Richardson: ‘lurching’ UK policy agenda hurting universities

Outgoing Oxford v-c critiques Westminster fiascos and social media trolling, while making case for more women in leadership

十月 12, 2022
Source: Getty

Universities need long-term plans and consistent support, not governments that “lurch from hurricane to tropical storm” with policies and “anti-intellectual rhetoric” that sow divisions and spread uncertainty, the outgoing vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford has said.

Louise Richardson, a former Harvard University professor who is returning to the US to become president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York following her stint at the top of the 1,100-year-old institution, closed Times Higher Education’s World Academic Summit at New York University by reflecting on the turbulence of UK politics during her tenure.

Pointing out that she has interacted with eight secretaries of state for education during her seven years in charge, Professor Richardson said universities had faced “unhelpful uncertainties”, caused by Brexit, the failure to associate to the Horizon Europe research funding programme, the freezing of tuition fees and “possible government defunding of arts and humanities degrees”.

“There are enough unexpected events for universities to react to in the global field – from pandemics to invasions – without the government’s weather system lurching from hurricane to tropical storm – A-level fiasco to student loans cap,” she continued.

“Policies that aggravate inequalities within the sector and outside it also pit universities unhealthily against one another and leave them to try to even out distribution of resources that may lie beyond their remit to address.”

Professor Richardson said “provocative anti-intellectual rhetoric” and an “emphasis on what graduates are paid as the only meaningful index of what a good and beneficial education means” had created “unnecessary divisions”.

“Higher education desperately needs consistent, integrated policies that have the sector’s long-term needs at their heart,” she added.

Professor Richardson was speaking shortly after her university was again named the best in the world in THE’s World University Rankings, meaning the institution has secured the accolade for every year she has been in charge.

But the political scientist’s term in office has not been without incident, with rows over free speech, criticism in the media of her £410,000 salary and difficulties pushing through attempts at modernisation.

In her speech, Professor Richardson observed wryly that the challenges of leading a university were sometimes underestimated, referencing “a small old guard of dons who hanker for a return to the halcyon days of yore” and believe the vice-chancellorship at Oxford should rotate around college heads as a “part-time role”.

In fact, she argued, the position has changed beyond all recognition in recent years, adding that she had found it to be “more than a full-time job”.

Making a strong case for more women in leadership roles, she praised her “excellent” incoming successor, Irene Tracey, who will become the university’s second ever female vice-chancellor in January, having been promoted from her position as warden of Merton College, Oxford.

Professor Richardson said university leaders today have to possess “skill sets and spend their time managing international projects of a kind completely foreign to our predecessors” and agreed that this is more likely to mean more non-academics fill such roles in future.

The position of vice-chancellor at Oxford now includes nurturing spin-off companies, negotiating partnerships, managing building projects and supporting thousands of jobs, she added.

With the increased responsibility also comes abuse and threats, Professor Richardson said, warning that social media trolling – disproportionately levelled at women – was dissuading people from “voicing strong opinions or being the public face of scholarship” and will hold back progress in ensuring more women occupy public roles.

Professor Richardson called for a “new positive discourse around the enormous benefits of what universities bring to Britain and to global intellectual and cultural life”.

“I would like universities not to be viewed narrowly as a factory for the production of useful workers with multiple skills or as research generators for industry,” she said, “but as flourishing ecosystems that model interdisciplinary study, humane values, freedoms and responsibilities and nurture citizens who are fully empowered to think for themselves in a complex world.”



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