Vice-Chancellor’s Oration 2014 | University of Oxford

Vice-Chancellor’s Oration 2014

7 October 2014

Colleagues and friends of the University, thank you very much indeed for joining me at the start of another academic year. The annual oration of the Vice-Chancellor is something that I for one regard as a pleasurable duty. That’s not a quality one can ascribe to all my duties, and I am grateful for the opportunity today that it provides to share some thoughts with you about our University; a gratitude amplified by your apparent willingness to come and listen.

Now, in my Oration a year ago, I took the opportunity to look inwards, to “hold a mirror up to the University” and to take stock of our academic achievements and our aspirations as one of the world’s leading centres of learning and research. This morning, I plan to look outwards rather than inwards, and to focus less on our teaching and research in themselves, and more on what we as a University contribute to the wider world as a result of them. Hence my title: Oxford and the Public Good.

I want to reflect with you on the public value of Oxford; the benefit that flows to others from who we are, what we do, and how we do it. And if, in the course of these reflections, I manage to say something of wider interest and relevance about the special importance and value of higher education in the world of the twenty-first century, well, then I shall consider I have not entirely wasted my time or, more importantly, yours.

It was our celebrated Public Orator, Richard Jenkyns, at Encaenia this year who stated in the course of a typically mordant review of the worldly achievements of Oxford alumni, I quote:  “Life – always our most dangerous competitor.”  He captures neatly that too familiar perception of the academic world having little if anything to do with life, certainly life as it is lived; life with a capital L.

Well, this morning I want to try not just to take issue with that perception by illustrating some of the ways in which it is woefully wide of the mark, but to go further and even  to argue that life as it is lived—still with that capital L—needs and increasingly depends upon  what good universities do.  Not so much Life, our most dangerous competitor, perhaps, as Life, our most valuable partner.

Before I explore the many direct benefits that Oxford’s scholarship brings to the world, I want to make one thing clear. You are not about to hear a hymn of unqualified praise to impact. At Oxford, we reserve the right to investigate subjects of no practical use whatsoever.

Karl Marx wrote: “Mankind only sets itself such problems as it can solve.” Well, Karl was wrong about that, as he was about lots of things. Oxford is almost defined by its ability to set problems with no apparent solution. To take one example. Whatever, may I ask, became of the dinosaurs?

Well, it seems they shrank. Dr Roger Benson and his colleagues in the Department of Earth Sciences recently estimated the body masses of 426 species of dinosaur.  The team, along with international partners, found that those evolutionary lines which reduced fastest in size had the greatest survival success.  In fact, there are 10,000 species of dinosaur alive and around us today – only we call them birds.

Now, unless you’re a budgerigar wishing to trace your family tree, that information is of precisely zero practical value. Yet it’s brilliant research and, somehow, I feel better just for knowing it.

A new book this year, ‘Hidden stories of the First World War’, drew on two Oxford University crowdsourcing projects, the Great War Archive and Europeana 1914-1918. One such ‘hidden story’ was that of Regimental Sergeant Major George Cavan of the Highland Infantry. Passing through his home station on his way to the front in 1918, he threw out onto the platform a matchbox, addressed to his wife and containing a message. A fortnight later, RSM Cavan was killed in action. It was only when one of his descendants uploaded the matchbox and message to the Great War Archive’s website that his full story came to light. That last poignant message reads simply:

“Dear wife and bairns, off to France, love to you all, Daddy.”

Now I can’t quantify the impact of uncovering, archiving and contextualising that story. I certainly can’t put a price on it. Yet we as a community are better for the knowledge, particularly as we struggle to comprehend a world one hundred years ago exploding into war and the resulting devastation of millions of lives. Our improved understanding is a public good.

There will be many occasions when we are challenged about the real-world benefits of our work. When someone asks: “What is the earthly use of knowing that?” We should be strong enough, and confident enough to reply: “You know, I’ve absolutely no idea what use it might be. But isn’t it fascinating?”

And sometimes, it’s the learning with no apparent practical use that yields the greatest benefit. Back in the 1920s, two members of the English faculty, one from Magdalen, one from Pembroke, would talk late into the night, exploring their mutual interest in Norse mythology. From those beginnings, of course, C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien both wrote a series of books loved the world over, which have inspired film franchises grossing more than $6.5billion at the box office. As a consequence here in Oxford, there are now tours around the two authors’ favourite haunts, one corner of Waterstones is devoted to their works, and it’s almost impossible to get a seat in The Eagle and Child on a summer’s evening. Now, Lewis and Tolkien didn’t know that their musings about mythology would lead to all of this. They didn’t have an inkling. It is a classic example of intellectual curiosity sparking off a hundred unexpected developments.

To take a more recent and seemingly unconnected example. A DPhil student, named Torsten Reil was developing computer simulations of nervous systems based on genetic algorithms. In other words, a more natural animation of human and animal movement. He started to wonder what other applications this technology might have. Movies perhaps? Video games? I think many of you know what happened next. Torsten set up a highly successful company, called Natural Motion, providing animation services for major Hollywood pictures –including, of course, the Lord of the Rings films--and a series of best-selling digital games. The company, employing more than 200 people, was sold for more than $500m earlier this year, with some £30m coming back to the University.  All from one Zoology DPhil.

One further example of this kind of serendipity. Professor Harish Bhaskaran and colleagues in the Department of Materials have been investigating the relationship between the electrical and optical properties of phase change materials – these are materials that can change from amorphous to crystalline state. To their surprise, they found a seven nanometre-thick layer of one of these materials was suitable for an extremely high-resolution and flexible screen. The potential applications are countless – smart glasses, smart windshields, even synthetic retinas. A patent has been filed and the team are in the early stages of exploring the commercial applications. None of this was ever intended – it’s purely a by-product of the drive to know.

At the end of the children’s classic, The Phantom Tollbooth, the bored little boy Milo turns to the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason and complains: “Many of the things I’m supposed to know seem so useless, I can’t see the point of learning them at all.” The Princess Reason replies: “Whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer.”

Well, I agree with the Princess.  And her words should be kept in mind as I turn to the more tangible benefits of Oxford’s scholarship. But before I do so, this seems an appropriate opportunity to say that a longer version of my speech will appear in the University Gazette, recording new arrivals, departures, retirements, and, regrettably,  the passing of valued colleagues. They constitute the essential substance of our scholarship.

Now, to state that the University is a major economic resource is, in one sense, to state the obvious. The collegiate University is the biggest employer in the county with more than sixteen thousand staff. Its  combined annual turnover exceeds £2bn. Our research brings in more than £400m of income from external sponsors. How could we be anything other than a landmark in the regional, national and international economic landscapes?

Yet my point goes beyond this. Of course, we sustain and support the current economic structure of our region. But  we are also crucial in building the economy of the future.  This region has expressed the aim of becoming a knowledge economy. That sounds like a job for us.

It is for that reason that the University helped frame two major economic announcements made earlier this year – the City Deal and the Oxfordshire Growth Deal – based around knowledge-based growth.

The City Deal will, over time, unleash an estimated £1.2bn of investment in infrastructure and innovation. We are a key player in two new innovation centres, part of a cluster which also involves our partners at Harwell and Culham. The first new centre, the Oxford Bioescalator of the Headington academic and clinical research campus, will be the heart of an innovation eco-system – a lively, thriving nexus of academics, clinicians, entrepreneurs, investors, engineers and the public.  Start-up life sciences enterprises will take their first steps here and I fully expect to see them grow and eventually move onto larger science parks in the region.

The second centre, the Begbroke Innovation Accelerator will build on Begbroke Science Park’s record of success, now home to more than 30 start-up companies from across the physical and the medical sciences. The new centre will focus on advanced sectors, including robotics, nano-medicine, pharmaceuticals, and super-computing.

Both new centres aim to address a particular problem for the knowledge industries, cheerfully known in the trade as the ‘valley of death’. The valley is that gap between having an idea for an invention and anyone actually wanting to invest in it.  Through our centres, science entrepreneurs will receive training, networking and mentoring on how to bridge this difficult gap. Even if they do walk through the ‘valley of death’, they should fear no evil.

The Oxfordshire Growth Deal sets out an inspiring vision: a spine of interconnected knowledge industries running from Bicester to Harwell; a £100m investment in transport, skills and homes with a target of more than 5,700 new jobs.  Again, this cannot happen without the knowledge, expertise and innovation which Oxford University provides.

One cornerstone of to this deal is to be the new Centre for Applied Superconductivity, housed by the Departments of Physics and Materials. Ever since Sir Martin Wood’s early experiments with superconductors in the Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford has been a trailblazer in this scientific field. Now we can put that knowledge to work, in computing, in medical scanning, in efficient energy storage. The vast majority of the UK’s fast-growing concentration of applied superconducting industry lies within a 20 mile radius of the spot on which I stand. Our new Centre will provide the skills they seek and the technical solutions to the questions they pose.

But our economic involvement does not end with these ambitious deals.  We understand the problems our region faces, great and small. Wherever there is an issue to be tackled, you are likely to find an Oxford researcher working on the solution. The unlovely Westgate car park, for example, is soon to be demolished. But how will the city cope with the loss of 800 of its 2000 parking spaces? Our Transport Studies Unit and Department of Engineering are working with the City on a sophisticated response. Their study recommends smarter use of the data already available to local Government and businesses, improving traffic management and keeping residents, businesses and visitors flowing around our city.

With economic growth comes greater threat to the environment. Our Environmental Change Institute is co-ordinating AgileOx – a partnership exploring how our county’s strengths in the green economy can give distinctive, sustainable identity to our growth ambitions. Social responsibility is also strong in Oxfordshire, now the UK’s first Social Enterprise County. With our colleagues at Oxford Brookes and our respective student hubs, we have created the Oxfordshire Social Enterprise Partnership to foster and support local enterprises with a social mission. The humanities too are playing their part. The historic country houses of our region - Blenheim, Highclere, Stowe - are an economic strength as well as a cultural asset. Through the Thames Valley Country House Partnership, our historians, literary scholars and others are aiming to improve visitors’ experience, working with those who preserve, protect and interpret these great houses and estates.

If these various projects have a theme, it is joining the dots – working out what data and systems all the players in our local economy have at their disposal and then making sure they talk to each other. A smart city, if you will. That’s why we and the City Council are scoping a wider project to establish what a smart, 21st Century Oxford will look like.

Another strategic priority for the University is the stewardship of our ever-expanding collections, and not just for the way they underpin the teaching of our students and the output of our researchers. Our Museums, the Bodleian Library, and the Botanic Gardens are also central to the city’s public engagement. The Ashmolean Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum, and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History are the three most-visited university museums in the world. The Ashmolean’s local importance was recognised in July by the presentation of the Freedom of the City of Oxford to Professor Christopher Brown, whose directorship and vision have defined the museum’s transformation in recent years. But we also appreciate that not everyone can visit Oxford. The University’s digitisation programme is extending our collections’ reach day by day, bringing thousands of books, historical artefacts, and cultural objects to millions of people worldwide.

Perhaps the single most important underlying factor for any regional economy is the quality of its education. We live in a time of immense, and rapid, educational change. The new generation of free schools and academies, some sponsored by universities, has achieved some remarkable results in the summer just past. Many of their students have just joined us this term in Oxford, and we wish them well.

However, in helping address the challenges faced by Oxford’s secondary schools, we have chosen a different path. We believe that our education expertise should be available to children right across the city, regardless of ability or background. For all its success, this is not something the academy model can readily deliver. For that reason, there is no Oxford University Academy but rather a broader, more inclusive initiative , the Oxford Education Deanery.

Since last November, the Deanery has been offering an enhanced partnership, putting our resources and expertise at the disposal of a group of 11 schools in the city. Led by our Department of Education, the Deanery is a multi-layered framework, involving educational research, initial teacher education and continuing professional development. It promotes collaboration among schools, rather than competition between them.  It links our trainee teachers with local secondary schools, it links all of our academic research with those schools, and, most vitally, it aims to raise the aspirations of a community of local secondary school students. It’s so much easier to dream when you know that other kids across your region share those dreams. 

Notable successes of the Deanery’s first year include a research project at Cherwell School, exploring how children develop their scientific understanding. An imagined futures project gave an invaluable insight into the hopes and ambitions of Year 9 pupils, including why some aspire to university – and why some don’t. Several of our colleges and now other subject departments of the University are playing an increasing role in the Deanery’s development. Now we intend to build it, ultimately to a partnership of some 30 schools across Oxfordshire, taking in primary schools as well. We also know that others are closely watching the Deanery’s development, in the UK, in Norway and in Denmark.

Now, at some point, most NHS patients in Oxfordshire will come in contact with an Oxford University medic. Practical benefits for individuals in Oxfordshire include access to outstanding clinical practice informed by high quality research across almost every conceivable healthcare field. Our expertise spans cancer care, dementia, heart disease, diabetes, rheumatology, stroke prevention, arthritis, and osteoporosis, to name but a few.

Last year, our already vibrant partnership with local hospitals was extended when the Department of Health announced the formation of the Oxford Academic Health Science Centre (OxAHSC), including not only the University and the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, but also Oxford Brookes University and the Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust. The strengths of these four partners in research, education, and healthcare are of vital importance in ensuring that the people of Oxford and Oxfordshire are served with facilities, treatment and clinical care of the highest possible standard.

But of course, the benefits of our immense strength in medicine extend beyond the regional. Oxford’s Medical Sciences Division has been adjudged for some four years to be the foremost medical school in the world. Indeed, on the basis of its research income, the division alone would be the fourth largest university in the United Kingdom. And here, I move on to the wider practical benefits of what we deliver to the country and to the world.

One important theme of the newly-established OxAHSC will be big data and the delivery of the digital medicine revolution. The creation of the Target Discovery Institute and the Big Data Institute, announced last May, will enable the creation of large data sets for scientific research.  The UK, with its National Health Service, is powerfully positioned internationally to compile and take advantage of such massive data sets which will enable researchers to develop new insights into who develops illness, why they do so, and, ultimately, how we can treat them.

Big data is just one area of medical activity where Oxford can make a practical, global, difference.  Indeed, we have has been doing so for decades, with health partnerships established in more than thirty different countries, many of them in the developing world. With the support of major funders, such as the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council, the Li Ka Shing Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Oxford’s researchers are in the front line of the fight against malaria, HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis and many other diseases. Current recommended treatments for malaria, dengue shock syndrome, typhoid, melioidosis, TB meningitis, diphtheria, and leptospirosis are all based on work conducted in Oxford’s Tropical Medicine Laboratories. Around the world, senior Oxford scientists are living and working in the communities most severely affected by these terrible diseases. Our overseas laboratories employ some 1500 permanent staff and work with local institutions to build their research capacities. But, of course, new threats emerge all the time, as the devastating outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa has shown. Recently two global alliances have formed to address this growing tragedy, with Oxford in the vanguard of both.   Trials of potential new treatments for Ebola are being fast-tracked in West Africa as we speak, led by Dr Peter Horby of the Centre for Tropical Medicine and Global Health and ISARIC, the International Severe Acute Respiratory and Emerging Infection Consortium. Meanwhile the Jenner Institute, under the directorship of Professor Adrian Hill, is spearheading the effort to find a safe and reliable vaccine to guard against the disease.

As the Ebola outbreak has demonstrated, we do not know in advance what precisely the global problems of the 21st century will be. With more people alive today than in the whole history of the species, strains on resources and ecosystems are certainly likely--as are further consequences of our own development, such as antibiotic use, carbon emissions and digital communication. But we cannot simply predict specific questions and plan our research agenda to fit.

What is needed, for those complicated environmental, governance, medical, fiscal and technological challenges, is a wide base of data and research and thinking to provide properly informed responses to problems as they arise, to set up suitably resilient models, to create the tools that will begin to move to solutions.

 So how does that look in a university like Oxford?  Well, it involves using decades’ worth of research into electrolysis in the Department of Chemistry to produce safe-drinking water from the Yellow River in China; it is using complex mathematical models to ensure that the appropriate levels of uncertainty are built in to climate change forecasts; it is the accumulated experience of vaccine trials at the Jenner Institute which is exactly why they were called on to lead on testing the Ebola vaccine.

But Oxford’s contribution to the public good does not just rest with providing research and solutions for these big scientific and technology problems. It lies with improving the whole structure of governance and international relations.

Let me give three examples in closing. In 2007, with banks across the western world facing collapse Paul Klemperer, Edgeworth Professor of Economics here in Oxford, took a call. On the line was the Governor of the Bank of England. History does not record if he reversed the charges. I don’t think things were that bad. Nevertheless, the Bank needed to inject liquidity into the financial system, but in a way that was reliable and fast. Working with Professor Ken Binmore, and using the mathematics of geometric reasoning, they came up with something called the “Product Mix auction” a device that worked then, and continues to be used by the Bank of England to this day.

Such stories are rare of course, and can sometimes feel more like Hollywood scripts than the real world of research. But they further underline my point that we need a critical mass of the research, the data, the thinkers and the debates which will provide the nursery-bed for solutions. Nobody working on geometric reasoning dreamed this might keep the money one day coming out of the cash machines. The mathematics underlying it had been done for a completely different reason. It has been said many times in research, but it needs to be said again and again. You cannot always spot winners. The historians present here this morning will be familiar with the old observation about the Irish Question “The trouble with the Irish Question is that the Irish keep changing it”. That is equally true of many of the world’s knottier problems.  The trouble with trying to spot winners in research is that the world has a nasty habit of moving on while you are looking the other way. There are rare examples of very specific questions generating very specific answers; but once you get to that point commercial sponsorship is easy enough to find. It is the background work which produces the banks of data, and, just as importantly, those skilled individuals who can provide the necessary expertise when the Governor of the Bank of England calls with a problem.

Now, let me turn to my second example: flooding. Many of you will remember the events of 2007. After the wettest June on record the rain just kept coming. By the 23rd of July, 50,000 households in Gloucestershire were without electricity, and by the 24th, 420,000 homes in the Gloucester area had no drinking water. Local authority workers were simply overwhelmed by the scale and complexity of the problem. In the fallout that followed, the University of Oxford, funded by NERC and working with the University of Gloucestershire, set up a training programme for emergency and local authority workers to develop their capacity to deal with these situations. Known as project FOSTER (rather brilliantly, if you remember the nursery rhyme), simulations and the latest thinking on the behaviour of floods are now used to educate front-line staff about what could go wrong, and why and where.  That is evidence-based policy making in practice, and the University of Oxford is exceptionally well-placed to deliver the skills and information necessary.

Crucially, we are committed to conducting research without fear of, or respect for, vested interests; to making our findings available to all sides on a particular issue. How they then interpret that evidence is up to them. Nowhere is that principle more vital at present than for my third and my last example-- the field of immigration, looking likely to be just about the most contentious issue in the run-up to the general election next May.

That’s why the work of our Migration Observatory, part of the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, affectionately known as COMPAS, is so crucial. Created to broker an increasingly fractious debate, the Observatory now stands established as a trusted evidential platform on which all parties can base their arguments. And I’m pleased to say that there are signs that as a result the quality of debate is improving.

In July, the Financial Times led on an Observatory study showing that the number of new highly skilled migrant workers in the UK had dropped 10 per cent in the past two years. The story provoked considerable political reaction.  The immigration minister, James Brokenshire, interpreted the figures as evidence that government policies to cut non-EU migration had not affected businesses’ ability to recruit highly skilled migrants because of the EU’s large pool of such workers. Vince Cable, on the other hand, Mr Brokenshire’s Government colleague, saw the data as proof that policy based on a net migration target is backfiring. Now, I do not intend here to intrude on a Coalition family dispute. What is important is that neither side questioned the underlying evidence. The Observatory’s success is now proving a model for other countries, with Germany among those interested in establishing a similar research resource.

Now, I must say, however, wherever I travel in the world, particularly in China and India, one question persists. Why has the UK adopted a visa system so hostile to student entry? I do my best to answer but, frankly, the question  baffles me as well. For the first time in decades, the number of international students at our universities in the UK has dropped, most markedly students from India. Why are we doing this to them – and to ourselves? The excellence of UK Higher Education is, in crude material terms, an attractive commodity in the world market. Why, at a time of continued economic constraint, are we limiting one of our most effective generators of overseas revenue? Migration Observatory research has shown that the public do not automatically think about students when they think about migration. Study is the least frequent answer given when the public are asked what they consider the motives for migration to be. Student migration simply isn’t an issue for them and there  are few  votes in restricting overseas student numbers.  There are some signs that this reality is beginning to dawn across the political spectrum; something to be welcomed and encouraged ahead of the election.

Now, I hope very much that my three examples have given some sense of what universities like Oxford can bring to the complex political and policy challenges; ones that defy the temptation to reach for simple, or simplistic answers. In essence, we can provide the data, the understanding and the analysis, to underpin arguments and  possible solutions for the problems we all face.

It is my strong contention and firm belief that Oxford, and not just Oxford, produces huge public benefit; benefit far beyond the very substantial intrinsic value of our world-leading teaching and research. And it is also, sadly, benefit which far outstrips the level of public investment in our sector.

Latest OECD figures show UK public investment in higher education at 0.9 per cent of GDP – below, of course, the OECD average and one of the lowest in Europe. The situation in research and development is equally dismaying. The Government’s own figures show R&D falling to 1.72 per cent of GDP in 2012. Almost all of our competitors’ figures are up. China to 1.84 per cent, the EU average to 2.06 per cent and the US a mighty 2.79 per cent.

Underinvestment in higher education is a false economy. Analysis by the Campaign for Science and Engineering recently  quantified the link between economic growth and public spending on science and engineering research. A one-off, 5 per cent increase in Government R&D spending of £450m would increase market sector output by £90m per year, every year. Further, CaSE found that Universities which receive higher levels of public funding also generate more research income from business, charities and international sources. In short, private investment should complement Government research funding, and not be perceived as an alternative.

And, to be fair, that message does appear to have been getting through. This time last year, Sir Andrew Witty’s review for BIS acknowledged that universities have, and I quote, “extraordinary potential to enhance economic growth”. One interesting proposal was for world-class universities to lead UK collaborations delivering international technological advantage in specific sectors – the so-called ‘Arrow Projects’. Sir Andrew calls for £1billion to be invested over the course of the next parliament. As the CaSE calculations demonstrate, a sum on this scale would offer the prospect of substantial return to the UK economy.

These are encouraging noises, but it is still all too rare to hear higher education described, accurately, as just about the most important investment a nation can make on behalf of its citizens, especially when those citizens are living in a knowledge-based global economy. That’s why I have a somewhat  limited expectation, come the general election, that properly developed policies on higher education (as opposed to vain-glorious point-scoring on past crimes and misdemeanours) will take up much of the politicians’ time or attention. That’s sad--because it is exactly the sort of issue on which a real effort to find a new, meaningful consensus between the parties would be of immense benefit—benefit, of course, to the students and to the universities of the future, but also, as I  hope to have demonstrated this morning, hugely beneficial to the public good.