Oxford vice-chancellor: funding cuts risk ‘throwing away’ strengths of UK higher education

Andrew Hamilton warns politicians against ‘false economies’ in his final annual speech

October 6, 2015

The vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford has warned politicians against “throwing away” the “jewel” of UK higher education, arguing that any funding cuts would be a “false economy”.

In his final annual oration to the institution before he becomes president of New York University, Andrew Hamilton also called for the tutorial system to be given recognition in the planned teaching excellence framework, warned that higher tuition fees “could still” harm efforts to widen participation and expressed concern about the Prevent guidance designed to keep extremism off campus.

Professor Hamilton said that Oxford was now “stronger than it has ever been” and that it was “hard to think of any other walk of life where the UK is so eminent” as higher education more generally.

But he said that politicians should value the nation’s universities more highly, warning that the sector’s success “often seems to go unremarked”.

“If politicians and others do not fully understand or appreciate what a jewel they have in British higher education, they risk throwing it away,” Professor Hamilton said.

The vice-chancellor identified the forthcoming comprehensive spending review, coupled with the prospect of changes to the research council system and perhaps to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, as being a particular risk.

“[This] points to a more than usually uncertain and challenging period for UK higher education,” Professor Hamilton said. “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 identified a number of other potential threats to the sector, including any government “complacency” that the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees had not deterred applications from students from poorer backgrounds.

“It could still happen and we must all be watchful,” he said.

Professor Hamilton has previously called for tuition fees to be “more closely related” to the cost of the education provided, saying that this was at least £16,000 per undergraduate a year at Oxford.

In his farewell oration, he said that his view on fees had not changed, but that Oxford would “remain vigilant” on the issue of widening participation and highlighted scholarship schemes which meant, in his view, that financial circumstance was “no barrier” to an education at the university.

The vice-chancellor added that the Prevent guidance, which aims to restrict the activities of extremist speakers on university campuses, “must not erode” values that it is seeking to protect, such as freedom of expression.

“Freedom of expression and debate, academic independence and integrity – these are at the very heart of what makes a great university great,” Professor Hamilton said. “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.”

On the TEF, Professor Hamilton welcomed the government’s proposals, which are expected to allow universities that can demonstrate that they offer high quality teaching to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation.

But he warned against a “one-size-fits-all approach”, highlighting the importance of the value of the tutorial system which sees students at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge taught in small groups.

“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,” Professor Hamilton said. “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 also warned that assessments of teaching quality should not result in any “self-inflicted negativity” about UK higher education, since this could damage the sector and benefit international competitors.

Professor Hamilton will be succeeded at Oxford in January by Louise Richardson, currently vice-chancellor at the University of St Andrews.

chris.havergal@tesglobal.com

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