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Professor Andrew Hamilton urges politicians to value UK universities

Professor Andrew Hamilton, in his final oration, warns politicians not to throw away the ‘jewel’ of UK higher education.

The Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University has called for greater appreciation of the contribution UK universities make to national life.

Giving his final annual oration to the University, Professor Andrew Hamilton said that Oxford was ‘stronger than it has ever been’ and that higher education in general was one of the UK’s outstanding global performers.

However, he added that these strengths are not always well understood, warning: ‘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.’

And he warned against ‘false economies’ in the Government’s forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review.
Professor Hamilton said: ‘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.’

Professor Hamilton, who will stand down as Oxford Vice-Chancellor at the end of this year to become President of New York University, reflected in his oration on an eventful six years in the post. He asked: ‘Can that short period have spanned three Governments, two Comprehensive Spending Reviews, one REF assessment, two tuition fee regimes, five varsity rugby wins, four boat race victories, several floods and one volcanic ash cloud?’

Despite the economic challenges of the past six years, he argued, Oxford has emerged stronger than ever before. The University’s income has grown by 6-7 percent a year for the past decade. Research grants grew to a total £478 million last year, the largest in the UK and putting Oxford on a par with Harvard and Yale in the US. Last December’s nationwide Research Excellence Framework put Oxford clearly out in front and cemented its position as the UK’s leading institution for science research.

In his speech, the Vice-Chancellor thanked the alumni and donors who have given to the Oxford Thinking fundraising campaign, which passed the £2 billion landmark in May, the fastest rate of fundraising in British higher education. Professor Hamilton said much of this money had been ploughed back into support for the University’s world-class education system. Oxford has ringfenced £60 million for match-funded support for tutorial fellows and has created a scholarship fund, now standing at £100 million, to keep the University competitive for the world’s best doctoral students.

The Vice-Chancellor also highlighted the Moritz-Heyman scholarship scheme for students from low income families, funded by Europe’s largest ever philanthropic gift for undergraduate support by Sir Michael Moritz and his wife Harriet Heyman. Professor Hamilton said: ‘We say, repeatedly, that financial circumstance is no barrier to an Oxford education – and we mean it.’

Turning to Oxford’s wider economic contribution, Professor Hamilton pointed out that university research had created 31 new spin-out companies during his period of office. The rate of around five new companies every year is the highest in the UK. He singled out Oxitec, a spin-out exploiting genetic modification techniques to tackle disease, which was sold for US$160 million in August. He added: ‘The commercial sector understands very well Oxford research’s potential to create wealth, jobs and ground-breaking solutions to sizeable problems.’

However, Professor Hamilton questioned whether others understood the value of world-leading universities like Oxford quite so well. He said: ‘You will usually find four UK universities in the world’s top 20 or so. That is 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.’

Professor Hamilton identified a number of potential threats to the strength of the higher education sector. He repeated his warning from last year that the continued inclusion of students in the Government’s immigration target remained an unnecessary hindrance to universities. He also warned against any Government ‘complacency’ that the introduction of tuition fees has not yet seemed to deter university applications from low income backgrounds. The Vice-Chancellor said: ‘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 protection for the most financially vulnerable.’

On the Government’s new Prevent guidelines on campus extremism, Professor Hamilton accepted the need for vigilance for the signs of young minds at risk. He added: ‘But at the same time legislation first introduced as “light touch” and “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.’

The Vice-Chancellor also welcomed the new Government’s emphasis on university teaching, but he added: ‘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 – as for example in the tutorial model – and 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.’

Professor Hamilton ended his oration by thanking Oxford’s staff and students for their support over the past six years. He hoped he would be viewed as leaving ‘the University in a strong place, and with its best days ahead of it.’

He also looked forward to the arrival of Professor Louise Richardson, currently Vice-Chancellor at the University of St Andrew’s, as his successor at Oxford in January.

Professor Hamilton said: ‘I know the excitement she must be feeling, because I felt it myself 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 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.’

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