Oxford’s ability to dominate the headlines has truly been tested these past few months. Whether the spotlight has shined on #RhodesMustFall, the university’s access efforts, or Louise Richardson herself, the fate of Britain’s oldest educational institution has been hotly debated. As the newly appointed and first female vice-chancellor, although she herself wishes this wasn’t in itself a newsworthy item, she has done her fair share of interviews, offering her opinion on Oxford’s future. Her comments to the national press have been forthcoming and having accepting an interview with her, I wondered to what extent this would change with a student audience, made up of myself, representing The Oxford Student, and Tom Hall from Cherwell.
I began on the topic of free speech and in particular, Prevent, the government’s initiative to tackle extremism in the UK. I asked whether Prevent is at odds with her vision of a University where “radical ideas are expressed and challenged.” Her opinion on the matter is clear: “I am not a fan of Prevent” she said, “I really worry about the threat to free speech”. But with this reservation comes a reluctant admission: “I think it is an unfortunate piece of legislation but we will of course, have to comply with it”.
When asked how the university would respond to legislation it finds unpalatable, Richardson’s response reflects her commitment to what she feels is the stalwart of a university education, open debate and discussion: “First of all voice, we can express our opposition, we can try to influence the legislation… I think that is a very healthy way for a university to respond: to engage and debate.” She criticised OUSU for, in her opinion, their failure to engage in the wider debate surrounding Prevent: “I think it’s a shame that students have decided not to engage on this… I’d like us to work together.”
Richardson’s commitment to debate and intellectual discussion appears to not simply be an abstract vision for university life, but a deep, personal and intellectual commitment. “It’s often uncomfortable to hear ideas that we find objectionable, to hear about things our country may have done in our name in the past or our government are doing in our name today.” “I’ve had students say they didn’t want to appoint a particular professor because this man had particular views they found objectionable…My response was university isn’t about being comfortable. It is about confronting those points of view.”
When asked on her opinion of safe spaces, she replied matter-of-factly: “a space in which people do not have to confront ideas they find disturbing… I think is inconsistent with university life.” When probed further into the validity of the existence of any safe spaces at Oxford University she reiterated: “I would say I do not think safe spaces are compatible with university life.” The discussion of safe spaces prompted her to talk about her fears for our increasing encasement in an ideological echo chamber: “I worry that with new technologies now we are increasingly cutting off contrary views… As the world becomes more diverse, travel becomes easier, communication becomes easier we are ironically creating these ways to separate ourselves off.”
The interview moves from free speech to access, another of Oxford’s most hotly contested issues. Richardson was keen to praise the University’s internal commitment to improving access: “Every single person I have met here has been passionate, really committed to ensuring fair access.” However, she added that there is still work to be done, stating there was a need to “do better on this.”
When I asked whether the scrapping of maintenance grants and, more fundamentally, the existence of tuition fees dissuaded students from disadvantaged backgrounds from applying to university, she replied: “I find it very, very interesting if you look at the data, the introduction of £9,000 fees did not in fact lead to a reduction in students from deprived backgrounds going to university.” “What we are actually talking about, instead of a fee, is an income contingent loan, and I would argue that students from deprived backgrounds are smart and realise this is actually a really good investment.” When asked about the fundamental question of who should pay for tuition fees, Richardson put forward a utilitarian approach: “The benefits of education are shared both by society and by the individual. It is reasonable to me that the cost should be shared.”
Within the debate surrounding the cost of a university education, the pay of senior figures within the university hierarchy has come under severe scrutiny. Richardson’s predecessor, Andrew Hamilton, was criticised for his pay packet of £424,000, a figure that seemed jarring when considering the struggle many colleges faced trying to implement a basic living wage for their staff.
However, Richardson defended these pay figures, arguing: “we operate in a global marketplace…The salaries of British vice-chancellors are significantly lower than many competitive countries. If we want to attract people we have to pay salaries that are not completely out of place.” She also offered her thoughts on the morality of such salaries: “Perhaps salaries should reflect societal values, and I would argue that there is nothing more valuable than education.”
On providing access information to students, Richardson also believes in dual responsibility, between the university and school teachers across the country. I make a comment that at my school, a state school in the North West of England, some of my teachers didn’t know that Oxford had colleges and she responds, after initially looking slightly taken aback: “[Speaking with the admissions team] I think the programmes that bring people here in the summer, they get a huge amount of information and that is a very successful programme. But we can’t bring every applicant here in the summer. We have to be reaching out to teachers.” She admits that access to Oxford is a wider problem that requires a wider solution: “We need to ensure that students have the ambition to attend a top rate university. By the time it comes to applying for university it is often too late.”
I turn my focus to the specific topic of encouraging female applicants. It is a sad fact that Oxford admits fewer women than men. In 2012, 46 percent of undergraduates were women compared to 54 percent that were men and much has been made of the gender attainment gap between the number of women who attain first class degrees compared to their male counterparts. Richardson acknowledges this problem: “I find it completely fascinating that there are fewer women than men in the undergraduate population and there appears to be an attainment gap. That you don’t see elsewhere.” She views this as the consequence of a wider societal problem: “Every profession you look at, sadly, is shaped like a pyramid; the higher up you go, the fewer women there are. This is changing, but the pace of change is slower than I would like.” I go on to describe my own experiences of the gender attainment gap and the advice I have heard dished out to fellow female students, such as ‘write more assertively’ or ‘make less feminine arguments’. I ask for her views on such disparaging but not uncommon comments. Her response is animated and incredulous: “I would respond vehemently to that I must say. I’ve never had anybody suggest anything like that to me and I would object if they did.”
In her previous position as vice-chancellor at St Andrews University, Richardson abolished the formal ties between the university and the Kate Kennedy Club. The club claimed to be the protector of the university’s traditions whilst continually refusing to admit female members. She explained her reasoning as: “I thought this was very inappropriate for a meritocratic institution [to be associated with the club].” This commitment to tackling injustice goes back to her own student days, as Richardson reveals that as a student she was heavily involved with the anti-apartheid movement. However, Richardson is more cautious with regards to climate justice. When asked about the decision taken by the university last year to not commit to full divestment from fossil fuels, she agrees with the decision, arguing: “it seems to me that the university came to a very reasonable conclusion.” Yet, in what is perhaps a contradictory statement, she acknowledges the threat posed by climate change: “I worry that future generations will look back on us and find it morally culpable the way we wasted resources when the information about climate change was so readily available.”
When asked what she feels may be the biggest challenge she faces at Oxford, she commented on the struggle to develop a sense of community across the university, hoping to emphasise “the notion that we are one institution made up of many vibrant parts.” She aims to achieve this by engaging with students and our interview seems part of a genuine attempt on her part to fulfil this more active and more demanding role she envisages for Oxford’s vice-chancellor.