Talking leadership 46: Louise Richardson on academic precarity and elitism

The outgoing v-c of the University of Oxford talks about her fears of a brain drain and the highs and lows of her tenure

October 18, 2022
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The hardest time in Dame Louise Richardson’s career was not running the world’s top university during a pandemic, but rather being a junior faculty member with three young children. Since then, pressure on early career researchers has only increased and the outgoing vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford is worried about a brain drain, especially of women.

Richardson spoke to Times Higher Education ahead of the World Academic Summit, to give her views on the future of higher education and the highs and lows of her time at Oxford.

The squeeze on younger academics is “particularly acute” at Oxford, Richardson admits, “where, depending on the nature of the appointment, they might have college obligations, teaching obligations in a college as well as departmental obligations”.

“We have people, terrifically smart people, who go from contract to contract. Many of the people working on the [Covid-19] vaccine were on fixed-term contracts. This is difficult on your personal life, in terms of getting a mortgage and so on.”

Increasing regulation is also impacting younger researchers. “The reason I became an academic was because I loved the autonomy that I could work on whatever I wanted to do,” Richardson says. Now “autonomy is being eroded as well, with more and more regulatory constraints on people. So I worry that we’re asking an awful lot of early career researchers and not providing them the support that they really need.”

Oxford has developed an early career researchers’ hub that offers advice. A senior faculty member is an early career champion and the university recently appointed an early career researcher to the University Council because that perspective was missing, Richardson says.

One somewhat radical solution, being tried elsewhere including at the University of Leeds in the UK, is simply offering researchers permanent jobs. They are in the early stage of trialling this at Oxford, she says, but only in certain academic areas where the cohort is large enough for researchers to slot into other projects when theirs ends. “You can’t move a social scientist to start working on quantum physics,” she points out.

Despite the steps taken at Oxford, Richardson does not appear upbeat: “I would love to say we’d solved this problem, but we haven’t.”

Born on the southeast coast of Ireland, as one of seven siblings, Richardson was the first in her family to go to university. She is hesitant to talk about her personal life but does say, “I came from a very different world than the one I currently occupy.”


Unruly Oxford

One of Richardson’s proudest moments at Oxford was, unsurprisingly, overseeing the development of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine for Covid-19. Persuading big pharma to agree to forgo profit on the vaccine in the developed world until the pandemic was over, and never to make a profit in low-income countries, was no small feat. Perhaps she honed her negotiation skills trying to govern the notoriously unruly Oxford faculty? “Let’s say I get lots of practice,” she laughs.

Richardson and her two predecessors have been outsiders rather than Oxford dons, in theory bringing a greater readiness to challenge institutional norms and update Oxford’s famously democratic, some say unmanageable, governance system.

Richardson herself had a “One Oxford agenda”, to encourage collaboration between the central university and Oxford’s 39 financially independent and self-governing colleges. Does she think the appointment of an insider, Irene Tracey, as her successor signifies an acceptance of the status quo? Richardson won’t be drawn on the insider-outsider debate, saying “the committee chose the best candidate.”

She does point out, though, that during the pandemic the college system came into its own. “Unlike other large research universities, where if you’re a student it’s very easy to get lost in them, because of the college system we have these relatively small communities where students are known. And so the colleges could take care of the pastoral needs of students during the pandemic.”

She adds: “The issue is less the collegiate system itself, and the fact that there are real differences between the colleges, it’s not as though there are 39 colleges and the university, there’s actually very significant differences in scale, in financial terms, between the different colleges, and so that’s an area where I think work needs to be done,” she says. “They all have their own distinct cultures. Some are fabulously wealthy, and some are much less so. That has an impact on the lives of the people who live and work and study there.”

Does she mean the financial situation should be evened up? “Haha, I’m not going to be quoted saying that! I just look forward to the colleges’ working together to see how they can address that,” she says with a smile.


Investing in science 

As well as pulling off the vaccine, Richardson is proud of her fundraising, which includes a £1 billion bond (“the largest, cheapest, longest bond in UK higher education,” she says), a £4 billion deal with Legal and General for capital projects and a boost in philanthropic donations.

She thinks it’s crucial, though, that the government also pays more mind to the funding of higher education, including the issue of tuition fees. They must “deal with the fact that the fees are cast in stone and are declining in value and really seriously being eroded by inflation”. She also thinks there should be greater tax incentives for philanthropy. “I really tried to up the game, and I think we have in philanthropy at Oxford, but it would be great to see this done at a national level.”

“If we want to be a science superpower, we really need to be serious,” she says. “We absolutely have to secure research funding. And to be honest, I’ve been deeply disappointed at the pedalling back from the commitment to the Oxford Cambridge Arc.” The government appears to have quietly lost interest in the plan to boost the areas between the two universities, including a new major road linking them. “I think that the decision was made to pedal back because it didn’t seem to be consistent with the levelling-up agenda, but actually, you know, it could in fact be an engine for levelling up, and it doesn’t have to be at the cost of other parts of the country.”

“If we were to ramp up the area of the golden triangle, as it were, and invest in it, there would be all kinds of benefits for the rest of the country,” she adds.

Richardson’s academic area is global security, and she is well aware of the risks of falling behind in science and technology. “I don’t think we can afford to allow potential political competitors to gain the upper hand in science. No, I don’t think the US or Western countries can afford to allow that to happen.”

Is there anything she would do differently, then, if she were starting at Oxford again? Richardson admits to errors in handling the pensions dispute. “Early on, I don’t think we managed the pensions issue as well as we should have done. I don’t think we quite appreciated the depth of feeling amongst the academics.”

She also says she would speak to the press less often. “I live in fear of being distorted by the press,” she says, “I’ve been burned so many times. You have no idea.”

When Richardson moved to the UK she was surprised at how the globally admired Oxford was pilloried by the UK media. “Seeing us criticised daily in the press for being too posh, being too this, too that, too removed, I really wanted to change the public perception of the institution.” She believes she has managed to do that somewhat, via Oxford’s role during the pandemic and by widening access.

The issue of universities being linked to privilege is a difficult one to navigate, as they are by their nature linked to personal progression. Richardson suggests Brits should embrace elitism: “I think we have to change the attitude towards elite. We’re proud of elite football teams, why are we not proud of elite universities?”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

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