Glen Newey · Rick Rylance's Traceless Rise
Tough times for Greeks, and for teachers of Greek, as the austerity regime bites. Royal Holloway’s classics and philosophy department is the latest to go. Under the plans, seven posts are being scissored, and another five classicists are being moved en bloc to history. The philosophers will be shunted to the politics and international relations department. Royal Holloway’s classics BA degree will be binned. Edith Hall is being shunted over to English, presumably on the grounds that she does research into Renaissance performances of classical drama – which seems a bit like moving an expert on the history of enclosures to a job in estates management.
Happily, though, it’s not all downsizing, short-staffing and curriculum cuts on planet academe. One who isn’t facing the dole queue is Rick Rylance, who today takes over as the chair of Research Councils UK. Rylance’s traceless rise includes his continuing tenure as chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Section 2.2.4 of Rylance’s AHRC ‘delivery plan’ promises that ‘connected communities will enable the AHRC to contribute to the government’s initiatives on localism and the “Big Society”.'
Under the long-standing Haldane principle, government grants for academic research should be free from political interference. That research funding should become the plaything of party political slogans, and particularly the BS, raised understandable concern that Haldane is being junked. Rylance has cocked a deaf ear to protests at political interference in research, including numerous resignations from senior members of the AHRC peer-review college, some of whom have served on it since its inception; others, such as Simon Jarvis, professor of poetry at Cambridge, have called on Rylance to resign. Rylance has denied that the AHRC delivery plan was politically orchestrated, but as resigners have pointed out, this presumably means that the BS crops up in the document not because of government diktat, but on the chief executive’s own initiative. To convert cringe to free will, all you need to do is want it.
This lends poignancy to a prophetic warning about the then Arts and Humanities Research Board, issued in 2002. Under a future regime of politically directed research, it noted, 'financial mechanisms’ might be
used to secure desired changes or inflect behaviour. If one is prone to be suspicious of centralised agendas, then the danger lies not in dirigiste curriculum specifications (which nutcase would wish to take on that job?), or increasingly superficial audits of ‘quality’ in various spheres, but in the cunning use of financial incentives and restraints to achieve objectives.
As it happens, we now know which ‘nutcase’ would wish to take on the task of using financial mechanisms to secure desired changes and inflect behaviour. It’s the man who wrote these words – the then Dean of Arts and Letters at Anglia Polytechnic University, Rick Rylance – which, with hindsight, read less like a prophecy than a job application.