subject to a similar effect to some extent, insofar as adopting a stance critical of NCVQ may be perceived by them as reducing chances of securing financial support for research – not only from Government Departments, but also now from the ESRC which now takes account of the views of “users” such as Government Departments in awarding research contracts. Civil servants now tend to be less independent than they were and more committed to government policies. The following extract from a letter from a senior official of the DTI to a firm of consultants in November 1994 indicates the attitude of DTI officials to the NVQ system:

The DTI and its partners in this project ..all accept the need to work within a framework which is supportive of the NVQ/SVQ competence-based system.

Officials such as those who wrote the letter mentioned above are now exercising increasing influence on ESRC committees and are unlikely to support applications for research which are liable to lead to results critical of government policies.

The case of NCVQ is by no means the first or only example of Government or QUANGOs using monopsonistic power in this way.


The critical role of civil servants in relation to Government policy has been attenuated. The willingness of academics to use research as a means of subjecting government policies to criticism has been weakened by the intensification of the pressures to compete with each other for the favour of QUANGOs such as HEFCE.

University managers are insisting that very considerable efforts to preparation for the Research Assessment Exercise, in the absence of accurate knowledge of what the various committees responsible for evaluations will be looking for. As each committee will be using different criteria which the committees themselves have probably not yet decided, most of this effort is wasted in any case.


Worth the same as a Research Council grant
Worth between one tenth and one hundredth of an SERC grant
SERC grants get 2 points :Teaching Company Schemes get 0.8
Source: Discussions with HEFCE

*Because individual committees made their own decisions on how much TCS programmes should count.

An increased proportion of ESRC’s research funding is being directed into Initiatives and Centres. Much of this directed at assisting the achievement of Government policy. Government Departments also sponsor research and consultancy to help them implement their policies. To a very considerable extent, the ESRC’s emphasis on the need for research to meet the needs of ‘users’ amounts in practice to the attempt to support research which helps the implementation of the policies of this Conservative Government. However, given that, even without the ESRC’s participation, a considerable volume of research and consultancy is directed at serving the direct needs of Government, ESRC’s role in supporting research which is likely to result in criticism of the fundamental direction of current Government policy should be strengthened.

ESRC has entered into Concordats with Government Departments. These are as likely to help promote the pursuit of the proper objectives of Social Science in this country as a Concordat between the Church of England and the devil would help to promote Christianity.

Even if ESRC continues with its present policies, they are likely to result in support of some research which turns out to be highly critical of Government policy, both because of the idiosyncrasies of ESRC committee decision-making and of the success of numerous academics in deceiving ESRC about what they really intend to do. Nevertheless, important areas of research which are liable to produce conclusions critical of current Government policy, including those embraced in the general phrase “social implications of technology” are likely to continue to be relatively neglected because they do not address the needs of those specific sections of the community which the Government regards as “users” -in particular itself and employers.

The primary role of a political party is to seek and exercise power, not to criticise society. The critical role of academics is of increasing importance in a period when the critical role of civil servants has been eroded, and when the Labour Party has decided that it will not be effective in achieving power by presenting the electorate with a radical critique of the way in which Conservative Administrations have eroded democracy and decision-making in Government since 1979. These trends place an increased responsibility on the academic community to seek to speak truth to power.