The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) was launched on 1 April 2005. It was born from its predecessor body, the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB). The AHRB was established in October 1998, by the three higher education funding councils for England, Scotland and Wales (HEFCE, SHEFC and HEFCW respectively), the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) in Northern Ireland and the British Academy.
It was created in response to the Dearing Report (1) which recommended that an Arts and Humanities Board should be established. This new board would provide support for research and postgraduate training in the arts and humanities, alongside the six well-established research councils for the sciences and social sciences.
The AHRB was a company limited by guarantee and was registered with the Charity Commission as a charitable organisation.
The Council of Trustees was responsible for ensuring that the AHRB used the funding that it received in accordance with agreed strategic objectives and targets contained in a Corporate Plan. The Trustees also had responsibilities for approving for recommendation to the Funding Group, the Operating Plan and annual budgets for both programmes and running costs. The Funding Group consisted of representatives of the AHRB funders, plus representatives of the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Leverhulme Trust. The role of the Funding Group was to set the broad strategic framework within which the AHRB operated and to agree the deployment of funding across programmes and other activities.
The Council of Management reported to the Council of Trustees with recommendations on issues of academic policy and development, and also, through delegation to four committees, oversaw the Council's operations for the support of the research, postgraduate and museums and galleries programmes.
Decisions on the grant of awards were delegated to programme committees which operated through a rigorous process of peer review involving panels of experts across the spectrum of the arts and humanities subject domain. The outcomes of applications for grants were reported regularly to the Council of Management, and its Monitoring and Evaluation Committee provided independent assessments on the delivery of programme aims.
In 2001 a government review of research funding in the arts and humanities was established. In 2002 the review panel recommended to the government that a UK-wide Arts and Humanities Research Council should be created and located alongside the other Research Councils in the Office of Science and Innovation, then part of the Department for Trade and Industry (now the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS)).
In January 2003 the Secretary of State for Education and Skills (DfES), the Rt. Hon Charles Clarke, MP, confirmed that the government and administrations in the devolved territories had accepted the review panel recommendations and that the new AHRC should be established by 2005. The government's White Paper on The Future of Higher Education (2) which proposed the new Research Council was controversial because it included plans for so-called 'top-up fees' – the government's proposal to allow universities to raise fees, and move towards what chronicler of the AHRC, Dr James Herbert, has called 'a market model of financing higher education'.(3) Thus the Bill faced a lot of opposition, and by the end of January 2003, 170 MPs had already signed an anti-top-up petition. When the second reading of the Bill came a year later, on 27 January 2004, it passed with 316 ayes to 311 noes.
The AHRC is incorporated by Royal Charter and is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Science and Innovation Group (part of the DIUS) along with the other six research councils. The AHRC is governed by its Council, which is responsible for the overall strategic direction of the AHRC in supporting the arts and humanities. As with the AHRB, the Council is advised by its Committees.
The Council must ensure that the AHRC operates in line with the objects of its Royal Charter and other governing documents. It is also responsible for the overall financial management of the AHRC. Members of the Council and its advisory Committees, panels and groups adhere to a code of practice.
No precise definition of the subject domain of the arts and humanities is possible and the Council is liberal in its interpretation of its domain. Subjects and disciplines are continually evolving, and there are inevitable overlaps and boundaries that the Council shares with other award-making bodies, especially the other Research Councils. Current subject areas funded include Ancient History, Archaeology, Visual Arts, English Language and Literature, Medieval and Modern History, Modern Languages and Linguistics, Librarianship, Information and Museum Studies, Music and Performing Arts, Philosophy, Law and Religious Studies.
The AHRC does not fund pedagogical research, the primary responsibility for which rests with the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It does, however, consider applications where – so long as the primary focus of the research questions is located clearly in the arts and humanities – some aspects of the work may be related to the pedagogical application of the results of the research. As in all cases relating to subject domain, the question asked in determining whether or not the application is eligible for funding is whether or not the research questions are plausibly located within the domain of the arts and humanities, as distinct from any other subject areas, including education.
The AHRC also funds a number of 'strategic' initiatives, which address issues of intellectual and wider cultural, social or economic urgency that the Council considers are best supported by concentrated investments. Recent initiatives have included:
In addition, the AHRC has agreed to collaborate with the other Research Councils on the peer review and funding of research projects that extend beyond the arts and humanities. The new arrangements will enhance future opportunities for research that brings arts and humanities interests and approaches together with those of other subject communities. Examples include research into the development and extension of technologies for use in the visual and performing arts, and into the law and ethics of science and medicine.
Molly Conisbee is the Associate Director of Communications for the Arts and Humanities Research Council.