There’s a new “Bridging the Gap” report on the arts and humanities in the UK. It’s the result of a one-year examination of how to improve collaborative funding-based projects with external partners. The universities were outside London, and the partners ranged from monoliths (such as the BBC and the National Trust) to local museums, theatres and the like.

The gist of the problem, in snippets from the report:

* “universities are institutions that are difficult to understand from the outside. At one level they seem monolithic and are branded as a single institution, yet in practice they are often silo-ed and operate with little coordination. As a result, partners may be disappointed when they realise that the understanding that they have built up with one academic or research group doesn’t ‘carry’ across the university. Similarly, partners [find baffling] the lack of co-operation or understanding between universities.”

* “Research in the Arts and Humanities still operates far more under a lone scholar model” [done by] “individual researchers who struggle to maintain conversations between multiple short-term grants”. Research robustly shows that… “most collaborations are forged by approaches made by external partners” but it can be difficult to respond to needs, when a pot of grant cash is not immediately on the table. When relationships do form in a funded manner, they are easily frayed or broken when the funding runs out and the “academics or partners change jobs”. Or when relationships are “laid aside for individual researchers to achieve permanent positions or promotions in the academy”, working in institutional cultures which don’t value or know how to quantify “co-produced and interdisciplinary research”.

* University management can see the project as just a set of “publicity opportunities” that also enables taxpayer funding to be banked, thus preventing both kudos and funding from falling into the hands of rivals. This means that often don’t take seriously having to “flexibly free up researchers from other responsibilities” to make sufficient time for the project.

* Academics may be “pre-setting the research question” due to having to promise deliverables to funders, and “it is surprisingly difficult to generate projects that are fulfilling for both sides. Individual academics, by virtue of their role in the grant application system, are often in the position of purse-holder, which can lead to a situation in which the academic may feel like they are commissioning rather than collaborating and unwittingly lay uncomfortable constraints on their partners.” … “lack of knowledge of the structure of the creative industries can damage the partner’s ability to realise the value of the partnership” [and creative partners can find] “themselves constrained by decisions that were inappropriate to their particular medium or industry, or were disappointed to be relegated to the role of a contractor delivering output”. Partner costs can be underestimated, so partners can quickly start to feel they are being asked for ‘work on the cheap’. On this the report notes that… “we have seen instances when research funds didn’t reflect the full economic cost of the in-kind resources and expertise brought by the partner.” [Even dangerously late payments…] “In some cases, the structuring of payments and pace of the project severely endangered the financial viability of the partner.”

* There is also a mismatch between creative and academic language (“You almost need a translator in the middle of these projects” said one interviewee). It’s also implied that ideological mismatch is avoided, since… “successful collaboration always requires warm personal relationships”.

Given the incredibly fractious and bitter politics currently holding sway at UK universities, this last point implies that leftist academics (i.e. the vast majority of arts and humanities academics, according to surveys, which is mostly due to hiring bias) can only work successfully with other leftists. I’d suggest this must often skew project work away from wider intellectual diversity, sending it down narrow ideological rabbit-holes.

Despite some gobble-de-gook writing on the first few pages, it’s a pretty good report and it gets better as it goes along. The final recommendations are short, but most are nicely pithy and blunt. I’d say that possibly the most important recommendations are…

* “creating modes of payment” that would be radical innovations for educational institutions — in that they simply pay people on time, as agreed. Radical stuff, indeed. The problem there is that academics may blithely say: “oh, yes, you’ll be paid on time, we’ve sorted that out now”. They may even believe that, when they say it. But when it comes to making the actual bank transfer to a third-party outside the university, university finance departments usually grind exceedingly slowly.

* bring in a new ‘producer’ role. “University researchers (or other staff) are not usually in the position to be able to assess the contributions or needs of their partners — or understand best practice in other domains of work — but they usually define and control the budget. The producer role provides a vital point of translation/mediation to mitigate this imbalance and to ensure that the collaborations are as effective as possible in the domains of all the partners involved. Resourcing this role would improve the outcomes of collaborative research projects.”

And I’d suggest that producer needs to be on hand before even the writing of the funding application by the academic and management. But where to find such skilled and savvy people-people, in a time of full employment?