Vice-Chancellor's Oration 2015

6 October 2015

Colleagues and friends of the University, thank you very much indeed for joining me at the start of another academic year. An academic year which will, of course, see me depart from a role that I have enjoyed thoroughly for some six years.

Dr Johnson said: 'When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.' My own situation, in leaving for New York University, is not quite so dramatic. Nevertheless, the prospect of my impending departure from Oxford has concentrated my mind on the events of my time here. I have many reflections and I hope you will indulge me if I share some of those with you today.

Before I do so, I should add, for the avoidance of any doubt, that I do not intend to imply that mine is the only, or even necessarily the most significant departure from the University. In keeping with recent tradition, a longer version of my speech will appear in the University Gazette, highlighting new arrivals, departures, and the passing of distinguished and valued colleagues.

Of my own time here, my first reflection is: can it really be only six years, almost to the day, since Sir John Hood passed on to me the insignia of the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University? Can that short time have spanned three Governments, two Comprehensive Spending Reviews, one REF assessment, two tuition fee regimes, five varsity match wins, four boat race victories, one drought, several floods and one volcanic ash cloud? The post has taken me to every continent, from the Davos summit to one of the poorest townships in South Africa. In my time, I have been interviewed by the Wall Street Journal and a Marxist radio talkshow host. I have been impressed by so many remarkable figures who have travelled to Oxford in my time. I think particularly of Michelle Obama's drive and energy, and, of course, the hope and the inspiration represented by Aung San Suu Kyi.

But my purpose today is larger than personal memories, much as I will treasure them. If some of the following sounds like a State of the Union address, it is not because my new, American, title of President has gone to my head. I believe that there is some analogy between the collegiate University and the federal United States of America. Like them, we aspire towards a more perfect Union, even if perfection itself will always remain out of reach. I also believe I can stand here before you today and state that at Oxford, the State of our Union is strong – stronger than it has ever been.

We are strong precisely because we are a union. As I have already indicated, the past six years or so have been a challenging economic period. It would have been easy for Oxford to buckle under the budgetary constraints imposed upon us. We did not do so. Together, the collegiate university focussed on Oxford's core mission – providing the very finest undergraduate and graduate education in the world and maintaining a research endeavour as good as any on the planet. For all of the frustrations of the budget cuts, it was very gratifying indeed to see the colleges, the divisions and the administration working together with common purpose.

The results have been remarkable. Over the past decade, Oxford's income has grown by 6-7 per cent per year. If you focus just on research income, the increase is around 8-9 per cent a year. Last year, we secured a total of £478 million for research projects in an intensely competitive environment, from companies, from charities and, of course, from Government. That puts us on a par with Yale and Harvard and more than £100 million ahead of the chasing pack in the UK. We can sometimes forget the scale of this enterprise, driven by the hard work and imagination of so many outstanding faculty members and students and generating an annual turnover of the University alone of nearly £1.3 billion. This activity is supported by a highly-committed and capable University administration which, I note in a recent Times Higher survey, was ranked as one of the leanest in the UK.

The figures I mentioned are impressive, but the reality they reflect is more impressive still. People invest in Oxford research because it guarantees world-class quality. The question of overall performance in the UK's Research Excellence Framework assessment is often quite a contentious one. There are at least 18 different ways to calculate it. When last December’s REF results were announced, one cynic pointed out there appeared to be 14 universities in the top ten. There was far less contention about first place. The Times, Independent, Guardian, Telegraph and Daily Mail rarely agree on anything. When all five declare Oxford a clear number one, with more world-class research than anyone else, I think we have to take their word for it. 

The Times Higher pointed out that Oxford, with the most REF first places by subject, would also be enjoying the liveliest departmental Christmas parties. If I add that many of those celebrations would have been in the Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Division, that is not to diminish the magnificent achievements of the other Divisions. Rather, it is to lay to rest, hopefully once and for all, the canard that Oxford is not a leader in science. Our science group is better than any other in the United Kingdom, and we have the results to prove it.

But in an era of constant economic uncertainty, when nervousness in China can trigger a stock market plunge half a world away, we cannot rest on our laurels in anything we do. Throughout my time here, I have impressed upon the University the need for greater financial self-reliance, drawing upon the admiration and excitement our work provokes among alumni and donors the world over. I am delighted that message has been heeded. In May, we announced the Oxford Thinking campaign had reached a total of £2bn in gifts, achieved through the fastest rate of fundraising in British higher education.

No one individual can take the credit for reaching this £2 billion landmark. Once again, it is the common purpose demonstrated in the fundraising partnership between the University and the colleges that has proved to be our strength. And once again, the number is less arresting than the stories behind it.

Stories like that of Hong Kong entrepreneur, Sir Ka-shing Li, who through his charitable foundations has pledged £20 million to help establish the Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery. This centre, the first of its kind in the world, will house more than 600 scientists exploiting big data research in many fields of medicine, with the potential to transform the understanding, treatment and management of disease.

Or stories like that of interior designer Mica Ertegun, who established the Mica and Ahmet Ertegun Graduate Scholarship Programme in the Humanities. Thanks to her gift, leading humanities students from throughout the world compete annually for fully-funded graduate scholarships. Her support will eventually be endowed in perpetuity guaranteeing at least 35 such scholarships at any one time in fields as diverse as literature, history, music and archaeology.

Sometimes there are hundreds of individual stories. The transformation of Pembroke College, with new quadrangles and student buildings, came courtesy of more than 1,200 donors who together raised £17 million, driven by a collective desire to benefit the entire Pembroke community.

And while I'm in reflective mood, I’d just like to pause briefly over the memory of two benefactors, now sadly passed away, whose friendship and support I have greatly appreciated as Vice-Chancellor. I am thinking of David Richards, a wonderful man (despite being a Harvard graduate!) who has become Wadham's biggest donor of modern times. I think too of the great Jim Martin whose Oxford Martin School, focussing as it does on interdisciplinary approaches to the world's most challenging problems, is a priceless asset to future generations. Both men, like so many of Oxford's benefactors before them, have made a contribution that will endure, though they are gone.

Our donors commit to Oxford because we commit to excellence. We seek simultaneously to preserve our historic strengths and to adapt and innovate to stay ahead of the emerging challenges of the 21st century. For that reason, we acted to safeguard the tutorial system, the lifeblood of our outstanding educational system, from the threat of national budget cuts. Working with the colleges, we ring-fenced £60 million of the University's reserves for a match-funded Teaching Fund to support tutorial fellows. The total pot has now reached more than £140million, endowing and protecting these vital tutorial posts.

Likewise, we created a match-fund for graduate student scholarships. It is impossible to overstress the importance of this. Doctoral students are the engine room of our research. They do so much to generate the ideas, the treatments, the technology and the policies to address the most challenging, exciting and pressing questions of our time. In the past we have competed – successfully – with Harvard and Yale for the best graduate students in the world despite, not because of, the financial support on offer here. That is not a sustainable position. We have made an excellent start, with a scholarship fund now standing at over £100 million but we must press on for more.

There is a third main philanthropic strand to our educational funding and it is one that gives me enormous pleasure. We have now seen the first cohorts of the Moritz-Heyman scholarship fund pass out of their college gates. I mentioned earlier the memories that I shall treasure most. Foremost amongst them will be the receptions that we have held at our home for graduates of the Moritz-Heyman scheme, meeting the students, learning of their dreams for the future and how the scholarships made it all possible. It's exactly what Sir Michael Moritz and his wife Harriet Heyman had in mind when they made Europe's largest-ever philanthropic gift for undergraduate support. Every year now, up to 160 new students from the UK's lowest-income families will receive, on average, a reduction of £3,000 from their tuition fees and a further bursary of £4,500 towards living costs. We say, repeatedly, that financial circumstance is no barrier to an Oxford education – and we mean it.

I said earlier that Oxford seeks simultaneously to preserve and to innovate. It's a difficult balance to achieve, architecturally just as much as academically. The Blavatnik School of Government has been created to equip tomorrow's international leaders with the tools to tackle the world’s most challenging, and often conflicting issues – climate change, security of energy supply, equitable international development. It is only right that a bold 21st century school should be housed in a bold 21st century building – not always easy in Oxford. We believe that the new Blavatnik building achieves a striking, yet sympathetic, solution in the heart of our beautiful medieval city.

Similarly, the Andrew Wiles Building brilliantly and almost playfully folds profound mathematical concepts into its fabric. The building is, of course, named after the colleague who cracked Fermat's last theorem. Many other mathematical challenges remain unproven – the Riemann Hypothesis, Goldbach’s Conjecture, to name but two. I am going to predict that the 21st century will see at least one of these major mathematical problems solved in the facilities we have created here in Oxford. You could call that the Hamilton Hypothesis.

Every Vice-Chancellorship has its difficulties. I have spoken of two new buildings widely regarded as architectural delights. I feel I should speak of another development which will never be regarded in the same light. The Castle Mill student accommodation. At February's Congregation debate on the future of the flats, the Registrar spoke frankly of the lessons to be learned from Castle Mill on consultation and on listening. We shall learn those lessons. But another speaker at the meeting reminded me, with the commendable courtesy that marked that entire debate, that Castle Mill will be a particularly visible part of my legacy. Well, Castle Mill now accommodates more than 300 graduate students and families at reasonable cost in the UK's most expensive housing market. Our graduate students are vital to Oxford's research strength, as I have already outlined, but they also contribute to the vibrancy of the city and often to its economy as entrepreneurs and job creators. Castle Mill allows them to be here. If that is part of my legacy, then I am content that it should be so.

Of course, there is so much more to our strong investment record than new buildings. Oxford is a digital pioneer as well. One of the most striking examples of this was July's launch of the Digital Bodleian website. More than 100,000 images are now on-line, making universally accessible many treasures that could previously only be seen through possession of a Bodleian’s Reader’s card. You can see what is believed to be the earliest map of the UK from the middle ages, board games from the Victorian era, political posters from the last century and so much more. Again, one of our historic strengths has been given a new dimension through Oxford's innovative, outward-looking approach.

That same approach runs through our long history of commercial enterprise. I hear that Oxford's very first spin-out, a project named Cambridge University, is still doing pretty well…in all things except perhaps in rowing and rugby. More recently, in my six years, Oxford research has generated 31 new spin-out companies. That rate, more or less five new ventures every year, is the highest in the UK.

Last autumn I visited a mosquito breeding plant in Brazil. It may not sound like the most glamorous aspect of the Vice-Chancellor's role, but it was fascinating. The plant is the creation of Oxitec, a spin-out exploiting genetic modification techniques developed in the Department of Zoology. The Oxitec Genetically Modified insects are incapable of reproducing effectively. The idea is that if they are introduced into the wild, the native disease-bearing mosquito population will collapse. There are enormous implications for the control of a range of diseases, with Dengue Fever perhaps being the most advanced. There have been successful trials of the Oxitec mosquitoes in Grand Cayman and Panama, as well as in Brazil.

I was hugely impressed by what I saw in South America, exquisite science applied to a very real world problem. It came as no surprise when, in August, an American corporation bought Oxitec for US$160 million. The commercial sector understands very well Oxford research's potential to create wealth, jobs and ground-breaking solutions to very significant problems.

The commercial sector may understand that but I sometimes wonder if others, particularly in the UK, truly value our education and research. I am not just talking about Oxford here. I made a small joke at Cambridge's expense a few moments ago but the two of us repeatedly figure in lists of the world's top five universities. The most recent, the Times Higher, which I'm sure you have all seen, ranked Oxford second and Cambridge fourth. You will usually find four UK universities in the world’s top 20 or so. That's remarkable for an island of this size. It is hard to think of any other walk of life where the UK is so eminent. It's four times the number of top tennis players we have. And yet this success often seems to go unremarked or under-appreciated.

The looming Comprehensive Spending Review, coupled with the prospect of changes to the research council system and perhaps to BIS – the government department directly connected with universities –this points to a more than usually uncertain and challenging period for UK higher education. I can only emphasise that of all the false economies that might be available to ministers, few could be more mistaken than cutting support for universities and their research. If politicians and others do not fully understand or appreciate what a jewel they have in the British higher education system, they risk throwing it away.

I remarked last year that I was 'baffled' by the UK policy on student visas, that I could not understand why we were harming such an outstanding source of bright minds as well as overseas revenue. It caused a bit of a stir. I won’t claim the credit, but in their subsequent election manifestos, all of the major political parties pledged to drop students from their immigration targets. Every political party, that is, except the one that actually won. I will not repeat last year's argument. But the student visa system was an unnecessary hindrance to British higher education 12 months ago and it remains one now.

I should also say something about increasing government nervousness over campus indoctrination. We are all aware that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and nobody should be complacent about the sophisticated techniques that can be used to influence young minds. But at the same time legislation first introduced as 'light touch' or 'proportionate' must not erode the very values that we are seeking to protect. Freedom of expression and debate, academic independence and integrity – these are at the very heart of what makes a great university great. Anything that undermines them, whatever the intention, is more likely to exacerbate than eradicate the perceived danger. We are not there yet, but the safeguards may be weaker than we think.

Other government initiatives are more welcome. A regional approach to growth, exemplified by the Northern Powerhouse, is long overdue. The Oxfordshire region, with its nexus of universities and knowledge-based industries, is well placed to be at the forefront of this movement, which can do so much to help improve the quality of life for individuals and communities. I think, for example, of the deepening partnership between medical research and healthcare embodied in the Oxford University Hospitals Trust – and I’m delighted to note the granting, just a couple of days ago, of Foundation Trust status – you might call it a shot in the arm for all concerned.

With our partners in local government, the University was a vital player in landing last year’s City Deal, which brought major investment into the region for high tech and biotech sectors. Begbroke Science Park and the new bioescalator at Headington will be focal points where many of these new ventures will be nurtured. I expect to see, from across the water, the Oxfordshire Powerhouse as more than a match for any of its regional counterparts.

Welcome too, is the new universities' minister’s emphasis on teaching. We await the details of the proposals for a new Teaching Excellence Framework with great interest. I don’t know what kind of international comparisons if any may be invoked in this exercise, but I do know that in its zeal to assess teaching excellence, the government must take care not to damage a highly successful sector in the eyes of international students. Our competitors around the world will be licking their lips at the prospect of self-inflicted negativity around our educational offerings.

I have already alluded to the critical importance of the Oxford tutorial system to the world-class education that we provide. There is no substitute, in our view, to spending an hour defending your ideas to a world authority, with absolutely no intellectual bolthole to scurry to. The tutorial promotes rigorous thinking, clarity of articulation and independence of mind. If it is to be meaningful, the Teaching Excellence Framework cannot adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. The better way will be to identify and recognise excellence in teaching wherever it exists – for example in the tutorial model – and to think imaginatively about how and where that excellence can be shared and adapted to general advantage. If the power to raise tuition fees is really to be linked to performance then there should be a strong incentive to fund and adopt ways of teaching that demonstrably produce results.

Ah yes, tuition fees. Two years ago I caused a stir, another one, when I called for the student funding system to reflect more closely the true cost of a student degree – at least £16,000 a year in Oxford's case. My view on that has not changed, especially when I see the distortions that continue to result elsewhere in our university through the need to divert funding to help plug the cost gap. What I did not say, and was often misunderstood to have said, was that the full burden of that cost should fall on the student. Of course, it shouldn't, and especially not for those from low and middle income families. In the past few months, we have seen the replacement of the student maintenance grant with loans. The justification was that the introduction of higher tuition fees has not deterred university applications from students from lower income families. That may well be the case, so far, but there are no grounds for complacency. It could still happen and we must all be watchful. I am sure that Oxford will remain vigilant and continue to reinforce its support and its protection for the most financially vulnerable. The original Moritz-Heyman gift has now been bolstered by a further £50 million from other donors, all convinced that a university education is a public good which must remain available to all.

At Oxford, we are also mindful that the pressures that fall on UK students are not just financial. We still live in an extremely tight employment market, and students are perhaps more conscious than ever of the need for a good degree to secure a return on their investment in higher education. For some, that pressure becomes too much. Much has been made in recent months of the numbers of Oxford students accessing our counselling service. 1,070 undergraduate students used the service in 2013-14, up from 453 in 2003-4. I take encouragement from this. Students are coming forward. They know that expert, professional support is available and they are now more prepared to discuss their difficulties. And we know the system works. Often working with our excellent Student Union, our counsellors can provide the advice and guidance to make remarkable transformations, enabling students to succeed and once more enjoy their studies.

I have the same confidence about the measures that we have put in place on the issue of sexual harassment. In the past year, we have created clear guidance on what help is available and how to get it. The message is clear – harassment of any form will not be tolerated at this university and no-one should hesitate to speak out about it. The start of this academic year has seen gender awareness sessions for all our new undergraduates and again I am extremely grateful to the Student Union for their hard work in this regard. Our commitment to a safe campus for all is one of our key undertakings for the United Nation's HeForShe campaign, underlining that gender equality and respect is a responsibility for every one of us at Oxford.

Of course, none of these issues is unique to Oxford or, indeed, to the UK. At New York University, my immediate physical environment will not resemble Oxford at all. Gothic quadrangles are in short supply in Greenwich Village. The scale of NYU is also quite different – 50,000 students in one of the largest cities of earth, rather than the more compact and intimate surroundings of Oxford. But in many other regards, I shall be grappling with questions and challenges that are very familiar here. And that's not surprising. They are fundamental to higher education and its purpose wherever students, teachers and researchers are brought together. Of course how an individual institution approaches them will vary. A good example is international reach. That can take many forms. Unlike Oxford, NYU has overseas academic centres and now campuses – so I anticipate that travel on university business will continue to take up a good deal of my time.

And at NYU in its many guises I know I shall draw on much that I have learned here over the past six years. I have seen so much to inspire me, including the enthusiasm and interest for Oxford's work around the world. It can be environmental research in the forests of South America, it can be an archaeological collaboration on historical sites threatened by conflict in the Middle East, it can be energetic participation in a family workshop in a tiny South African village, run by our Social Policy and Intervention researchers. Or, more recently, it can be the extraordinarily moving surge of international support for our WildCru conservation team in the aftermath of the shooting of Cecil the lion. Universities have an almost unique capacity to break down national borders in solving global problems, all the more so through the affection and respect that Oxford inspires.

I shall take with me too, the incredible loyalty and generosity of our alumni. In Oxford, the UK, or overseas, wherever I have met them, our former students are consumed with curiosity about the University. They have a hunger to hear about our latest research, new student initiatives and very often the question that comes up, unprompted: 'How can we help?'

Above all, I shall take with me memories of the wonderful people I have worked with at Oxford. The students. Passionate, committed, outspoken and above all, sublimely talented. To spend an hour talking to students – about their ideas, their experiences, their goals – is to see the very point of this university. The administration, including my own fantastic office team in Wellington Square. They have been an important part of our success. At a time of rapid educational change, of an ever-more complex regulatory environment, a highly professional administrative service is vital to any University. That is exactly what we have at Oxford – highly professional and utterly dedicated in their support of our fundamental academic mission.

And the academics. I could give so many examples but I'm just going to give one, because these two professors represent everything that is outstanding about so many other colleagues. They are Professors Nick White and Nick Day of the Nuffield Department of Medicine. Many of you know them. Out in the very front line of the global battle against malaria. Another of the memories that I shall treasure is visiting them at Mahidol University in Thailand to hear about their work there and at their centre in Laos. Meeting their incredibly gifted research team, with whom they have helped save more than a million lives through their pioneering of artemisinin combination therapy for the treatment of malaria. Their fight continues on the Thai-Myanmar border, now against genetic changes which are increasing drug resistance. Their work encapsulates many of the Oxford strengths that I have tried to capture in this speech – academic brilliance, transcending national boundaries and transforming lives around the world.

Now, at this point in my oration, as I glance at my watch, I am reminded of an observation in a Guardian profile on the announcement of my new NYU role. And that observation was: 'Hamilton’s speeches sometimes overrun.' Well, of course, my first reaction to that was 'Can you possibly have too much of a good thing?' But then an askance look from my wife reminds me that the emphatic answer is: 'Yes, you can have too much of a good thing!' I have to say that keeping a critical eye on the duration of my public interventions is just one of the myriad ways that my wife Jennie has been a pillar of support for me. I want to thank her publically for all she has done for me and for all of her hard work on behalf of Oxford over these past six years.

There is so much more that I could touch on, but I won't. I began with a Samuel Johnson quote and I will add another before I conclude. 'Friendship, like love, is destroyed by long absence, though it may be increased by short intermissions.' I do not intend a long and certainly not a total absence from Oxford. The friendships Jennie and I have built and the affection that we feel for the place will not permit that. And even when not around in person, I suspect that part of me at least will still be here in spirit. The conviction is growing in me that – as with many others who have known and loved this great University – you can take us out of Oxford but you can't take Oxford out of us.

And what will Oxford people say of me, if they see me back? Well, that will be up to them, but if I may express a wish, I'd hope for something like this: 'There goes Andrew Hamilton. He left the University in a strong place, and with its best days ahead of it.'

Those days include the arrival of my successor, Professor Louise Richardson. I know the excitement that she must be feeling, because I myself felt it six years ago. I know that her leadership will continue to take you to the extraordinary heights that you are all capable of. And conversely, I know that you will give her every support in keeping this University as a forward-looking, dynamic, 21st century, powerhouse of education and research. You – and she – are in good hands.

Thank you all very much.