The vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, ranked today as the world’s number one university, has said that UK government plans for universities to run schools would be a “distraction” for her institution.
Louise Richardson was speaking after Oxford achieved the top spot in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the first UK university to do so in the 12-year history of the rankings.
Angela Rayner, Labour shadow education secretary, said that her comments on schools were “an embarrassing rebuke" for the UK prime minister, whose education policies, she said, were "falling apart at the seams”.
Theresa May has announced plans for universities to establish or sponsor schools as a condition of charging tuition fees above the basic level, currently set at £6,000.
Questioned on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about the plans, Professor Richardson said: “We’re having this conversation because we are very good at running a university. We have no experience in running schools. So I think it would be a distraction."
She added that there were “many wonderful teachers and headteachers throughout the country and I think it's frankly insulting to them to suggest that a university can come in and do what they are working very hard to do”.
Although Professor Richardson said that “we should be helping them and we will help them”, she expressed unhappiness about “the idea that we distract our time, energy and resources from our academics, who are responsible for ensuring that we are the top university in the world…into doing something else, something very worthy but it’s not what we do”.
Meanwhile, Professor Richardson also reiterated that she was looking for “reassurance” from the government on the future of research funding after the UK's vote to leave the European Union.
“The reason we’re having this conversation is how well we did in the global [THE] ranking, which is predominantly determined by the calibre of our research,” she said. “We currently get about £67 million a year from the European Research Council. That’s a very significant amount and we need to ensure we can continue to access funding for our research.”
Asked by presenter Justin Webb if “the process of getting that money sorted is happening” in talks with the government, Professor Richardson said: “Yes, it’s under way.”
Asked if that would be a success, she replied that it was “very early days yet. To be honest we’re really quite worried about it.”
Professor Richardson outlined her fears that Oxford’s EU scholars – who she said make up 17 per cent of academics at the university – “might decide to leave if they are concerned they may not be able to get their research funded in the future. There are many universities in the world who would be thrilled to have them and who are approaching them and asking them if they would return to their universities instead.”