Text of the annual oration, delivered by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, in Convocation House, October 4, 2016.
Good morning. Colleagues and friends of the university, thank you for taking time to attend the ceremony this morning, and to listen to my perspective and reflections as I begin my first academic year as Vice-Chancellor.
Before we begin, I think we should sit back, take a deep breath, and contemplate the fact that we have just been named the best university in the world, by the most widely respected global ranking. This is a spectacular achievement. This is the first time we have reached this pinnacle and the first time any British university has. The way was led for us by our Medical Sciences Division which has just been named top in the world for a formidable 6th year in a row. This ranking is a testament to the calibre of the academics who are attracted to work here and to the quality of the research they produce. Amidst all the challenges we face, we should just take a moment and enjoy this achievement.
The ranking is even more impressive when one realises that we are far less wealthy than most of our global competitors. The endowment of the entire university, colleges and university together, is less than one-sixth of Harvard’s and a quarters of Stanford’s, Yale’s, and Princeton’s.
I cannot guarantee that we will maintain this ranking for the next seven years. (The problem with being at the top is that there is only one direction to go.) But I can guarantee to do everything I can to ensure that we maintain an environment conducive to conducting the highest possible quality of research and attracting the highest possible quality staff. We will face both external and internal impediments to maintaining this position and I will talk about some of them today but I will also be talking about some of the many extraordinary people across our four Divisions, Humanities, Social Sciences, MPLS and Medicine, whose research is responsible for this ranking.
My first nine months have been an extraordinary and exhilarating experience as I have sought to learn as much as I can about the life and work of the university. I have attended strategy meetings of divisions, departments, and colleges. I have spoken to students in their colleges, clubs, societies, in open office hours and over tea. I have attended lectures on Race in the Curriculum, on LGBT issues, by Women of Achievement, by Peter Ratcliffe on Medicine, and Michael Sandel on Ethics, and many others. I met with Senior Women Scientists and junior teaching staff. I’ve talked to alumni and supporters across the globe. I’ve sat on several hiring panels, advisory boards and many university committees. I’ve listened to every perspective I’d heard and I have been struck by how much we have in common, an unassailable commitment to excellence, a passionate commitment to research and education, a belief in Oxford as the ultimate meritocracy, and a desire always to do better.
I am still learning the ways of Oxford. I would never have imagined seeing myself in clerical bands. I have learned to appreciate the Proctors and, even, Congregation. I am belatedly grateful for my five years of school girl Latin, and I am trying to remember the correct title for each Head of House.
One particular highlight was cycling to Cambridge last month with a group of colleagues from Harris Manchester which, thanks to the fundraising prowess of the Principal, Rev. Ralph Waller, raised £1,000,000 for mature students and a student hardship fund.
I have seen the impact of an initiative like TORCH as it serves as a catalyst for innovative interdisciplinary activities in the Humanities. I have read the books sent me by academics like Diego Gambetta’s Engineers of Jihad and Senia Paseta’s Irish Nationalist Women. I have met with remarkable young people such as our Moritz Heyman scholars, students participating in the UNIQ summer school, on the LMH Foundation year and in the IntoUniversity programs, and so many others. I have also on occasion tried to relax in our wonderful Museums, Gardens and Parks. Not a day goes by but I reflect on just how fortunate I am to be a part of this place.
I mentioned challenges. One of the challenges we face is ever growing, ever more intrusive, ever more constraining government regulation. Just last week we learned that the Government is planning to rank the teaching in British universities Gold, Silver and Bronze. Learning this brought to mind a question I have asked myself repeatedly since coming to the UK: Why is it that "elite" is an accolade when it comes to sport, and a criticism when it comes to universities? I’ve never understood why we treasure elite football teams and elite athletes but denigrate elite universities.
The Gold, Silver and Bronze rankings (the H.E. Bill doesn’t mention medals) reminds us of the Olympics. Britain’s performance in this year’s Rio Olympics, was spectacular, and the country rightly rejoiced. We finished second in the world, ahead of China with a population 22 times our size and we were the only country ever to win more medals in the Olympics after the games it hosted. The explanation for why we did so well is that UK Sport took a laser like focus to British sport and invested in success.
They identified sports with potential for global dominance and invested in them. They hired coaches and left them to do what they do best, coach. They didn’t insist that the coaches, while preparing for Olympic competition, set up feeder teams among children. They didn’t subject the coaches to a Coaching Excellence Framework requiring every coach in the country to complete the same template irrespective of their special circumstances. They trusted the professionals to do what the professionals do best knowing their interest is completely aligned with the national interest.
If only the same attitude were adopted towards universities. Our interests too are completely aligned with the national interest. Universities like ours have for centuries served as engines of social mobility, as drivers of the economy, as guardians of our culture, as foundations for our democracy and as generators of new ideas. We have proven time and time again that we are pretty good at it. Why not trust us to get on with it?
The most recent piece of regulation that has been floated, even before the new Higher Education Bill has been passed, is that as a condition of charging a fee above £6,000 (a figure that covers only a fraction of the cost of an Oxford education) we will be required to establish or sponsor a school or schools.
As an institution populated by educators we, of course, have a keen interest in schools. Our Deanery, which builds on expertise that already exists in our Education Department, works in partnership with local schools to support teachers in their professional development, enabling them to conduct research on issues important to schools, and introducing both teachers and pupils to university research projects. The Deanery works with 18 secondary and 5 primary schools across Oxfordshire and thousands of young people are benefiting.
Our admissions office and access teams work with teachers and schools across the country reaching tens of thousands of students, their parents, and teachers each year. The learning centre in Blackbird Leys, a partnership between the University, Christ Church, and the charity IntoUniversity works with 5 local primary and 4 secondary schools and over 900 children. Our Education Department educates teachers and would love to educate more. Our students join Teach First in record numbers.
Our interest in schools is of long standing. Indeed Magdalen College established two schools as far back as 1480. Magdalen College School Oxford, part of the independent sector and Magdalen College School Brackley, part of the state sector. The college still provides members of the governing bodies. Indeed academics across the university serve on the governing bodies of state schools, and numerous colleges have close links with particular schools.
Our press, Oxford University Press, is a critical component of primary and secondary education in this country. Over 80% of British schools use a single OUP programme the Oxford Reading Tree to teach children to read. Every year over 11 million OUP books are sold across Britain’s schools which together educate 8 million pupils. Over 8,000 individual titles are available across the range of primary and secondary levels. OUP has over 5 million active users of its digital products like MyMaths and is one of the largest teacher training providers in the UK, offering training for 100,000 teachers per year, 90% of which is free to access. The Press seeks to help parents too. Oxford Owl is a free website that promotes literacy and numeracy in the home. It provides parents with advice and guidance about engaging their children with maths and reading, as well as access to a wide range of free books.
In short, our commitment to pre university education is broad, is deep, and is of very long standing. To set about establishing a school locally, however, would be a distraction from our core mission of research and university education, it would undermine the often excellent work of the professionals who are trained to run and teach in schools. In all likelihood the educational needs of the 50% of school pupils who choose not to attend university would be neglected, and surrounding schools would be damaged by the recruitment to the university school. Aside from all that, the only analysis of the relative performance of university sponsored schools has been carried out by HEFCE and their conclusion is that evidence does not suggest that university sponsored schools are superior to those that are not.
Again, my plea would be: Let universities get on with what universities do best.
Another major challenge we face, of course, is Brexit. The date June 23rd will be indelibly imprinted on my mind and that, I expect, of most others in this room. The result of the referendum was clear-cut but the implications are anything but. It is gradually dawning on those charged with executing this divorce just how difficult it is going to be to untangle forty years of integration. The vote has major implications for Oxford; for the 15% of our students who are citizens of the EU, for the 17% of our staff who are citizens of the EU, and for the 12% of our research funding that comes from the EU. I left the country of my birth, in the EU, on the day I took my last undergraduate exam and I have not lived there since. I have spent my professional life in universities in different countries in which one was judged by the quality of one’s mind not the colour of one’s passport. We must maintain that attitude.
It is only since the referendum that I have started to think about who is, or is not, a citizen of the EU, and of the difficulties of this separation. Every day I walk down South Parks Road, I pass the Pitt Rivers Museum whose director, Dr Laura van Broekhoven, is from the Netherlands. I move on along the parks and pass the wonderfully decorated hoardings surrounding the vast excavation that is the new Beecroft building for Physics. This building is being made possible by the £200 million loan from the European Investment Bank, then the largest EIB loan ever to a European university. I walk on and pass the wonderfully revamped Weston Library with its open atrium inviting the public in to explore the unrivalled national treasures housed there. This project too was funded in part by the loan from the EIB. Across the road is the Museum of the History of Science whose Director is the German born Dr Silke Ackermann. We have never made these distinctions before.
Staff are drawn to universities by their commitment to the power of education to transform lives and by their passionate commitment to their research. The topics we research, whether diseases, climate change, literature, terrorism are impervious to national borders. They are inherently transnational and universities thrive on our ability to draw academics from across the globe to work together to address critical transnational issues.
As I mentioned, 15% of our student body are citizens of the EU. We have guaranteed that those beginning their studies this year and those applying this year to begin their studies next year will pay home student fees for the duration of their studies. After that, we simply don’t know. It is difficult to plan when you don’t know the parameters of the playing field but we will endeavour through fundraising for scholarships for EU students, through negotiating special arrangements with EU universities, and through lobbying the government, to try to ensure that not only those Europeans who can afford to pay international fees will study here.
Let me tell you about just two of our European students and the contributions they have made:
In 2001 a postgraduate student from Germany, Torsten Reil, was researching animation techniques for his Zoology thesis but decided that it would be more interesting to apply them to computer games instead. The company he built, NaturalMotion, has since created some of the world's most popular digital games and animation for major films like Warner Brothers' Troy and Poseidon. The company, which is still based in Oxford, was sold for over half a billion dollars in 2014, in one of the largest deals ever involving a University spin-out.
Today, Aggy Petersen a visiting Anthropology postgraduate student from Aarhus University in Denmark, is working with residents in a care home in Blackbird Leys. She has introduced a seal shaped robot –'Ted' to his friends – to the care home and he is proving very popular with the residents. Aggy is working at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing to study how older people and those suffering from Dementia can benefit from engagement with a robot.
As I mentioned, 17% of our staff are from the EU. These staff are found all across the university and are an inseparable part of the fabric of this community. Again, we do not yet know what terms may be imposed on their ability to remain in this country. Some who have been here long enough will, like me, decide to acquire British citizenship. This is a time consuming and expensive process and many may not wish to undertake it. We have set up a series of workshops for EU nationals among our staff to provide information on options for protecting their status. It would help us greatly if the Government were to guarantee the right to remain to all EU citizens who are resident in the country. It appears, however, that the government prefers to await negotiations before making any such commitment. The university’s position is clear: we value our EU staff and we wish them to remain here.
Let me tell you about some the work of just a few of our very many European academics:
Professor Petra Schleiter’s project on "Fairness and Voter Reactions to Government Opportunism" will influence ongoing debates about whether to introduce or maintain fixed election dates in this country and around the world.
Professor Ingmar Posner is co-director of the Oxford Robotics Institute which is at the forefront of developing self-driving cars. (Whether they will reduce the commute is another matter but at least we will be able to read and travel while stuck on Banbury Road.)
Professor Luciano Floridi is the University’s Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information. Google has appointed him to their Advisory Council on the Right to be Forgotten, giving him influence on one of the most hotly debated principles in information use.
Professor Gero Miesenboeck directs Oxford’s Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour. His research has significantly advanced our understanding of how our brains control our behaviour. His biological technique, optogenetics, uses light to control the activities of cells in the brain and has been widely adopted by scientists around the world in the treatments of a wide variety of brain disorders.
Professor Constantin Coussios helped develop a machine that kept two human livers alive outside the body before they were successfully transplanted into other people. The technology could double the number of livers available to people on transplant waiting lists.
Professor Bent Flyvbjerg is the most cited scholar in the world on megaproject management. Only two weeks ago, the Mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, produced a copy of his study on the costs of staging the Olympics when she announced Rome’s decision to withdraw its bid to host the 2024 Olympics. (It appears that evidence-based decision making is not entirely lost in political circles.)
Under the leadership of Lionel Tarassenko, the Institute of Biomedical Engineering was awarded a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher Education for "new collaborations between engineering and medicine delivering benefit to patients".
I could go on and on and on.
As I mentioned, 12% of our Research budget comes from the EU. Last year this amounted to £67 million. Without this funding there is no way we would have attained our No 1 Global Ranking. It is imperative that we ensure that whatever arrangements are made for Brexit UK universities must be able to compete for this funding and participate in the international collaborations that it allows. We are lobbying the government to ensure that they understand the centrality of this funding and these collaborations to British Universities, and we are engaging in conversations with our European counterparts to try to ensure continuing research collaboration.
Let me tell you about just some of the research that has been funded by the EU:
The award-winning HydRegen technology, being directed by Professor Kylie Vincent and her team in the Department of Chemistry, which is tackling the dirty business of chemical production.
Professor Ian Walmsley’s work on quantum computing which has the potential to dwarf the processing power of today’s conventional computers. (I’m told it will be like reading all the books in the Bodleian library at the same time, rather than one after another.)
Professor Henry Snaith’s work on perovskite solar cells which have the potential to harness the power of the sun to make a major contribution to our future energy supply.
Professor Alison Noble’s work applying the latest ideas from machine learning and computer vision to ultrasound imaging which will greatly expand the reach of the technology.
Professor Aditi Lahiri’s research on how our brains form words in different languages.
A pan-European network of over 100 scholars, librarians, archivists and IT experts led by Professor Howard Hotson who are using digital methods to reassemble and interpret the intellectual correspondence networks of the early modern period.
Finally, Professor Martin Seeleib-Kaiser’s work on comparative social policy. In one recent study analysing UK Quarterly Labour Force survey data between 2010 and 2014 he demonstrated that migrants aged 20-34 from European countries actually had higher employment rates and were less likely to seek jobseekers allowance than their UK peers. His finding have informed several governments and the EU Commission, (though evidently not the leaders of the recent Leave Campaign!)
I could go on and on and on.
There can be little doubt that managing - and mitigating - the effects of Brexit will dominate our planning for the years to come. That said, we cannot simply turn inward and lick our wounds. We must ensure that we continue to recruit and retain the best European students and academics and the most competitive research funding. We must ensure that our European colleagues realise that, as I have tried to illustrate just now, they are an integral, inseparable and valued part of this university.
But we must also engage in the national debate about a post-Brexit Britain. The Government faces enormous challenges. (When I think I’m having a hard day I just think of Whitehall and realise my job is relatively easy.) There are opportunities for us in this new world and we must not be so focused on what we are losing - or so ponderous in our reactions -that we fail to make the most of them. We should not miss this opportunity to help shape Britain’s future.
The Government is going to have to devise a new industrial strategy in the forthcoming months. One can imagine a strategy that would benefit both the national economy and the research universities. An industrial strategy based on science and innovation that is led by areas of strength like life sciences, big data, digital and energy could both drive the economy and help the research universities. If the government could rid itself of the tendency to overregulate and instead establish an economy seen as more fleet of foot than the EU we could have a comparative advantage. As an expert on terrorism I am out of my depth in discussing industrial strategy but I know that there have to be opportunities as well as problems for us in Brexit and we cannot afford to be so preoccupied with the problems that we fail to seize the opportunities.
One of the things that was brought home to me by the Brexit vote was just how far removed we appeared to be from much of the broader population. We cannot blame others for this. We have allowed ourselves to be defined by images that don’t accord with the reality any of us encounter on a daily basis. We have been reluctant to draw attention to our extraordinary contributions, for example, to the local community. These contributions are not in any sense a result of noblesse oblige rather they are the natural consequence of the work that we do and we see ourselves as part of that local community.
The University of Oxford, including the colleges and the press, is the county’s largest employer. We are responsible for 17,000 jobs and inject £750 million annually into the local economy. Contrary to popular belief, Oxford has been at the forefront of spinouts. Our first, Oxford Instruments, was established in 1959 and now employs 2,000 people in 13 countries.
Commercialisation activities by our wholly owned research and technology commercialisation company, Oxford University Innovation, supports 1,600 jobs in Oxfordshire. In 2014 OUI filed 23 patents based on research undertaken in the Department of Engineering alone. OUI manages 2,900 patents and generated almost £25 million in revenue in 2015. (If the acronym OUI is unfamiliar to you, it used to be called Isis. I can’t imagine why anyone thought we should change the name!)
In May last year the University launched a partnership with the newly created Oxford Sciences Innovation PLC. With £320 million in funding provided by nine investors including the Wellcome Trust and Lansdowne Partners, the aim is to turn cutting edge research from the Medical Science and MPLS Divisions into successful applications. This initiative is unrivalled and has the potential to be truly transformative.
Participation in other local initiatives like City Deal and the Local Economic Partnership as well as activities in the Begbroke and Oxford Science Parks seek to leverage university activities and help drive the local economy. In addition, the museums, libraries, parks and colleges help to attract 7 million tourists to the area annually spending almost £600 million and supporting 12,000 jobs in the region.
Our museums and libraries are not there, of course, in order to help the local economy. They are critical to our research and teaching. This year the Bodleian acquired its 12 millionth book – the only surviving copy of Shelley’s first major poem – A poetical essay on the existing state of things written in 1811 while he was still an undergraduate and before he was sent down. It is a wonderful "angry young man" piece. The libraries and museums are also an essential part of the cultural life of the city and draw visitors into the university. The Weston library has received over a million visitors since it opened last year. In the past year our museum and libraries have received 3 million visitors and 125,000 school children have participated in school programs.
Our students too engage in the community. I visited the Oxford Hub last term and learned about the 50 student led volunteering projects they support. Last year almost 600 students volunteered, and in addition to projects, they organised over 100 events with over 3,000 attendees.
Our Department For Continuing Education offers over 1,000 courses a year and approximately 14,000 adults enrol annually in courses designed for those who want to study part time while maintaining a career or family.
The Saïd Business School offers Executive Education Programs which draw on the entire resource base of the university to help managers in both private and public sectors to inspire individuals, improve performance and to create significant business impact. The Financial Times ranking of executive education programs ranks the open enrolment programs no 1 in the UK and 9th globally.
The part of our work that brings us closest to the community is, of course, our hospitals. The Oxford University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust is one of the largest NHS Teaching Trusts in the country and had 1.3 million patient contacts this year. The Trust had 105,000 planned admissions, 90,000 unplanned admissions, and 145,000 Emergency Room visits. They also delivered 8,700 babies.
The scale of our admissions and outreach work would surprise, I expect, many people in this room not to mention those outside the university. Last year alone our teams worked with 2,756 state schools whose pupils rarely apply to Oxford. In the South West over 22,000 students, parents and teachers from 344 schools with low application rates to Oxford attended our events. In the North East the figure was over 33,000. 5,450 state school students have participated in our UNIQ summer school since it started in 2010. Over 40% of those who applied to Oxford received an offer.
Notwithstanding all these external connections universities are too often perceived as at a remove, as not benefiting their local communities. Given the reality of these connections and these benefits we must become altogether more adept at making our case to our local and national communities.
The willingness to engage externally, the willingness not to assume that the value of our work and our societal contributions are self-evident, are just some of the ways we are going to have to adapt to the ever changing world around us.
I believe that if we are to adapt successfully we must act as others see us, as One Oxford. So much of the energy and vitality that marks us is derived from the fact that we bring together different nationalities, different disciplinary perspectives, different colleges with their own distinct histories, in pursuit of the goals that animate all of us, the determination to push at the frontiers of knowledge and to transmit to the next generation, as Mill put it "the accumulated treasures of the thoughts of mankind."
We face real challenges but they are not all externally imposed. We must learn to act more effectively together, to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, to make it easier to pursue interdisciplinary initiatives, to take advantage of new technologies, to innovate in our teaching, our research, and our recruitment. We must determine for ourselves what the optimal size and shape of this university should be.
Over the past nine months I have been working with representatives of the Divisions and the Colleges to explore how we can innovate in our teaching and expand our research without undermining the unique intimacy of college life.
We will only maintain our current global standing if we determine and attain the optimal size and shape for the university. We will only attain the optimal size and shape if we act coherently together to respond to societal developments and changes in student demand. We must be prepared to accommodate new programs, but we must also be willing to do something much harder, to stop activities whose time has passed. If we wish to grow some programs we must be willing to contract others. The fact that something has been done for a long time is not in itself reason to continue it. We must have the courage to subject current activities to the same criteria we subject new ones. With good will and a focus on our shared rather than our particular interests we can achieve this.
Real estate, and in particular the lack of affordable housing for our young researchers, is another serious challenge we face and must address. The cost of housing in Oxford is making it more difficult to recruit at every level of the university. It is a problem we all share and our ability to resolve it requires us to work together.
There have been exciting developments in the past year on the real estate front. I participated in the opening of the Blavatnik School of Government, the refurbished Weston Library, and the wonderful Longwall Library in Magdalen College. I topped out the Big Data Institute and the student accommodation at St Cross and I broke ground for more accommodation in Harris Manchester and Keble’s exciting new HB Allen Centre. I very much hope that before long we will be breaking ground for HansKrebs2 and the sites in the ROQ.
Many as yet unforeseen opportunities are likely to come our way and we must be agile enough to seize them, as Nuffield did last year with its purchase of the city sites and Oxpens. Indeed one of the many advantages of a collegiate system is that it allows for experiments from which others can learn and can benefit. Initiatives like those undertaken by University College and LMH bear testament to the determination across the university to attract students from the broadest possible background.
If we act as One Oxford we will be able to learn from one another’s experiments and ensure that we are maximising the opportunity of attracting the very best students whatever their background. If we act as One Oxford we will begin to address the competing demands we place on our young colleagues who so often feel torn between their obligations to their department and their college. If we act as One Oxford we will begin to address the implications for undergraduate teaching of research only appointments. If we act as One Oxford we will never again have different parts of the university bidding against one another for the same piece of real estate.
In has been a wonderful nine months: exhilarating, energising, humbling, in truth occasionally frustrating, but always fascinating. I would like to express my deep appreciation to all those who have welcomed me so warmly. I have dined at almost every college and PPH, some several times, and have met with loyal alumni across the globe. I have been mesmerised by the calibre of our staff and the creativity, ingenuity, complexity and sheer brilliance of the work of so many of them. It has been a great and undeserved privilege to be here to witness Oxford being ranked the best university in the world. With the talent we have, and the values we share, and with a commitment to working together I am convinced that we can remain the greatest university in the world.