“The answer to bad free speech is good free speech” – Chancellor Lord Patten on Free Speech, the Vice Chancellor and Hong Kong

The Oxford Student sat down with our University’s Chancellor to the selection of Prof. Irene Tracey as the new Vice-Chancellor, the challenges Oxford faces, the debate over free speech on university campuses and his views on the future of Hong Kong and UK-China relations.

OxStu: We’ve just appointed a new Vice Chancellor and Professor Irene Tracey was ultimately selected. As you had a role in that selection process, what made Professor Tracy stand out and what made her the best candidate for the job?

Chris Patten: My role in the selection of a Vice Chancellor is that I chair the nomination committee. It’s about the only executive thing I ever do, but I’m busy. Chairing the nominations committee is not straightforward because everybody is elected, including representatives from the student union, MCR and researchers, which was a step forward.

Getting a team with varied interests and backgrounds over the line in favour of the same candidate could be quite testing, but when you’ve got an outstanding candidate, it’s much easier. And Irene was certainly an outstanding candidate. We had a very good field. We used the best academic headhunter in the business – Perrett Laver. And we had some good people from other universities, one or two academic stars. Although quite often the problem with stars is you can’t quite imagine them being prepared to get their hands dirty and some, as you have to do if you are running a disparate university like this. I think she got the job because she’s got a terrific academic reputation, because she understands Oxford probably better than almost anybody else.

She’s made in Oxford, born in the Radcliffe, went to a local primary school, went to a local comprehensive, went to Merton, then Harvard, then back here, Pembroke, Christchurch, Nuffield Institute. Of course she’s got an external background as well. But she’s just spectacularly understanding of Oxford and loves Oxford, and she’s one of those people who manages to be both nice and decisive. 

OxStu: There’s been a lot of talk recently about wokeism on campus. Do you think free speech is at risk?

CP: Look, I’m an old-fashioned liberal and I believe that free speech and tolerance are one of the most important values in an open society. If universities aren’t bastions of free speech, who’s going to be? And it means that, ‘No platforming’, a pretty graceless phrase, should be anathema. When people talk about safe spaces intellectually at universities, it’s mad. It’s oxymoronic. That’s not what universities are all about. 

When I was an undergraduate a hundred years ago, my moral tutor was a Marxist atheist, and there was I, a Catholic scholarship boy from a moderately right wing, lower middle class family. Did that ruin me? Did that astonish me? The truth is that I think what you should learn at university, among other things, is that an argument isn’t the same as a quarrel. And that an argument and people who have a different point of view to you are not challenging your identity. They may have views about your identity. And I hope what we do at a good university is to give people the intellectual confidence and ability to argue tolerantly with people who don’t agree with them. 

We’ve got [in Oxford] the Voltaire Foundation. What the F are we supposed to take from the Voltaire Foundation, except among other things, a belief in free speech. Doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as hate speech. There is hate speech, but you define hate speech under the law, [such as] attacking gender or people’s sexual preferences or whatever. But [ultimately], the answer to bad free speech is good free speech.

OxStu: There’s increasing competition from US universities which have more funding and more research and larger endowments. Do you think universities like Oxford can still attract European students who now have to pay more post-Brexit and who might be considering the US instead?

CP: Well, you say universities like Oxford, there aren’t many universities like Oxford without being vain. 

The competition with American universities will continue to be steep. And there are two things I would say about that. It’s not usually the pay which attracts somebody to leave here to go to an American university, but [the allure] of a bigger research budget. Despite that, we’re still attracting more than we’re losing on the whole. The area where we have to be particularly proactive is in raising money for postgraduate scholarships. A lot of the time we don’t have a big enough financial package to support them. Colleges have to do even more to raise money from alumni and big philanthropists.

The issue about undergraduate degrees is a different one. I don’t think we should take people just because we get international rates for what they pay. We should take people because they’re the best. And the overall position on undergraduate funding is going to remain difficult. The Labour Party has gone back and forth about what to do with student fees and grants, and I’m not criticising them because it’s very difficult. There are so many other things that they’re going to be under pressure to provide money for. 

I’m just afraid that higher education and further education haven’t had the public expenditure settlement that they deserve for 20 years. When we increased the number of students at universities, we paid for it by halving the amount of money spent on every student. While I hope that the government gives more money to higher education, the biggest need is actually in further education. The funding for further education has gone down dramatically. Why do we have so many Polish plumbers or Albanian carpenters or Bulgarian electricians – because we’re not educating ourselves enough. 

The Chancellor with OxStu former Editor-in-Chief and interviewer Jason Chau The Chancellor with OxStu former Editor-in-Chief and interviewer Jason Chau (left)

OxStu: Moving our conversation away from Oxford to Hong Kong and China. Is there something you’d like to say to the Hong Kong people, to both of those who support the Democratic movement, but also those who worked with you but are now in power with Beijing’s backing? Do you have any words for John Lee?

CP: John Lee is a policeman who made his reputation by supervising the, to put it politely, rough handling of demonstrations. I think that the John Lee approach to people who disagree with you, which is to fire tear gas or plastic baton rounds or water cannon at them rather than talk to them, is not a way you actually encourage stability or progress in any society. 

Hong Kong was by no means perfect when we left, but it was in pretty good shape. It had an extraordinary mixture of economic and political freedom. It also had an outstanding public service, which was not politicized or corrupt, unlike many. My five years in Hong Kong with my family most of the time was the happiest and most rewarding period of my life. What you’ve seen since, under Xi Jinping, is the vengeful and comprehensive assault on the freedoms which people took for granted, whether its freedom of assembly or freedom of speech, let alone the ability to choose who governs you. So I feel very sad about Hong Kong, and I’m delighted that we in this country have given homes to approximately 140,000 of them. They’ll make a fantastic contribution to the country. 

In terms of what will happen to Hong Kong? I don’t know, but it’s pretty true historically that dictatorships never end well. When they go, they go bloody fast. 

OxStu: So looking back at your years as governor, do you think you or the British government then, whether it’s Thatcher or John Major, do you think they were too naïve about China? Do you think there was a miscalculation? And do you have any regrets about your time there and anything you might have done differently?

CP: It would’ve been nice if we’d done more earlier, having agreed the joint declaration on ‘one country, two systems’ and the treaty at the UN. I think at that point we could have done more to embed people’s rights, rule of law, and to make fast progress in democracy. It’s astonishing how I was so vigorously attacked by the Chinese for such a modest package of changes that I made. We did what we could in order to not only hand Hong Kong over in good shape, which we certainly did with a GDP per capita higher than this country; but we also with all the freedoms guaranteed and some progress towards democratization, in that the majority of seats in the legislative council were democratic and elected. 

Were we wise in the way we handled China or are handling China today? I think there are two delusions that Westerners have. Firstly, we deluded ourselves to think that [the Chinese Communist Party’s view of reality is compatible with ours, when it’s fundamentally not.] Secondly, there was this delusion, fed by the hubristic notion when the Soviet Union collapsed, that it was the end of history, to quote Francis Fukiyama, where economic and political freedom had won the day and nothing else was going to beat them.

We kidded ourselves, thinking that there was an umbilical relationship between economic change, technical change, and political change. And it’s just not true. In China, there hasn’t been the sort of political change which people assumed would be inevitable even as its economy grew spectacularly. 

OxStu: Do you think, talking about those delusions, they’ve affected more recent UK governments and their approaches to China?

CP: I think the Cameron-Osborne golden age of China was bilge. George Osborne, on a visit to China, agrees to go off to Xinjiang just after one of the intellectual leaders of the Uyghurs has been sentenced to a prison. What British trade was going to be drummed up in Xinjiang. He was giving a huge face to the Chinese authorities, for what?

One of the things that the current government worries about is the impact of some of the research done in British universities in collaboration with Chinese universities or institutions. We want to be open to Chinese students and collaborate with bona-fide Chinese institutions, but [we should also be aware that] at every Chinese university there are narcs – people who were paid to inform on other students. How much activity do you think the Chinese embassy or consulates in Britain are having with their Chinese students in universities? It’s a difficult situation.

OxStu: Do you think the ‘narc’ behaviour that you described happens here? 

CP: I think it happens in Britain,

OxStu: And at Oxford?

CP: I hope not at Oxford. I think, in political science and history, they’ve been extremely careful. China Center, now under Todd Hall, has been very careful in designing things, so that is less likely to happen. That being said, I would hope that every Chinese student here would have the normal university experience.

OxStu: What about the Blavatnik School of Government? Do you think it has good [measures in place]?

CP: Yes, I do. But when you look at how badly we’ve been governed in the last few years, you sometimes wonder what people think about coming to Britain to learn about governance. But actually the Blavatnik school is very good. It’s brilliantly run by Ngaire Woods, who does an outstanding job. 

The Chancellor with OxStu Editor-in-Chief Milo Dennison (right)

OxStu: Could you comment on the challenges of getting funding from people? Maybe particularly in reference to the Sackler library where that name was considered fine when the money was accepted, but was later found out to be linked to the opioid crisis.

CP: I think it’s really difficult. I suppose you can argue that if people are offering you money for good work, you have to think very hard before you say no. But nevertheless, would you go and work for a company that was making opioids in the way that they have, knowing as they did what the consequences were likely to be? No.

The Chancellor with OxStu Editor-in-Chief Milo Dennison 

OxStu: Does this apply to authoritarian regimes as well?

CP: A few years ago, I was reading the Financial Times one morning and I saw that there’s a story on the front page about Oxford turning down a research collaboration with Huawei. That’s interesting. I’ve never heard about it before. Then, the following day or two I get a letter from two emeritus professors, both of whom had posts in China, denouncing that this is obviously being a result of my hostility to China. The decision was actually made very sensibly by a group of our academics who were very worried about the impact of the research, which I think has to do with AI and facial recognition in the surveillance state.