One of the great pleasures of Oxford for me is simply walking around the city. I like walking, for both work and recreation, and I like the perspective - in every sense - that walking gives me on this beautiful city. It was Oscar Wilde, more than 120 years ago, who described Oxford as ‘the most beautiful thing in England’. It was a credible assertion then, and it remains so today.
As I walk, I often review my mental list of favourite Oxford sights. Perhaps my current favourite is the panorama of the Radcliffe Observatory (itself one of my favourite buildings in the city) from the vast picture window of the new Andrew Wiles building, home of the Mathematical Institute.
One of the things I like most about that view is its breath-taking combination of old and new, a combination that is quintessentially Oxford. In this instance, both buildings also tell us something important about the academic, as well as the architectural, history of the University: the eighteenth-century Observatory, for example, for its role in the improvement of astronomical observation for better marine navigation; the Mathematical Institute, in celebrating the great mathematician whose name it takes, and the outstanding maths being done today in its elegant new spaces. Not for the first time, I have found myself reflecting on the fact that you can tell a great deal about Oxford’s academic achievements, its hopes and aspirations, simply by looking at its buildings.
The Andrew Wiles building is part of the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter - itself something of a miracle. It may seem odd to describe a building site as such, but simply finding usable physical space on any scale in an environment as densely built and culturally rich as Oxford is a considerable challenge; to find space in the heart of Oxford with the dimensions of the ten-acre ROQ site truly approaches the miraculous. It certainly ranks as one of the most significant infrastructure projects the University has undertaken for more than a century, and one that speaks volumes about the University’s ambitions for the future. But it is not just the size that is indicative; there is also the way the site is being used.
The Mathematical Institute has a close neighbour. The 1770 Radcliffe Infirmary, a fine grade II-listed building, has been carefully renovated as the headquarters of the Humanities Division, as well as the new home of the Faculty of Philosophy, and the Philosophy and Theology Libraries. The physical proximity of the two buildings - one old, the other new - illustrates powerfully something that is fundamental to our University’s academic culture - the multidisciplinary, interconnected nature of its approach to scholarly endeavour; something also reflected of course in the collegiate system, which draws together in close communities scholars from the widest range of academic backgrounds and interests.
A short walk across the ROQ site brings you to the spot where the Blavatnik School of Government is being built, opposite Oxford University Press, on Walton Street. Progress has already been made, and a remarkable building, innovative in design but echoing established shapes and forms elsewhere around the University, will take shape over the coming months.
It is certainly no ivory tower. But then in five years in Oxford I’ve never seen anything that could pass for one and there are probably more giant cranes and gantries silhouetted on the Oxford skyline than there are dreaming spires.
The Blavatnik design also reminds us of a fact that is easy to lose sight of among Oxford’s ancient architectural splendours - that so many of the buildings we celebrate today as timeless classics were seen in their own era as challenging and even revolutionary. The Sheldonian Theatre, for example, where we celebrate the 350th anniversary of the laying of its foundation stone on 26 July, was an early work of the trailblazing Christopher Wren, who introduced Oxford to fully fledged classicism and who was lauded, on the building’s inauguration, as the ‘conqueror of gothic’. Oxford’s architectural traditions, like its intellectual ones, can be thoroughly radical.
The ROQ is by no means the only major site being developed by the University. I have to confess that the Old Road Campus (a mile or so from the city centre up Headington Hill) is beyond my normal walking range during office hours. But, however one gets there, it is shaping up to be a remarkable affirmation of the University’s world-leading academic status in medical science. Already up and running on the site is the Target Discovery Institute, the first phase of the Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery, a £90 million pound initiative that will put Oxford and the UK at the forefront of a healthcare revolution through the use of 'big data' and of better drug discovery. The second phase, the Big Data Institute, will shortly take shape as the next stage in Oxford’s academic quest to unravel the secrets of genetics, epidemiology and human disease.
It is extraordinary, against this impressive backdrop, that one occasionally hears claims that ‘Oxford doesn’t really do science’. Nothing could be further from the truth. The scale of the enterprise is such that if the Medical Sciences Division were separated from the rest of the University (not a step I would recommend!), it would, on the basis of its research income, be the fourth largest university in the UK.
So the Oxford that a visitor to the University in 2014 can ‘read’ from its buildings is certainly one with a rich and deep history, but it is also one with an exciting and dynamic future. It is in this potent combination that the genius of the place resides, and which makes Oxford so special to me and to many others. And, at the end of a long and demanding University year, it is something in which I hope you too can take pride and pleasure, wherever the long vacation leads you.
As parts of Oxford have spent much of the term under water, the proposition that (to misquote the poet, divine, and Oxford student, John Donne) no university is an island might be open to dispute. But I’m not going to let that soggy fact rain on my argument. The reality and the importance of our University’s connectedness to its surroundings, and to its many communities, have never been in doubt in my mind, but were strongly reinforced this term by the signing of the City Deal for Oxford and Oxfordshire.
The City Deal is a central government scheme under which cities bid for greater power to make key decisions about their future. Oxford’s case was that economic growth and prosperity are fuelled by the kinds of knowledge-led innovation at which we excel, and that government should recognise and invest more in that excellence. It is pleasing that, in the face of stiff competition, we have been selected, and especially gratifying to find that our own City Deal is so attractive to the coalition government that its launch brought not just one but two senior Cabinet ministers to laud it.
In the space of three days we had the Chancellor, George Osborne, and the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, in town. Both emphasised the importance of innovation as an engine of future growth and prosperity, and the role of research-intensive universities like ours in producing that innovation.
In fact we were recently ranked among the world’s top five 'hotspots' for innovation. As I said at the time of the launch, it is crucial that we build on the region's unique strengths. Creating a regional environment in which entrepreneurial activity can thrive is good for Oxfordshire and good for Oxford University in its mission to continue to attract the best students and researchers from around the world.
The total investment pot in our City Deal is put at £67m, with £30m coming from government funding. Two University innovation centres - the Begbroke Innovation Accelerator at Begbroke Science Park and the Oxford BioEscalator at the Old Road Campus - will benefit from a total investment of £32.2m, of which £15.2m will come from the government and £17m from the University. The two other innovation centres will be based at Culham and Harwell. There will also be significant investment in local transport links - vital for everyone who will be living and working in the region. You can read more about the City Deal and what it means at www.ox.ac.uk/media/news_stories/2014/140130_2.html.
One of the non-economic benefits of the City Deal to my mind is the compelling evidence it provides of the advantages of city, county and universities working together. A vital aspect of that is sharing openly our respective priorities and aspirations in order to find as much common ground as possible. If Oxford is to remain a world-leading university, it needs the understanding and support of its local communities about the benefits and the vast range of opportunities that can flow from having a great centre of learning and scholarship on the doorstep. Of course not everything can or will go smoothly all the time. The recent controversy over new graduate accommodation at Castle Mill illustrates that pretty graphically. We live in an ancient, densely built, intensively used environment, yet one full of new ideas and pushing new frontiers of scholarship and innovation. Accommodating (literally) the practical implications of that is challenging and there are bound to be tensions from time to time.
We remain proud that the collegiate University makes a major contribution to almost every aspect of the economic, social and cultural life of the city and region. Collectively the University, colleges and Oxford University Press are the largest employer in Oxford and the second largest in the county, supporting more than 16,500 jobs and injecting more than £750 million annually into the regional economy, thereby fuelling innovation, growth and further investment. We make a major contribution to improving the quality of life of people in the region through research-led engagement in healthcare and medicine, and a host of other modern-day challenges. In addition, the University’s museums and collections, its parks and gardens, and its richly varied offerings in the arts all provide a significant resource for local people.
Most of all, of course, we are about education. This is not just about educating our own students. It also means doing what we can to support educational aspiration and achievement in schools, especially schools in and around Oxford. This commitment has taken a major step forward recently with the launch of the Oxford Education Deanery. Led principally from the University’s Department of Education (widely recognised as one of the best in the world), it builds on local links dating back 25 years. A range of initiatives is being rolled out with the shared aim of improving the quality of education for young people at state schools in the area. This includes support for teachers and sharing some of the University’s resources to promote new learning opportunities for pupils. This term a second cohort of teachers and school governors has been taking part in a programme to develop leadership skills in education - itself a response to local authority concern about leadership and attainment levels in some Oxford primary schools.
We see this activity as an important part of our overall contribution to the future well-being of our area and its local communities. It would be great if more students come to Oxford as a result, but that is not the priority. We want to do our best to ensure that a rising tide lifts all boats - floods or no floods.
If you’re seeking additional evidence of Oxford’s global reach and commitment as a world-leading university, then look no further than the Vice-Chancellor’s overseas travel schedule. It explains among other things why the finishing touches are being put to this letter while I’m more than 5,000 miles away from Oxford in the Far East.
My agenda here includes discussions with peer university leaders at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, renewing an agreement on a joint initiative for disaster and humanitarian relief, and hosting the first Oxford China Lecture in Shanghai, where Professor Steve Rayner will be looking at the future of cities. Earlier in the term I was in Spain, the United States and the Middle East, where I visited Saudi Arabia to discuss long-standing scientific collaborations with Oxford’s Mathematical Institute and the Department of Chemistry. I also stopped briefly in Qatar and Abu Dhabi to meet alumni and explore links with these important regional centres.
So plenty of travel. But then we are a university with students from more than 140 countries, and one in which six out of ten postgraduates and 40% of our academics come from overseas. We’re an institution with an ever-growing number of international collaborations and partnerships, and one working hard to attract talent and resources in a fiercely competitive global environment.
In fact, quite a lot of what I do here in the UK has a strong international dimension too. For example, a couple of weeks ago we hosted in Oxford a conference of LERU, the 21-member League of European Research Universities, of which we’re a founding partner; and in late October I had the pleasure of meeting once more Aung Sang Suu Kyi, this time in London, and was able to discuss with her our developing ties to Burmese higher education.
As you may recall, that was one of the subjects on which she spoke so eloquently when receiving her honorary degree in the Sheldonian in 2012. Next year will mark the 350th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of that great building, just one of a number of major anniversaries that beckon in 2014, including of course the 40th anniversary of the admission of female students by five previously all-male colleges.
That milestone has probably done more than anything else to shape undergraduate life at Oxford in recent decades. However, that’s not to say there isn’t more we can do in furthering diversity across both our student and staff communities. A recent initiative, in which I’ve taken a close personal interest, has been the creation of the Vice-Chancellor's Diversity Fund – a £1m fund to promote diversity among academic and research staff at Oxford. I’m pleased to report that bids to the fund are now being invited, with the first assessment to take place in February 2014.
It was also important this term that we were able to advance the complex issues surrounding the academic titles of our outstanding faculty members, with major progress toward renaming the main lecturer grades as “associate professor”. Making this title available, it is felt, will give a clearer sense outside Oxford of their academic standing, to the benefit both of the individual and of our scholarly community.
Oxford’s reputation is also shaped by the student experience, which is never far from our thinking across the collegiate University. There are many dimensions to it, not least of course funding. As many of you will have seen, I took the opportunity in my annual Oration at the start of term to revisit one of Oxford’s enduring challenges: how to keep an Oxford education affordable for students regardless of family income, while also ensuring that we bequeath a sustainable university to those who will learn, teach and conduct research here in generations to come. It’s a challenge that we do not face alone of course and I was interested to see how the debate has unfolded to date and will be equally fascinated to see how it develops.
The experience of our students was also very much at the forefront of an important piece of business considered by the University in the course of the term: support arrangements for the Proctors’ Office. The Proctors are a vital part of the way the University works and have a special role in relation to our students. Their workload is huge and I’m pleased that we’ve found a way to provide more administrative support to the Office, which should help both the Proctors and their interaction with students.
For many colleagues administrative matters are an acquired taste. But I make no apologies for the fact that it’s a taste we do have to go on developing. The combined realities of the complexity of our institutional arrangements and the scale of our operations leave no choice if we’re to have the sustainable future of which I spoke earlier. (That scale and the strength of our commitment to excellence in teaching and research is reflected in the recently closed accounts for last year which, including OUP, showed a turnover of £1.8 billion.) So, an important administrative advance this term has been a major upgrade to our financial systems. The University has travelled a long way in this terrain in recent years and the R12 upgrade will provide a solid platform for further progress.
This letter has no pretension to offer more than a flavour of the term from the particular perspective of my office. But it also provides me with an early opportunity to wish you a very happy festive season and a fulfilling and productive 2014.
On reflection, I should probably have begun with an apology; that despite the best of intentions I’ve not been a more regular correspondent in recent times. But that thought also encourages me to share with you an early New Year resolution: to do better on this front. So a termly letter will follow...