I will try to be brief – as I believe the best farewells should be. Yes, I’m sure some of you will be sceptical. As I acknowledged in my final Oration as Vice-Chancellor at the start of this term, brevity has not always been regarded as my greatest virtue.
Of course, there are a million things I might say about my six plus years at Oxford but, as I prepare to depart, the essential things can be stated simply: Oxford is an exceptional place with exceptional students and staff, and the opportunity to lead this great university has been a pleasure and a privilege.
As I have often remarked, the idea of coming to Oxford had hardly crossed my mind when I was approached about the role of Vice-Chancellor back in 2008. I am reminded of perhaps the best-known of all the poems of the great American writer, Robert Frost. It is entitled 'The Road Not Taken' and I sometimes think about just that: what if I hadn’t taken up the invitation to leave Yale and come to Oxford? Not an answerable question, of course – except in one sense. I do know that I would have missed one of the greatest experiences that an academic leader could aspire to anywhere in the world. And for that I will always be grateful.
In my Oration in October I looked back over my time here; a time of great change for higher education in the UK, and a time of considerable challenge as well. I believe we have coped with those challenges pretty well. But I also suggested in October that there were more big challenges to come. Since then we have had the government Green Paper on higher education reform, the Nurse review of research funding, and just last week the Comprehensive Spending Review.
It will be for you and for my successor as Vice-Chancellor to chart the best way forward for Oxford in the face of more uncertainty and potential upheaval. But change in general is something that should hold no fear for Oxford. It is an institution built on the complementary principles of continuity and change; it could not have survived and flourished for so long otherwise.
Over the last six years I have travelled hundreds of thousands of miles on behalf of the University and I know how greatly it is admired all over the world, sometimes by people with intimate knowledge of it, sometimes by those who know it mainly as a name and an idea, even an ideal. All over the world there are people who feel enriched and energised by Oxford, by its achievements and aspirations, by its values and commitments.
I am one of them. Thank you.
As the term and the academic year wind down, I am taking the opportunity once more to share some thoughts with you - on this occasion with a mainly European flavour.
Trinity term started for me with the European Alumni Reunion in Vienna. This was the fourth such gathering, previous meetings having been held at two-year intervals in Paris, Berlin and Madrid. Like its predecessors, the Vienna gathering was expertly organised and very well attended by hundreds of alumni from all over Europe and beyond.
Both the concept of these European reunions and their reality reflect the same basic truth: Europe matters a great deal to our University. There are many ways, beyond mere geography, of demonstrating the fact that Oxford is a European university. About one in seven of our student population is from other parts of the European Union (the figure for graduates is closer to one in four) and about one in six of University staff. Looking more broadly, we have students from some 40 different European countries.
We are also a profoundly European university when it comes to research. It is a marked characteristic of 21st-century scholarship that much of it is internationally conceived and delivered, involving multiple partners, collaborators and funders. That is powerfully true of Oxford and of its many ties with the European Union. Oxford is the UK’s number one recipient of research and innovation funding from the EU, with awards totalling nearly €500 million in the last eight years. This research income contributes to many areas of activity across all disciplines, ranging from blue skies to applied research, to projects as diverse as the 15th-century book trade, flight dynamics in birds and insects, and how trees cope with drought. The money we receive funds the recruitment of post-doctoral researchers and DPhil students; supports existing research infrastructures as well as the development of new ones; and allows substantial investment in emerging research areas and future technologies. And it’s not just Oxford of course. Russell Group universities as a whole secure over £400 million in research funding a year from the EU, which accounts for 11% of the universities’ collective research grant income.
We also benefit in less direct ways from EU funding. The EU supports innovation and growth initiatives in our region. The Oxford LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership) has been allocated £16.5 million from the EU for the period 2014-2020. These funds will help support local and regional business to grow and generate jobs in the area.
This then is something of the context for Oxford and other research-intensive universities in which the proposed referendum on continued UK membership of the European Union is likely to take place.
At this point I should make a couple of things clear. First, it is not my contention that this is inevitably a zero-sum game; that were the UK to decide to leave the EU, every euro of lost research funding would be utterly irreplaceable. But I do strongly believe that the downside for Oxford of exiting the EU would dwarf all other considerations. The interests and needs of this and other universities are best served not by separation from the EU but by strong and consistent engagement with it.
Second, my reflections should not be interpreted as a call for every reader of this letter to vote in favour of continued EU membership. There is no institutional block vote; we all vote as individuals and how we vote in a referendum on an issue like EU membership will be informed by a range of factors.
For part of the electorate it’s clear that one major factor is immigration. They feel it is too high and want to reduce it. Leaving the EU, it is argued by some, would be an important step towards achieving that because it would free the UK from European rules on migration. My own views on existing UK immigration policy are strongly influenced by my experience as an immigrant to the United States, a country whose strength is built on absorbing new people and ideas. It is essential that universities like Oxford, for whom attracting international talent is of vital importance, are not hindered by the wrong rules or the wrong rhetoric on immigration. I was interested recently to read the positive words of the new Minister for Higher Education about how welcome overseas students are in UK higher education, while acknowledging that this wasn’t entirely how it is perceived in some countries. Frankly, whether it’s a perception or a policy gap, it needs tackling.
Finally, let me turn to something more personal. I am sure you will have seen the announcement of my departure from Oxford at the end of 2015, after more than six years in the role of Vice-Chancellor. As you know, I will be returning to the United States to take up the Presidency of New York University. That is still some seven months off; it is way too soon for valedictions and, in any case, there is still plenty to do. A significant part of that will be to ensure a smooth handover to my successor, Professor Louise Richardson, who will be joining the University from St Andrews. For me, it will lessen the sadness of separation from Oxford to know that the baton of leadership is being passed into such good hands.
May I wish you all an enjoyable and restorative Long Vacation.
Our distinguished alumnus, T.S. Eliot, famously considered April to be “the cruellest month”. He may well be right, though in my experience February can be quite hard-going too. This April, of course, the country will be deeply embroiled in the general election campaign. I have no particular thoughts to share on that significant event, beyond the general observation that voter participation, including by our students, is important. But I do want to underscore some of the policy areas that this Hilary Term has highlighted, and that matter to us deeply as a world-leading university.
The Term started in the warm afterglow of our outstanding success in the REF (Research Excellence Framework). The results, announced just before the holidays, were the best possible Christmas present; except, of course, that they weren’t a gift but the result of an extraordinary amount of work by many people of outstanding talent. The REF found that Oxford has the largest volume of world-leading research in the UK, with twelve subjects ranked first by volume, and a further eight ranked first on other measures. The new indicator for the REF was that of impact, for which 92% of Oxford’s research was rated at 3* or 4*. Encouragingly, the signs are both that the volume of recurrent research funding for the coming financial year will be maintained at present levels, and that the funding attached to 4* research performance will receive modest enhancement within the overall envelope of funding. This is good news for Oxford but the REF also revealed enormous research strength across the UK. It is vital that the political parties realise, and reflect in their policies, the contribution that our research-intensive universities make to the national economy. One of the most important ways of demonstrating that understanding is a clear commitment to protect the real value of public funding of university research. The politicians must recognise that doing anything else would be both short-sighted and counter-productive.
I need hardly remind you that it was funding for university teaching rather than research that occupied the limelight in the last general election, and there are signs it could be so again. Since 2010, we have seen the introduction of the higher tuition charges at the centre of the last electoral debate, and a steep decline in the teaching grant from public funds. This is not the place to rehearse the familiar arguments over student finance. The point I want to emphasise here is the importance for universities of stability and predictability in their funding arrangements. If Oxford is to continue to provide the best undergraduate education for the most talented students – regardless of background and means – it is vital that the overall level of funding for study is preserved, whether that is through tuition fees or other forms of funding.
In Oxford, the outstanding education offered to our students remains heavily subsidised from our own resources. It is appropriate that we put our money where our mouth is when it comes to the advantages of our tutorial and college-based system, but the burden does need to be shared sensibly among the beneficiaries, who are public and general and well as personal and individual.
There are of course plenty of other policy issues with electoral prominence that affect higher education. These include immigration and national security; indeed they are sometimes linked in the political debate. Oxford is a strongly international university. Part of our strength is the ability to attract outstanding academic talent—both students and staff—from all over the world. Visa entry restrictions make limited sense even, it seems, in political terms. Research from our own Migration Observatory has shown that the public do not automatically think about students when they think about migration. ‘Study’ is the least frequent answer given when people are asked to consider the motives for migration.
An Oxford education as we understand it could not exist without academic freedom. How that freedom intersects with national security has been and remains high on the political agenda, as the recent passage of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act has illustrated vividly. Thanks in substantial measure to the work in the House of Lords of the Warden of Wadham and the Principal of Mansfield, significant changes were made to the legislation to try to ensure that academic freedom is protected in the new security environment. Two things that remain of concern are how the new regulations will operate and how the politicians will frame the debate in future.
It was the late U.S. politician, Tip O’Neill who reminded us that “all politics is local.” Arguably that is even more the case with a constituency-based electoral system like ours. Certainly, the relationship with our many and varied community neighbours remains of huge importance. We have seen that illustrated in many ways this term; somewhat painfully at times, as in the debate over the Castle Mill graduate accommodation, but more happily in two other contexts. After some three years of rebuilding work, the Weston Library, is about to open its doors to the public, providing a wonderful space, not just for our own and visiting scholars, but for others to experience and enjoy as well. And greater public access is the driving force behind another new project this term; a commitment to provide University and college space to local groups for rehearsals, performances and meetings.
One thing is crystal clear in all of this: whatever the next general election brings, we will need to go on building relationships near and far with those we elect to take the decisions that affect us all, and on which the future of our University in large measure depends.
With all good wishes for the Easter vacation,
It has become commonplace to think and talk about leading universities not just in local and national but also in global terms. Certainly the competition for the best talent and resources in higher education is global. It is intense and getting stronger.
Individual universities have adopted different approaches to raising their international profile and presence, with some choosing to establish campuses in overseas locations. That is not an approach Oxford has adopted, for a variety of reasons; among them the strong sense of being rooted in a particular place which is central to Oxford's identity, and our close-knit college and tutorial system.
But that certainly does not mean Oxford is not deeply engaged – or that it lacks a substantial presence – in the wider world. We are there, and there in important and exciting ways. It is a few of these ways that I want to highlight here; not least because I suspect it is a story still too little told.
The current Ebola crisis offers a powerful illustration of the importance of our overseas presence. Oxford scientists have already been on the ground in West Africa, working at the forefront of efforts to develop an effective drug to treat the disease. A new antiviral medicine will be trialled in Ebola patients and the chief investigator is Dr Peter Horby of the Centre for Tropical Medicine and Global Health here in Oxford. As he puts it: 'Conducting clinical trials of investigational drugs in the midst of a humanitarian crisis is a new experience for all of us, but we are determined not to fail the people of West Africa.'
University researchers are also deeply involved in efforts to develop an Ebola vaccine. Almost 200 volunteers received a candidate Ebola vaccine in little more than two months in safety trials carried out in the UK, USA, Mali and Switzerland. In Oxford, the 60th and last healthy volunteer received the vaccine at the Jenner Institute a couple of weeks ago in a trial led by Professor Adrian Hill. The hope is to have a vaccine available in the three worst affected countries – Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone – in the New Year.
The Ebola crisis may be the most current and visible example of Oxford's strong practical engagement in health challenges overseas, but there are many others. The Centre for Tropical Medicine and Global Health is a collection of research groups who are permanently based in Africa and Asia. Research is conducted in Kenya, Thailand and Vietnam. There are also a number of sister groups in Laos, Tanzania, Indonesia and Nepal, and collaborators around the world. Research topics range from well-publicised killers such as malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis to emerging diseases such as avian flu and to important but unpublicised killers in the developing world such as melioidosis and scrub typhus.
Oxford is also intensely involved overseas on many other fronts. When Aung San Suu Kyi was able finally to receive in person her honorary degree in June 2012, she challenged Oxford to support the redevelopment of Burmese education. Over the past two years we have been creating links with Burma that we believe to be the most diverse of any university in the West. Oxford's aid to Burma is mainly focused on the University of Yangon. But through working with Yangon it has become clear that Oxford can help with much-needed change across Burmese education. We have sent student groups, law researchers, senior professors, administrators, and more to Burma. Oxford has provided guest lectures, English tuition, advice on curriculum design, and book donations and support and advice from library staff and there is much more to come. For example, the Faculty of Law's work in Burma will substantially increase in the coming months, with more Oxonian lawyers travelling to the country to train lecturers and lead targeted guest seminars.
I mentioned student groups a moment ago, and they too are an important dimension of Oxford's practical work round the world. In the autumn six students from the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS) travelled to India as part of an initiative to encourage open discussion about mental health. With Indian partners, they developed a travelling play about a family's struggle with postnatal depression. It was performed for audiences across Goa and Delhi, including the police, university medical students, school pupils, slum dwellers, and a leprosy society. I had the great pleasure of meeting the group while in Delhi. The project had a significant impact, enabling people to talk about personal experiences and concerns relating to mental health issues for the first time.
While in India I also participated in the launch of the latest report from the Young Lives project, which again involves working closely with local partners. It's a long-term international study of childhood poverty, following the changing lives of 12,000 children in India, Ethiopia, Peru and Vietnam over 15 years. It is a time-span – covering all ages from early infancy into young adulthood – that makes it possible to examine in detail how children change, whether growing up in rural or urban contexts, poor or not-so-poor areas, in large families or as migrants.
These are just a few of the practical ways in which Oxford and its richly talented and dedicated staff and students are making a difference on the ground all over the world. They provide an important and deeply practical dimension to our great University's commitment to use its skills and knowledge for the public good. I'm delighted to be able to share them with you: they are something to celebrate. And it is a thought that prompts me to take this early and pleasurable opportunity to wish you all a happy festive season and a stimulating and rewarding 2015.