After 40 years of exclusion, the arts and humanities have finally got their own research council. Arabella Schnadhorst investigates the impact of a long-awaited decision

It's taken 40 years but at last the arts and humanities have a research council of their own. It will mean more influence and access to better funding, but what will be the impact on postgraduate studies and research?

It's taken 40 years but at last the arts and humanities have a research council of their own. It will mean more influence and access to better funding, but what will be the impact on postgraduate studies and research?

Meg Mosley admits that she has never taken quite as much trouble over an application form. She was well aware that a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB), as it was still known last year, was a much-prized source of funding, and would make all the difference to her fine art Masters course at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. "So many of the other MA students were having to find jobs to pay for themselves," she says, "and I just knew that this kind of pressure would put me off my studies."

So she set about giving a detailed account on the grant form of the kind of research she wanted to do. "I am fascinated by the objects that we surround ourselves with, and the nostalgia and meaning that we invest in them. I explained that I wanted to take this further and look at the psychological and social processes by which human identity can be identified by the possession of artefacts. I made sure what I wrote was detailed and clear. It is too easy to sound wishy-washy in this sort of area."

Mosley, now 24, was right. Her obvious passion and clear thinking, along with a first-class honours degree in fine art from Middlesex University, contributed to a successful application and she is now studying full time at the Slade. She has been awarded a maintenance grant of £10,100 per year and course fees of £3,010. She also has a £5,000 disabled students allowance for her dyslexia, to cover equipment and extra teaching support.

She is certainly one of the lucky ones. Only about a quarter of the 5,500 applications for postgraduate funding made to the AHRB last year were successful. Professor Geoffrey Crossick, the head of the newly christened Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), says its top-class funding for top-class students, and the transition from board to council, could make these awards even more attractive. "This is about a lot more than just a name change. For the last 40 years, all the other areas of research have had a research council and the arts and humanities have not.

"We have had to live with the sense that arts and humanities are not an important part of public life and to the wellbeing of the country. We have been excluded from public policymaking and have had to gratefully accept a pot of money from the Government, rather than apply directly for research funds. We have a vital role to play alongside the other research councils and at last this has been recognised."

It has been a frustrating journey. The AHRB was set up in 1998 as an interim body, pending a decision by the Government on the recommendation in the 1997 Dearing report that a research council should be established in the arts and humanities. Until then, the British Academy was responsible for some postgraduate funding in this area, but no body existed to fund arts and humanities research. It took a further six years for the proposal to reach the statute book and 12 months after that, for the board to becoming a fully fledged research council, on the first of this month.

The author of the original report, Ron Dearing - now Lord Dearing - is delighted. "I see the creation of the council as a potential watershed in the fortune of arts and humanities and for the long-term wellbeing of us all in terms of our quality of life and economy."

The AHRC's budget of about £75m is divided between postgraduate funding and research. Some postgraduates are supported on the basis that they will go on to do further research at doctoral level, while other awards focus on preparing the student for professional work.

One AHRC-funded student is doing an MA in modern history at Reading in preparation for an academic career, while another is studying at Tate Liverpool and the Lowry to develop her expertise in art curatorship. However, Alison Henry, the head of the council's postgraduate awards, says the emphasis in this area is set to change. "We are trying to shift the balance so that more funding goes to doctoral rather than Masters awards," she says. "A PhD is the highest quality degree you can get and with limited funds we really ought to concentrate on creating the best stock of academic staff for the future."

But the AHRC is determined to raise the level of training for Masters and doctoral students. "We have been working closely with the other research councils to create a research training framework and we now provide funds to universities to support this training," says Henry. "We want to improve the facilities available to our students during their courses and try to identify clear career paths for them when their studies are completed."

At the end of this year, a new collaborative doctoral awards scheme gets under way, whereby universities will set up PhD projects with non-university organisations such as museums or private companies. The school of arts and social sciences at Northumbria University will be running a project with the county's Healthcare NHS Trust, looking into the impact of photography on the attitudes and behaviours of healthcare staff; and the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London will be joining forces with the Postal Heritage Trust to look into the post office in 20th-century Britain. The AHRC hopes that, by offering a higher than normal grant for these awards, it will attract top-quality candidates.

For those arts and humanities students who want to remain in research after finishing their postgraduate studies, the opportunities offered by the AHRC are enormous. "There has been a key shift in the way arts and humanities research is viewed," says Chris Millward, the AHRC's associate director of research. "It has traditionally been thought that if you work in this area, you don't really need any money for research, you just need office space and time. That is not the case anymore. Big grants are available and they are being put to very valuable use."

The AHRC runs seven different research schemes, with grants ranging from a few thousand pounds to more than a million. At one end of the scale are the research leave programmes, which cover the replacement teaching costs of a scholar finishing a research project, while at the other sit the 19 research centres. "These serve as a hub for research activity across a wide range of disciplines," says Millward. "At a time of significant constitutional change, our Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies in Aberdeen is doing some cutting-edge research into how cultures interact and how identities are formed."

These centres, along with the other postgraduate and research work are, says Millward, absolute proof of the value and need for arts and humanities. "Science research might appear to have more dramatic results, and perhaps in the medical world it does, but that is not to say that arts and humanities research isn't equally valuable. There is no doubt that the study of art, or history, or religion helps us to understand ourselves and the world we live in. It is vital for us and effective government policy."

In fact, when creative industries became one of the fastest growing parts of the British economy in the late 1990s, the Government recognised the need for research and development. A research and knowledge transfer task group has been set up and the AHRC has been commissioned to ensure that universities and creative industries work as closely as possible to guarantee that, where applicable, new and innovative research ideas can be translated into business models and tools for the creative industry. There has been a lot of work into computer-aided design at Edinburgh University and a professor in Sheffield is working closely with architects on a new structural material made out of recycled glass.

Crossick, who is leaving the AHRC in the next few weeks to become warden of Goldsmiths College in London, says that he will be very sad to go. "My only plea is that our funding should become on a more equal footing to the other research councils. I know that science research can be a lot more expensive than arts and humanities research but we get less than a 10th of what most of the other councils receive. Given that our research community makes up one quarter of all researchers in the UK, any extra money would be well deserved and could make a significant difference."