The background to this year's panel is set out in the Chair's report. The editor's usual apologies for any inaccuracies in the following report, which this year, in view of the detailed practical advice presented, concentrates on the three main speakers' points rather than on the (valuable) ensuing discussion.
The following advice on the process of applying for postgraduate awards comes out of a recently-completed three years as assessor for Classics and Archaeology under the old HRB system. Some things do change from year to year, and may change further under the AHRB, so all present tenses should be taken as provisional.
A. The process
Under the HRB system, each application is seen by two or three assessors , who do not actually make the award, but assess it in a (notionally, at least) two-stage process:
To illustrate the level of competition (using Competition A, for clarity's sake): a first-class degree result with a selector's grade of 1 is certain in practice to get a grant. A first with a 2a - so still within the top 25% - may well not get a grant if the first is low; to put it another way, 50% of Competition A applicants do not get a grant. In such a tight competition, selectors tend to find themselves ruling out candidates: looking in the forms not for candidates' good features, since the quality is very high, but for reasons to bump them down to a lower category. But the very tightness of competition means that ideological factors - prejudices about certain kinds of research, say - never have room to develop among the assessors.
B. The institutional statement
Part 3 is in some ways the trickiest part of the form. It won't carry the application on its own in such tough competition, but candidates are sometimes disadvantaged by a mishandled Part 3. The philosophy of Part 3 is for the institution to explain the fit between the particular student and the particular institution. Two opposite mistakes are: (i) an extremely bland institutional statement that fails entirely to engage with the candidate's interests ("The Department of Classics at the University of X was given an Y rating in the last RAE; it has excellent library facilities, lots of staff and lots of FBAs - It would be an excellent place for Jenny to work"; (ii) effectively just another reference for the student: "We've come to think very highly of Jenny; she's an extremely promising candidate; we're terribly pleased to have her; &c., &c." The central question is why is this an appropriate marriage between department and student? - especially important with students from overseas, where the form doesn't always make clear whether the department knows this person (perhaps from an Erasmus scheme) or has simply picked them out of a national pool of Master's candidates. The form does also ask you to rank the student in relation to other candidates for the course; this is essential, and failure to do this can disadvantage your best students, but it's possible to use a less brutally mechanical kind of ranking - saying, for example, "within the archaeological / literary /&c. area of our MA course,this student is among the best".
C. Form 107
This is where the Department or Registry notes what ranking of first the student has attained, or ranks their MA achievement (often before their final dissertation). The entry is scrutinised with extreme care, and some 10 15% of the Universties' rankings are moved down or sometimes up. For example, the box may reveal that there were 18 firsts in the University that year in Classics, of which candidate X was 17th, with an average was 66.6; if the tick in this candidate's box indicates the top category of first, it will almost certainly be moved down to the bottom category of first. Similarly on the MA form, if the discursive statement says "Max has taken rather slowly to graduate work but his last assessed essay did just about make a first class and we are hopeful that he is on a rising curve", and then box 1 is ticked (on the 1 5 scale, meaning absolutely outstanding), then Max will be demoted one or two boxes. This may look arbitrary, but it's only being fair to those universities who look as though they're being honest.
Research awards are managed by an entirely separate panel from postgraduate awards - and it's a new system, still evolving and still responsive to feedback. AHRB is not at present a research council, though it's seeking to become one; it emerged from the existence of the HRB (a British Academy initiative) and from Dearing's recommendation of a Humanities research council. When the government failed to take this up, HEFCE and the Northern Irish funding council along with the Academy took the initiative to set up something that will be run like it, and with the Scottish and Welsh funding councils due to join next year. Dearing proposed some 50m per year such a body; by the time Scotland and Wales are in there should be around 49m, though 9m of that is already allocated for support of museums, which was not part of Dearing's understanding of the remit. Nevertheless, it is a considerable upgrade of the sums available to HRB, especially on the research side.
As with the postgraduate panels, research panels were set up under 8 categories, of which Panel 1 is Classics, Ancient History, and Archaeology. One difference from HRB is that one of the panels is Performing Arts (whence the A in the new title) like music and drama, which have their own ring-fenced amount. At present AHRB deals with three schemes:
(i) research leave, taken over from the BA;
(ii) small grants, up to 5,000, also taken over from the BA and due to revert there for the Humanities, though the panel will still assess small-grants applications for the BA;
(iii) large grants, over 5,000 and up to 100,000 per annum. These operate on the basis of internal, candidate-nominated references, and in the case of large grants also external references chosen by AHRB itself.
The process is roughly similar for all three schemes. Each member of the panel considers the whole range of information gathered (so that, for example, in our panel the archaeologists and classicists all look at ancient history), and applications are graded into A plus, A, A-, B, and R. R is a straight rejection; B means the proposal looks interesting but the application needs presenting differently. The panel also ranks applications; in Panel 1, an A+ has a very good chance of funding, but only the top few of the As will succeed, though research leave, which has more applications will let more As through. Panel 1 deals with a very large number of large research grant applications, about a third of all the large grant applications to AHRB - largely because of archaeological work. Large grant applications are mainly intended to provide wages for research assistance: a pattern of research long familiar to archaeologists, but not a habitual way of thinking for classicists and ancient historians, whose research is traditionally in solo projects. One of the purposes behind AHRB is precisely to make this kind of input to research.
After the applications have been graded by the Panel, they then go to the Research Committee, consisting of all the conveners of the research panels. This is the body that effectively allocates the money available to AHRB according to a formula that takes into account, for example, the number of academic staff in institutions were graded for the RAE; the number of applications (here Panel 1 does well); and so on. The formula determines what proportion of the grant is available, and then each panel's list is gone down until the appropriate number - not the amount - of grants is met. Then the actual funding involved is checked; at present, although a smaller proportion of Panel 1's list goes through because our list is longer, for the same reason we do well in the proportion of total funding allocated. One fundamental point is that the large grants and to a considerable extent research leave are funded in terms of projects ; Dorothy Thompson will have more to say on this below.
AHRB is still very new, and Paul Langford, the present head of AHRB, is keen to listen to the academic community's own views on whether the current process is working for us. Two particular current preoccupations are: (i) funding for research centres , units within an institution that would act as a centre for research in a particular part of the field as opposed to particular projects, which are also funded; (ii) research enhancement , areas such as large-scale databases where work seems significant for future research. There are also structural questions about the panels and their subject domains: should a single panel covers archaeology, ancient history, and classics? should it be expanded, to include for example Byzantine studies? should it be shrunk, so that archaeology is separated from classics and ancient history?
From the experience of assessing application forms, some practical tips suggest themselves on how to fill the forms in. Much is common sense, but classicists are not as good at writing applications as their archaeologist colleagues and competitors, who have much more experience of thinking (and applying for funding) in terms of projects, and it's no longer sufficient to say that you have been working on such-and-such an author for so-many years.