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“I am extremely positive about the future of the arts and humanities” – Rick Rylance interviewed

On 11 May researchers and policymakers met to discuss the future of arts and humanities research funding at a one-day conference “Cuts in Culture: The Impact of Creativity” at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in London. Ahead of the event, Research Fortnight editor Ehsan Masood caught up with chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Rick Rylance, to talk funding, fees, science-envy, and, yes, Big Society.

Given cuts across the board, will concentration of funding be a problem for small universities?

Well first of all, this is a more complicated situation that you’ve just given. There is a view that excellence in the arts and humanities is widely spread. And there is a good deal of evidence from successive RAEs, that there are indeed people all over the country who are very, very good at things. However if you look at our data, 75 per cent of our funding is already going to 30 institutions and 39 per cent in going to 10. So the funding is already concentrated. So we’ve got two issues here. One is: are we going to radically adjust the volume of concentration? Well, probably not massively.

The second and more interesting issue is, how do you then support the range of different types of research for instance, a very large community we’re looking at, over 50 disciplines, in that situation? Our belief is that collaboration, and consortia style arrangements are a key to the future. So we’re looking for ways in which institutions will work together to try to support research programmes and individuals.

Can you give an example?

An example would be the way we’ve been working towards postgraduate funding. This is through the block grant partnership scheme we’ve got, one of the projects we propose in the delivery plan.

At the moment we’ve got a rather dispersed knowledge exchange budget, which is going to fund a whole number of projects which in themselves may be extremely good, but which are not producing an enormous amount of leverage and sustainable impact.

And so what we’re looking to do is to make an award for knowledge exchange hubs for the creative economy. And these should be based upon consortia proposals. We’re in the middle of doing this at the moment. Now that would be an incentive for people to operate on some scale. We’ve made it pretty clear we’ll be looking for partnership arrangements for expertise, and we’re also looking for leadership from the institution or institutions which choose to lead these consortia.

With research concentration in the AHRC delivery plan, alongside cuts in the Higher Education Innovation Fund, do you recognise the perception that small and less collaborative universities are going to be squeezed?

There’s a great deal of anxiety around everything at the moment and that’s inevitable when you’ve got reduced funding. And a good deal of unsettlement is because no one knows quite what the arrangements are going to be for this, that and another as we move into the next spending period. I think there would be an anxiety amongst institutions that aren’t thinking ahead in a forward-looking, ambitious way. But surely under any funding regime these sorts of institutions would be looking at some degree of difficulty.

What do you advise those who are struggling?

The primary criterion about whether any research council makes an award is on the basis of the excellence of their research. So any institutions will have to look hard at itself and say where are we really excellent? Which areas might we develop? And then focus on those two things and look for appropriate opportunities for trying to develop that. It seems to me there’s a key here on institutions’ own perception of their own strengths and the way in which they can think about those in imaginative, innovative and forward looking way.

There are to be new funding arrangements for [arts and humanities] teaching and greater uncertainty following from it. What do you think the impact will be on arts and humanities scholarship?

Scholarship is an ambiguous word because it means teaching and sometimes research. I guess there is an overarching question which is, am I sanguine or pessimistic about the future of the arts and humanities? I am actually extremely positive about the future of the arts and humanities. I think that the quality of activity in our subject areas is at an unprecedentedly high level. There are no indicators across the piste, that is, if you average the whole lot together, of real decline in student interest. There’s no real evidence from other countries that have moved into the kind of future we’re perhaps contemplating where there is gross fall away from the arts and humanities. That is not to say that some particular disciples aren’t struggling for one reason or another at the moment. Modern languages are the one that’s usually cited. The number of applications coming into modern languages departments are declining year on year. There are complicated reasons for that. But one of the issues in relation to modern languages is, are we talking about European languages or are we talking about world languages? And clearly there is a significant growth of interest in the latter.

In the future the money will follow the student. Does that mean that there will be less predictability in what courses run?

There are two dimensions to this: one is will gross volumes of the number so students doing say English, history or French change radically? And then there is the second question, how will those be distributed across the institutions that currently offer provision in those areas?

I think there’s an open question about what adjustment there will be in gross volume and that could be a marginal issue, it could be a structural issue, for a number of years. Where I think there is more uncertainty is in relation to how institutions will decide which disciplines they are going to specialise in. So there could be some growth in universities in these areas, and this would be true of any disciplines of course, and other institutions may think well, “maybe our expertise is better placed somewhere else”.

So when this change comes into effect, there will be some institutions that will do well and others that won’t?

What we’re looking at is an unknown. A known-unknown. And is that the future will look different from the present. And that could be that certain institutions say ‘hey, our strength really is in the arts and humanities’, and I can think of lots of institutions that would say that. And they’re going to [be really adventurous] and put effort into this and push for growth in that. There could be other institutions that say ‘we run a marginal operation here, we’re much better placed in other sorts of areas and therefore those will be our priorities and not the arts and humanities’. But overall I don’t see a major threat to the quality and the provision we currently have in the arts and humanities.

Imagine yourself running a university department where it has become harder to predict the numbers of students and the kind of provision that will be needed. Is the stress of this, happening year-on-year, something you recognise could be a problem?

Well I can recognise the possibility of that. I don’t recognise the likelihood of that. Why don’t I? Because I think that there will be fluctuations but those fluctuations will be reasonably consistent over time. And that a very popular university that happens to be very good at any particular humanities discipline is unlikely to suffer wild fluctuations over year to year. I don’t think that’ll happen. And I think much more likely is that there may well be sudden drops, there may well be an overall pattern over a number of years, but I don’t think institutions are going to be, any more than any other subject, in any position to say, gosh, there’s famine this year and there will be feast next or vice versa. That’s not the way that student recruitment goes.

There is a perception that the government has treated the arts and humanities very differently to science subjects, offering much more protection to STEM. Where does that come from and what can be done to make people thing differently?

I’m sure the government can look after itself in perceptions, I don’t need to speak for it. I recognise that perception. And to be honest, I’ve worked with it all of my professional life. I’ve been in this game a good number of years now and there’s always been a feeling from my side of the world, as it were, that people over there, who are doing STEM-based disciplines are much better off than we are.

Now is that true? I suspect it’s not true. And so what you’re looking at here in part is a cultural perception of disadvantage and you’re looking at a situation in which when you come to think of, for example, distribution of research funding. There is rough equality. You’ll know of course that medicine was ring-fenced. But actually the settlement that the AHRC received was on a par with the ones received in the ESRC or the EPSRC. In some ways could be said to be better because of course they’ve suffered hits on capital which is not a major issue for us.

But you lost all your capital funding, some £3m for access to digital technology…

That was really a one off. We had some capital money and we lost all our capital money, but that’s not core activity for us in terms of continuing to maintain high quality research in arts and humanities. And that wouldn’t be the case in some other subject areas.

So we’ve got a very interesting cultural situation in which the arts and humanities do feel, from time to time, hard done by. But when I talk to my colleagues in the natural science, they too feel hard done by, sometimes for different reasons. So we’ve got to discriminate between what is an apprehension of the situation and what is actually the reality. The reality is, of course, along with many other disciplines, the arts and humanities currently are running at greater volumes than ever before.

In the run up to the spending review, STEM campaigns lobbied just for science, not research. Do you feel it should have been broader?

I really do strongly contest that actually. My experience, in the AHRC – I’ve been doing it now for about 18 months – is of wholehearted, very consistent support across the whole research base. For every single element of it. And I’d be very uncomfortable with the view that somehow said scientists were only in it for themselves and they were very happy to let the rest go to the wall and that was not actually the case.

But the campaign was “science is vital”, not “knowledge” or “research” is vital…

What I would also add to what I’ve just said, and I do feel quite strongly about this, is that our colleagues in the natural sciences have been extremely supportive of us. What I would add to that is that the science subjects have been extremely accomplished, over a number of years, in making a very articulate and evidence-based case for the value of their disciplines and activities. I do think that in the arts of humanities that we have been significantly less accomplished at doing that. I do feel quite strongly that we in the arts and humanities are sometimes not as good as we ought to be, not as forceful and consistent as we ought to be, in making the case for the value of our own disciplines and that’s what we’ve got to work on. Not looking over the fence and saying your grass is greener.

Does that mean talking about economic benefit? An AHRC report published last year showed that for every £1 spent on research by the AHRC, the UK reaps up to £10 in immediate benefit, and another £15-£20 in the long term…

I do think that that is the kind of data that’s extremely helpful when dealing with… of course I wasn’t around at the AHRC when that report was produced so I don’t know what the immediate impact was. But certainly when we’re making the case about the value of the discipline you’re making it over a number of areas and the economic impact will be one of them. Issues to do with cultural benefit will be another. Issues to do with social influence, preservation, heritage, transmission of knowledge across generations, well-being, all those sorts of things are part and parcel of a bigger argument.

The AHRC has included the term “Big Society” in the council’s delivery plan, and a 3,000-signature petition, including members of the Peer Review College, called on the council to remove references to this. Were you surprised?

I didn’t anticipate it. Was I surprised? That’s an interesting question actually. I was a little surprised at the timing, that it came then. I was rather dismayed that it came on the back of wholly false allegations made in the Observer story that kicked the whole thing off. So I was much more concerned about those false allegation initially.

Even though there was a clarification? [It is alleged that the British Academy was “pressured”, rather than AHRC]

Well I think there’s an issue about the way the Observer reporter conducted himself through all this. And the clarification from Peter Mandler at Cambridge was extremely helpful. As in all academic communities, there are a number of people who feel challenged and to some degree find it difficult to adjust to a different kind of world, that’s maybe in the academic world, who have values which they maintain are opposition to the way the culture is going. So am I surprised at the number of people holding those views who are concerned about current developments? No I’m not surprised.

Is it not a function of arts and humanities scholarship to provide a critique of what’s happening in public policy?

Absolutely. But I think that would be true of social sciences, also, where relevant, of natural sciences as well.

It’s interesting that peer review colleges of other research councils haven’t felt the need to start mining delivery pans for language that may be political – when there’s a lot in there [relating to government policy], isn’t there?

Yes, there is indeed. Secondly other research councils also get a good deal of opposition to, for example, plans on impact. The AHRC isn’t singular in having part of its community that’s out of step with the way things are going and they’re not shy of registering their dismay about things in one way or another. Your question about taking critical distance is I think absolutely crucial. Because there is nothing in that deliver plan that says that we will flatter the policy preference of the current administration. What is says is we will investigate these areas. Are these areas important? Yes they are.

What if there are resignations over this?

We’re not speculating what the outcome of this will be. We are getting across the community a range of signals, and a range of responses as you might imagine. On the one hand there are a group of people who are signing up to a petition. On the other hand, there’s an awful lot of formal – i.e. written – and informal support for our position as well. So there’s a lot of people who are currently not entering the debate, who do write to us or tell us at events that they are actually quite supportive of the way things are going and dismayed by the tone of some of the disquiet being expressed. So we’re getting very mixed signals and we’ll have to see how things work out.

It is fair to say that when a more right-of-centre government comes back into office then there are inevitably more tensions with the academy than there are with left-of-centre governments?

There’s a very interesting study by Louis Menand, an American study, which says that the academic cultures tend to be liberal minded. And that clearly is an American term but I suspect his analysis is quite true for over here as well. There’s a natural liberal left inclination within the academic community. And therefore they would be… they would tend to oppose the current administration or an incoming conservative government for those sorts of reasons. But there’s bigger issue here, and that is that there is a great value attached to academic freedom and there has been concern over the previous administration as well as this one, about the way in which, for example, the impact agenda has come to be – about what is perceived to be the scrutiny of the quality of outputs through RAE and the like. So there is a concern which pre-exists and also runs through whatever disquiet the academic community might feel about this particular government. And I don’t think it’s an issue that is just confined to this administration.