Congratulations Oxford but beware hubris

The University of Oxford has again been awarded “top spot” in the Times Higher Education global rankings for Universities. This is the 6th year running and coincides with Louise Richardson’s term as Vice Chancellor.

Cause and effect ? Coincidence ? 

I do not doubt that Louise Richardson herself will see this as a team effort; and recognise too that in 2016 she inherited a situation for which she could not have been responsible.  In any case, today there is far too much focus on particular individuals; an accolade of this nature must be the aggregate of the efforts and achievements of the hundreds of staff at Oxford, in all capacities. 

Of course, the top spot ranking must be analysed. What were the criteria used, and what was the evidence used in the assessment of meeting those criteria ? Who formulated the criteria and according to what philosophical principles ? 

Both rankings and indicators are at the THE website

It must be said that the rankings are compiled by the Times Higher Education – an institution which is patently not based in China. Does that explain why the Top Ten positions in the new 2022 world rankings all go to English speaking Universities. Indeed, English speaking universities dominate the top 50. 

If we accept that the % of high calibre academically capable people is evenly spread throughout the world’s population of human beings, then we must ask why China and India are not routinely represented in the THE Top Ten rankings for universities. Off the top of my head I would offer at least 3 candidates for explanation: 

  • cultural perspectives and priorities
  • resources deployed to academic work in given nations
  • many of the most gifted Chinese and Indians go to western universities to study and/or work

Oxford does have one of the highest levels of international student intake at 42% which must have a beneficial effect on performance. But that does then raise at least two questions. 

  1. how many international students are not able to access such quality education in their native land ?
  2. how far should Universities focus on providing education for international students in relation to the resident population in their own country – in this instance, England and the United Kingdom ? 

Regardless, Oxford still has problems. It would be a serious mistake to ignore them and bask instead in the glory of 6 years at Number One. Continued success must surely require facing up to issues, and then applying appropriate counter measures where needed. Hubris must be the number one enemy in response to current success. 

It is heartening therefore to read certain remarks by the Vice Chancellor to the Times Higher Education World conference this week. According to a report by The Guardian, Louise Richardson said:

 “Increasingly people are seeing that they haven’t gone to university and yet their taxes are paying for these utterly overprivileged students who want all kinds of protections that they never had and I think we have to take this seriously.”

She added: “I think we need more ideological diversity. We need to foster more open debate of controversial subjects. We need to teach our students how to engage civilly in reasoned debate with people with whom you disagree because, unless we do that, we are going to lose the public argument.”

Clearly she is aware of the need for universities to realise that they are part of society, with a responsibility to the rest of society – especially the 99+% of the population who can never qualify for Oxford. 

Elites must realise that they have responsibilities… 

But she also demonstrates the need to face down the pernicious threat to the very foundations of university work: free speech and honest dialogue. There are worrying reports about the mindset of some students at Oxford – and no doubt elsewhere – these days. NB an interview with Alan Rusbridger, recently retired head of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford [linked below]. It is disturbing reading. It sits uncomfortably alongside the award which the University of Oxford celebrates today. It reminds us of the need for continual review and reflection, followed with appropriate, concerted action. 

Which brings me back to the Guardian piece about Louise Richardson’s comments to the THE world conference.  Why did the VC of the Number One university say she was embarrassed by famous alumnus, Michael Gove, and use his 5 year old Brexit comments to a political purpose ? 

She must surely reflect and regret abusing an alumnus as she did. She must surely reflect on why such comments are inappropriate. 

Indeed we must ask: what responsibility does she bear as vice chancellor since January 2016 for the problems which have emerged at the University around free speech and cancel culture ? Has her own ideological agenda contributed to the fundamental threat which emerged at Oxford during her term ?

A change of VC is a vital first step.

I close with words from the Alan Rusbridger interview cited above:

“I think this idea of my right not to be offended, my right to have a safe space, is one that’s crept up in the last five years,” he said. If you mention John Stuart Mill’s arguments on free speech to “a bright 19-year-old in Oxford, they look at you a bit blankly. When you say, ‘Isn’t the best response to speech, more speech?’ it’s a new idea to them.”

Rusbridger understands the urge many young people may have to belong and feel safe in their identity. The question is what that urge requires: to belong, do you need to ostracise others who think differently? At Oxford, Rusbridger has debated with students “whose first instinctive position is, ‘But we want this to be a safe space, I feel threatened. Your job is to protect me.’”

His response is well-worn: there are no safe spaces in the world. You are supposedly the brightest of your generation – if you can’t defeat those you disagree with in an argument, who can? “It’s a bad thing,” he explained, “if the right not to feel offended overshadows the call of reason.”

cited from