Chancellor welcomes new VC of Oxford Irene Tracey
Tuesday 10th Jan 2023, 10.46am
‘Irene Tracey is the 273rd Vice-Chancellor of this University since the rollcall began in 1230, and only the second woman.
The last Vice-Chancellor, whose successful 7 years in the post we celebrated at a dinner at the end of November, came to us via the Republic of Ireland (Trinity College, Dublin), the United States (principally Harvard) and St Andrews. Her predecessor came via Cambridge and Yale. His predecessor, who once held a Rhodes scholarship, came from further afield, in Auckland.
Irene Tracey was born in the Radcliffe, went to state schools in Oxford, and after university here and at Harvard, she came back to Oxford to become the Nuffield Professor in Anaesthetic Sciences, as well as to the leadership of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neuroscience and to posts at Christ Church and Pembroke. She returned from there to her old college, Merton, as Warden. She is now set to cross the High, not quite the Rubicon though certainly, as Julius Caesar is reputed to have said, alea acta est, the die is cast. Speaking for the whole University, I wish to thank Merton for giving up a fine Warden to allow us, I’m sure, to appoint an equally fine Vice-Chancellor.
As I have just said, we celebrated at the end of last term the achievements of her outstanding predecessor, Dame Louise Richardson, who left strong foundations on which to build and stout defences with which to cope, to use a contemporary cliché, with the headwinds into which Irene Tracey and all of us will have to battle over the next few years in our private lives as well as in our professional ones.
Our national economy is, alas, in a poor, indeed a lamentable state. Future growth prospects are buffeted by the aftermath of a global pandemic, a European war, a faltering Chinese economy and the self-willed departure from our largest export market in pursuit of an elusive and mendaciously spun notion of national sovereignty. We sought to become Singapore-on-Thames but that improbable goal seems to have gone missing in action.
While our fundraising has been buoyant, with growth in research income, and with the OUP and our endowment performing strongly, over the next few years we will have to provide more funding still for vaccine development and other world-beating research. All this will come at a time when, like others, we have to confront the painful impact of inflation on everything we do. Moreover, it is also going to be necessary to deal with inadequate pay structures for our staff. We have to offer better prospects for those setting out on academic careers and overall, to provide the remuneration which attracts and retains outstanding staff in such a competitive world.
While the government’s promises to protect research funding are welcome, we cannot overlook the real damage that will be done, both here and indeed in Europe, if we lose access to Horizon programmes. We must also recognise that the government’s education priorities for those students older than 16 under this our 9th Secretary of State in 7 years are likely to be support for vocational training. This is hardly surprising given the underfunding for years of further education. If we want higher productivity in Britain, a more skilled workforce is essential. This University is hardly in the best position to award apprenticeships. That would not be playing to our strengths, and other universities already do the job very well. What we can do is continue broadening access to able students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and to build on the existing infrastructure we have in continuing education in order to provide opportunities for professional and general education for early- and mid-career students. We have an extraordinary record of continuing education going back to 1878, and one objective we could set ourselves would be to build a modern technology for greatly enhancing learning for people across the country in time for the 150th anniversary of our first efforts in this field.
Some of the headwinds that we face are caused by our own particular institutional structure. We are a collegiate University with autonomous colleges, governed by charity law, as part of an autonomous University – autonomous, a fact not always remembered by governments. Creating one University in these circumstances requires diplomacy, self-restraint and the understanding of our respective positions. In practice, there would be no University without the colleges, and little point in colleges if they were not part of the University. There are two issues that will clearly face us in the next few years, issues that cannot be tackled by a University fiat but only by effective and farsighted cooperation between the leadership of the University and the collective leadership of the colleges. This is the sort of partnership that we saw proving so effective during the pandemic.
One recent unfortunate college dispute, on the sad details of which I do not need to dwell, focused attention on both of the issues that need to be resolved. It inevitably and wholly correctly attracted the interest of the Charity Commission. The Commission, after a show of considerable patience, reached the understandable conclusion that it raised the question of the role of trustees at our colleges. At the very least, I believe that the Conference of Colleges will wish to engage with the Charity Commission (which is doing its duty in a spirit of goodwill) to consider how the questions that arise can best be resolved. This is a matter for colleges themselves. Other charities will inevitably watch what happens with great interest.
The other issue raised in this case, partly a result of history and luck, is the wide divergence in the funding of individual colleges from their own resources. These differences across the University can lead to what many believe is sometimes an unequal student experience across the same university. The University as a whole cannot impose a solution but I hope that the Conference of Colleges will consider how this can best be tackled. When we look at some of these individual internal issues, I recall the wise advice of Tancredi in the greatest European political novel, The Leopard – ‘things have to change in order to remain the same’.
I want in the rest of my remarks to say something about the purpose of universities.
In an open society like our own, liberal democracy is safeguarded not simply by fair and regular elections but by the existence in our community of institutions and rules, checks and balances: the software and hardware of democracy, including the vibrant role of universities. Thomas Jefferson thought that a liberal education was good for democracy.
So what is the purpose of the university and the education it provides? Is it simply to secure higher remuneration for graduates and more growth for our economy? Let me borrow from Cardinal Newman’s famous book on The Idea of a University, a work that I suspect has been more regularly referred to than actually read.
For Newman, a university was – in his lyrical phrase – a place where ‘enquiry is pushed forward… Discoveries verified and perfected… Error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge.’ Universities served the present by helping us to understand the past and preserve the best of it; they served the future by shaping the citizens, who could help create it, by passing on a legacy both of knowledge and of civic commitment and attainment.
The way in which technology has democratised access to knowledge does not amount to a death sentence for universities. They may need to adjust the way they operate, without changing their basic purpose, their core values and attributes in a free plural society. What exactly are these purposes and values?
In my own view, we have sometimes paid too little attention to the learning experiences of students. This has after all been one of the things which over the years has distinguished the particular way in which we teach at Oxford, through the tutorial system. Of course online resources can make a considerable contribution to courses of learning, not least in continuing education. But the aim of pedagogy should not simply be to transfer information. University teachers should get their students to think – to know how to frame the right questions (and the wrong ones), to search for the knowledge that will help them to produce answers, to embrace complexity, to argue rationally, to question and to have their own opinions. Can we manage this when universities sometimes seem to be mainly in the business of providing the obligatory pre-workplace ticks in the box? School done, university done – now for the job market. Universities are for learning, not credentialing; we should not simply teach for tests. Students are not customers in an academic supermarket. We should expect more of the experience a university provides for young people if we want not only a properly skilled graduate workforce but rounded citizens.
We have a reputation, like Cambridge, for usually doing this job of teaching very well, alongside often world-beating research. And this perhaps is often responsible for attracting the sort of attention (very often from journalists whom we have educated) which we could do without. We are, for example, described frequently as elite, like I suppose a Premiership football club. But being elite does not mean we are elitist, a word associated with an inbuilt sense of superiority and membership of a Freemasonry of the clever, powerful and rich. Anyway, that is a silly argument in a country that could do with more elite institutions like some that we already have, for example the British Museum, our other museums and galleries, our Armed Forces, the BBC, our legal system, the Royal Society and so on. I used automatically to add to a list like that our meritocratic, un-corrupt and un-politicised civil service, but I’m not sure that under our recent governments it has been quite so easy to say that – not a problem created by civil servants themselves but by politicians.
What we are not at Oxford and Cambridge is exclusive. We cannot make good all the failures in British society, like social inequality and (in some parts of the country) inadequate state education. Nevertheless, we have to be a force for social inclusion: an academy that understands this obligation in a meritocracy. Our policy on access needs, as I’ve suggested, must continue to be imaginatively proactive so that we can show that Oxford is genuinely ability-rich and means-blind with a wide, diverse academic community.
So what should we hope, here at Oxford, that our students will have learned as part of a liberal education in every subject from physics to philosophy? It is surely reasonable to assume that if you educate very able young women and men, many of them will aspire to doing responsible jobs and taking on leadership roles in the national and international community. As we know, this is what actually happens for many of our students. I do not think it is something of which we should be ashamed. It is not unusual for the cleverest young people in any country to rise to the top after having gone to the most demanding universities. And it is worth adding that slightly more than 1 in 10 of our graduates become teachers.
But what values should we trust they had acquired, not because civic leadership is a taught course but because it is a by-product of academic study at our University? We should not, of course, regard our main task to be producing generations of what one of our most distinguished scholars called ‘plausible bullshitters’.
What we should aspire to do is to educate young women and men with a sense of civic responsibility, the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and an understanding of how to tell the difference between truth and reason on the one hand and nonsense and mendacity on the other. This may seem prosaically obvious but it is a central part of our contribution to the marriage of private and public good in the outcome of a university education.
We must also stand up for liberal values within the academy. If we allow ourselves to be colonised by a modish political correctness, this will be used against us by people who wish us ill. Universities should be bastions of freedom in any society: free from government interference in their teaching and research, while promoting the clash of ideas. Freedom of speech is fundamental to the identity of universities, enabling them to sustain a sense of common humanity and to uphold the tolerance and understanding that underpins any free society.
So when some students and teachers in both America and Europe argue that students should not be exposed to ideas with which they disagree, they are plain wrong. No ifs, no buts. ‘No platforming’, to use a graceless phrase, is wrong; so too is the call for ‘safe spaces’. A university should not be a ‘safe space’ intellectually. That is oxymoronic. It is true that liberty requires the existence of some limits (decided freely by democratic argument under the rule of law). And some ideas – incitement of racial hatred or political violence, gender hostility and hostility to sexual preferences – are anathema in almost every free society.
But an autonomous university should wherever possible be trusted to exercise this degree of control itself. Intolerance of debate, of discussion and of particular branches of scholarship should never be tolerated. As Karl Popper taught us, the only thing of which we should be intolerant is intolerance itself.
It is ironic that in Hong Kong and elsewhere students are being pilloried and disciplined – even sent to prison – for arguing for the very freedoms against which some in the West campaign.
The answer to bad free speech is good free speech. The answer to bad historical research is better historical research. If we wish to apply a calculus of morality to events of the past, it should be based on fact and historical understanding, not on subsuming discussion in today’s opinions drawn from what is assumed to be contemporary morality. There was something beyond risible in the government pressing for legislation on free speech in higher education while one of its agencies (to which I am delighted to say we no longer subscribe) issued guidance on the higher education curriculum so manifestly absurd that it sounded as though its principal purpose was to provoke apoplexy in the ranks of tabloid columnists. One mathematician pointed out that the suggestion that we should de-colonise maths needed to confront the fact that the Mayan civilisation was doing sophisticated mathematics in the Americas a long time before Christopher Columbus arrived on the continent.
Wilhelm von Humboldt, the great German 19th-century creative force in higher education, argued that one of the principles on which universities’ objectives should be based was unity of teaching and research. They reinforced each other. Not every university has the resources or capability to do very much original research. But I’m not in favour of any government trying to make hard and fast distinctions between those universities which are allowed to do research and those which cannot. Nor am I in favour of governments trying to determine the research that universities can usefully undertake. To take one example of the problems caused when governments try to make decisions based on the alleged usefulness of research, when do we suppose that we began as a society to recognise that climate scientists belong to the useful category? That is, I suppose, a point on which this University’s Professor of Geosystem Science would have a view.
Whatever the climate predictions, I prefer blue skies research to having decisions on what research should be done being made by government committees.
In one of her farewell interviews, Louise Richardson pointed out that we had once been thought principally a university dedicated to the humanities, but are now recognised as a great university outstanding for studying and researching the sciences as well. That is both welcome and true. But it should not mean that we can now forget about the importance of the humanities, which cannot be easily judged by a crude utilitarian test. We have to support the humanities because we are human. Because the humanities help to answer the question of why we need universities at all. Because they provide us with a fuller understanding of our world and of one another. Because they enable us to think creatively and critically. Because, as Newman would have argued, they inform our moral sense. Because they teach us about life and beauty and love and death.
It was no secret that my predecessor as Chancellor used to worry about whether Oxford, not least given all the global competition, was capable of building on its past achievements and retaining its high reputation as an academy. It has nothing to do with me that almost 20 years on, I don’t believe that any informed observer would say that today. So the former Warden of Merton is taking over what is very much, to use a rather pedestrian phrase, a going concern, and I am confident that despite those headwinds to which I referred earlier Irene Tracey will build very successfully on what has been achieved in the last few years. I believe that the University shares my opinion that she will be as good as she crosses the High as she was in Merton Street. I wish her – we all wish her – a good and happy period of office. And we also wish that her family is able to enjoy, as well as to support, her success.’