As many of you will be aware, Congregation will be meeting on 10 February to debate a resolution on the future of postgraduate housing at Castle Mill, located between Oxford railway station and Port Meadow. As the resolution submitted by some members of Congregation involves a great deal of University money - an estimated £30 million - and as Council opposes it, I wanted to share with you some thoughts on the subject.
It is important at the outset to emphasise that the sincerity and depth of feeling of those involved is not at issue. It is clear that some people, including many living close by, believe passionately that these were not the right buildings to put up near Port Meadow. The fact that the proper decision-making processes inside the University, and planning procedures outside, were all followed fully does not lessen their dismay. I recognise and understand that, and I can assure you the University has learnt from the experience. That is why we have adapted and implemented procedures to try to ensure that, as Oxford’s most frequent planning applicant, we always attain the highest standards.
Let me say something next about the wider University context and background. The housing at Castle Mill provides purpose-built homes for more than 300 postgraduate students, including those with families. As you know, such accommodation is in great demand. While undergraduate numbers at Oxford have remained pretty stable, the increase in graduate students from all over the world has been steep and rapid in recent years. They now account for nearly 45% of the overall student body. They also make a huge difference to the University in so many ways - including, crucially, our research environment and standing, as resoundingly confirmed just before Christmas in the results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF).
The global competition for the best students is intense. When they turn us down, the most common concerns are about finance, about being able to afford to live and study here. Oxford is now rated the least affordable city in the country; it is ancient, densely built, and ringed by the Green Belt. The pressure on existing housing stock is so strong that the city authorities impose a cap on the overall number of students who can live out in non-university accommodation.
The University clearly has both real responsibilities and powerful incentives when it comes to providing student housing. That’s why, a decade ago, the first phase of the Castle Mill development was completed on a disused brownfield site on the Port Meadow side of the main railway line. The three- and four-storey accommodation has since housed thousands of students from all over the world.
Three years ago the University received approval from the city council for a second phase of the Castle Mill project: an additional 312 flats on the extended brownfield site, consisting of eight additional buildings, two of four storeys and the others of five storeys. For more than a year now, the new development has been home to postgraduate students, including those with young families for whom the new flats make special provision.
At the same time a local campaign of opposition to the new buildings has highlighted their visual impact from Port Meadow. That campaign has now been taken up in Congregation.
The resolution put forward by a group of Congregation members refers to a report by independent experts commissioned by the University and published last term. This ‘Environmental Statement’ assesses the impact of the Castle Mill development, including both its visual aspects and the socio-economic needs of the University and the city of Oxford.
The report describes three ways of seeking to balance these factors and concludes that the best option is to carry out additional landscaping and exterior work to help the buildings blend in more. It is estimated by the experts that this will cost £6 million. That is a lot of money, and finding it wouldn’t be straightforward for the University or its graduate housing budget. Some may argue it is too much, but having commissioned an independent expert assessment, it would surely be ill-advised to ignore its recommendations.
However, Council’s approach doesn’t satisfy those who have championed a much more radical proposal that would demolish part of the buildings. That is what the Congregation resolution means and Council opposes it.
So the real question now on Castle Mill is not about the past, but about the right course for the future. And that course, in my judgement, is certainly not to spend an estimated £30 million (the figure provided by the independent experts) as a consequence of removing the top floor of purpose-built student accommodation that cost £24 million to construct two years ago.
£30 million represents about 6% of the University’s entire external research funding in 2013/14. It is money that could otherwise endow some 25 junior research fellowships or 8 professorships in perpetuity.
Doubtless, some will question the £30 million figure; others may argue that, in any case, it’s only a drop in the ocean of Oxford’s supposedly boundless wealth.
True, the £30 million is an estimate (albeit one made by independent experts) but that, of course, means the final figure could be considerably higher. And although the University’s overall income is substantial, so are its existing commitments and outgoings as a look at the latest Financial Statements will illustrate. The idea that there is a spare £30 million down the back of the University sofa is wishful thinking.
In any case, this is not just about money, important though that is. The buildings would have to be emptied for at least a year; students and young families would lose their homes and considerable pressure would be added to the already crowded rental market. The Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) has expressed deep concerns on behalf of all students about the implications of the Congregation resolution. Those concerns need to be heard and respected.
No university, not even one as beautiful as Oxford, should put buildings before its students.
To go down the route demanded by the resolution would be a serious disservice to our students, but also in my judgement to the University’s public standing. It would raise questions in the wider world about the University’s consistency of purpose and capacity to deliver on its declared academic goals and priorities.
Instead of building on Oxford’s remarkable success in the REF, it would undermine University claims to be doing all it can to attract and keep outstanding global research talent. Oxford’s donors and benefactors might wonder, in such circumstances, whether this is still the best destination for the philanthropic generosity that is so important to our future academic wellbeing.
Oxford is a place that attracts strong loyalty and affection, rightly so, and I have no doubt that the supporters of the Congregation resolution believe they are acting in the best interests of the University in taking up the cause of local campaigners. While I respect their opinion, I can’t agree with it. I fear the remedy is much more dangerous than the ills they cite.
The decisions of Congregation are important, and it matters that they are made for our institution as a whole. For that to happen, people with the right to vote need to exercise it. I hope you will do so on 10 February.