Q&A with Rick Rylance

We talk to the AHRC chief executive as he prepares to move to the School of Advanced Study

August 27, 2015
Rick Rylance, School of Advanced Study, University of London

Rick Rylance is chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council and chair of the Research Councils UK executive group. He has held several positions at UK universities including the University of Exeter and Anglia Polytechnic University (now Anglia Ruskin University). In the autumn, he will move to the School of Advanced Study, University of London to take up the directorship of the Institute of English Studies.

Where and when were you born?
Manchester, 1954.

How has this shaped you?
In a lifelong obsession with Manchester City Football Club and a fondness for moorland landscapes. My dad took me to see City when I was seven; we lost 2-1 to Fulham. It’s been down and up ever since. 

How does it feel to be returning to an academic institution? Do you think it’ll be a bit like getting back on a bike?
I like to think I never fell off, actually – but hanging around in Whitehall does funny things to you. It feels great to be going to the IES and SAS, but it’s not so much a return as a rediscovery. It’s always much better when things have changed and you’ve had a different life for a while.

Will you be looking to flex your own research muscles now that you’re no longer part of a body that funds research?
Actually, I’ve done a bit of flexing already. I’ve just finished a book for Oxford University Press on literature and the public good. I enjoyed writing that so much, in the nooks and crannies of my ordinary week, that I want to write more. There are only so many strategy and position papers one can devise before seizing up in research terms, for me anyway.

How does UK universities’ research compare with other key players in global higher education, and could we be doing more to improve its research reputation?
With characteristic national reticence, we underestimate how considerable our international reputation is. I sit on several international bodies and our standing is impressive. We have our weaknesses, as all do, among them underinvestment by comparison with competitor nations. But we are widely considered by many to be thought leaders in policy, good at know-how, and collaborators of choice. We are just blooming good at this research stuff.

Specifically, where does the UK – given its quite heavy emphasis on STEM – sit in global arts and humanities research?
I get rather tired of this adversarial juxtaposition of science, technology, engineering and mathematics and the arts and humanities as if one were Goliath and the other David looking for a showdown. Actually, by and large, we are good mates. One of the things that I’ve enjoyed most in chairing RCUK has been greater acquaintance with colleagues across the sciences and recognising strong interdependencies. On the specific question about our global position in the arts and humanities, we are outstanding across most areas.

If you were a prospective student facing £9,000 fees, would you go or get a job?
Oh, I’d go, go, go. It changed my life from top to bottom: it expanded my horizons, intellectually and in all sorts of other ways including social mobility; it opened a career; gave me friends; enabled travel. My generation was lucky in having these doors open without an entrance fee. Even so, the principle applies.

What do you do for fun?
Watch Man City (not always fun); live theatre and music; cooking and eating; being with family and friends. Habitually, I like stonking up mountains and over moorlands. I once read a 1930s walking book that described hiking as “delicious vacancy”. I also scuba-dive: delicious buoyancy.

Have you ever had a eureka moment?
I’ve had delusions.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Many kinds: a bit swotty; a read-a-holic; music-obsessed; hitch-hiker and traveller whenever I could; socially timid; relentlessly curious; overly reticent; blessed with friends.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
Intellectually, it was my undergraduate mentor, the great critic Isobel Armstrong, who said: don’t write for yourself, and never use the word “nature” when talking about Wordsworth. It nailed the enemies of solipsism and cliché. I also had wonderful, argumentative sessions with my PhD supervisor Bill Myers that went on for hours as the light faded into evening.

Tell us about someone you admire.
Whomever it was that invented the Martini, bringing years of pleasure to millions.

Your research interests include the psychology of reading. What book would you take with you to a desert island? And what does the choice tell you about your own reading psychology?
Middlemarch; or Bleak House; or the poems of Wordsworth; or Emma; or Wuthering Heights; or Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time; or Auden’s poems – what does that tell you about my psychology of reading? You can never get enough of it.

If you were universities minister for a day, what policy would you introduce?
I’d hold a national day annually to celebrate our sector. I’d develop science and research immersion courses for MPs. And I’d ban academics from sighing more than twice a day.


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