In conversation with Lord Patten, Chancellor of the University of Oxford

Lord Patten has been the Chancellor of the University of Oxford since 2003, and announced his decision to retire earlier this year, being the first Chancellor to do so. Lord Patten read History at Balliol College in the early 1960s.

Lord Patten was also the last British Governor of Hong Kong in 1992-1997 and Chairman of the Conservative Party in 1990-92, amongst other roles he held in various British, European, and international political organisations. 

The Oxford Student sat down with him to talk about his term as Chancellor of the University, his thoughts about the current state of the institution, and domestic and international political issues.

Many students, especially those that hadn’t been at the University for a very long time, heard about you for the first time when you announced your decision to retire earlier this year. So what does the Chancellor do, and do you think that Oxford still needs one?

Harold Macmillan was the Chancellor when I was an Undergraduate, and those were certainly the days where it was largely a ceremonial, senior role. I’d been a Chancellor before at Newcastle University, where there wasn’t very much to do, but I thought in Oxford, provided I didn’t try to exercise executive powers, there was much more to do, in supporting the Vice Chancellor and going around colleges. 

It’s been quite a busy 21 years and I’ll miss it.

Louise Richardson [the former Vice-Chancellor], when she was departing and putting together legacy speeches, got my office to dig out for her all the things I’d been doing. And it worked out that I’d been doing things twice a week, maybe three times a week, things for the University, fundraising, speaking at colleges, etc. Last weekend, I was at Pembroke and Wolfson; next week, even though I think I’m sort of by my sell-by date, I’m at Teddy Hall. The weekend before last, I gave a party for people on scholarships from China and Hong Kong. So there’s a huge amount of varied things to do, as well as speaking out for the University and indeed for higher education as a whole. So it’s been quite a busy 21 years and I’ll miss it.

What do you think that you’ll miss the most about being Chancellor, and what is your proudest achievement in this role?

I think it’s been a really big part of my life. We had a farewell dinner in Keble Hall the other day, and it was a sort of book ending event for me. I say that because it was my introduction to Oxford: I was a 16 year old boy in 1960 doing the Balliol scholarship exams for History in Keble Hall, because Balliol was grouped with Keble for the exams. AND there I was more than 60 years later, in Keble hall saying goodbye. I was extremely lucky that after a life gallivanting around the world from Westminster to Hong Kong, Brussels, Northern Ireland and so on, that when I gave up public life, one or two people suggested I should put my hat in the ring for the Chancellorship in 2003, and it’s been a huge pleasure and privilege. 

What I’ll really miss, and there’s a touch of memento mori about it, is the closure of a really big part of my life. I’m sure I’ll still find myself doing things for Oxford from time to time, but it’ll be different, and it’s a great university. I’ve been extremely lucky to be at Oxford as Chancellor in what’s been, I think, one of the golden ages for Oxford. It’s not a sort of post hoc propter hoc point, nothing to do with me, but everything to do with good Vice Chancellors and fantastic scholarship and the continuing way in which Oxford almost uniquely – Cambridge, to some extent as well – manages to combine great scholarship and academic work with very good teaching. 

Oxford almost uniquely manages to combine great scholarship and academic work with very good teaching

And I think, like me, people who get the most out of Oxford always remember one or two tutors they had. I mean, you remember it for the rest of your life. I remember Mike Moritz, who’s been hugely generous as a funder to Oxford, particularly of an extraordinary imaginative scholarship [the Crankstart Scholarship] which mentors bright kids from disadvantaged schools and backgrounds, helps them get into Oxford, helps them while they’re at Oxford, helps them find jobs during vacations, helps them get a job at the end. One of the reasons why Mike Moritz does it is that he can remember how much he got out of Oxford, and he can remember returning from his tutorials in North Oxford within sort of glow of what he’d just learned and achieved. I have the same feeling. I think that those of us who are as I was, really formed by Oxford, regard those sorts of relationships as being absolutely crucial. Cambridge has it a bit, but on the whole, other universities, even great ones like Imperial, don’t have that same fusion of teaching and scholarship. Oxford’s been a hugely important part of my life.

Despite an overall rise in admissions of students from state schools since 2018, the figure has been decreasing in the past few years to around 67% according to your latest admissions report, with certain colleges like Pembroke reaching only 57%. What do you think that Oxford can do beyond your tenure to ensure that the best applicants are given equal opportunities and fair chances?

Statistics referenced are taken from the most recent Annual Admissions Statistical Report on the 2023-2024 academic year, which can be found here.

I think you’re being a bit unfair about the statistics. By and large, the figure has been hovering around 70%, sometimes a bit above, sometimes below. And I think a college like Pembroke has been one of the leaders in outreach to schools in particular parts of the country, and those are things that simply didn’t happen when I was an undergraduate, or even until recent years, a great deal as has happened in the last 10-15, years, which is really important. And we’ve now, of course, got a Vice Chancellor who was at state primary school in Oxford, comprehensive in Oxford, and then to Merton before Harvard and so on. So I think that it’s much more difficult than it would have been in the past to criticise Oxford for not being open to people of all sorts of talents. 

What we get criticised for today is some independent schools, and the heads and teachers at independent schools, claiming that we’re biassed against independent schools, which I think is is drivel, but it’s very easy when some parents have spent a large amount of dosh buying an education for their children, who then don’t get into Oxford and Cambridge, which they hope they would have done, to blame it all on Oxford and Cambridge. 

It’s much more difficult than it would have been in the past to criticise Oxford for not being open to people of all sorts of talents.

The truth is that, first of all, admissions isn’t a science, but it is important to continue doing what we have been doing, which is to help kids from disadvantaged backgrounds and schools to prepare for the Oxford experience. This is what our summer schools do, the UNIQ summer schools, which I go to most years to see what’s happening. I think it’s also hugely important to recognise that if you’re interviewing two young men or women with the same A-Level grades, invariably A*, and one comes from a very good independent school, and one comes from an average or below average school in the Welsh Valleys or the Northeast of England, you’re inevitably going to think that the one who’s come through a pretty second rate school, but still got the same grades as the other one, probably has more promise, and I don’t think that’s unreasonable. 

What I do think is that we should encourage schools to recognise that the most important thing isn’t which university 18-year-olds go to, but whether they’re doing the courses they want to do, wherever the university is, there are lots of good universities in the country. I’ve got grandchildren who are at this sort of stage. I also think it’s very important that kids shouldn’t feel they’ve been rejected if they don’t get into Oxford or Cambridge, only about 20% of the ones who apply and can get into Oxford. It doesn’t mean the other 80% are no good – quite the reverse. I look at loss at the websites of colleges, and there’s a wonderful one, for example, for Jesus College, with the Admissions Tutor explaining why if you don’t get into Jesus College, it doesn’t mean you’re a reject. And it’s wonderful, it’s not sort of a sermon, but it’s a very practical explanation of why everybody can’t get in, and why you shouldn’t allow your own ambitions or your parents or teachers to persuade you that you’ve been a failure because you haven’t got in. The truth is that we can only take about 20% of those extremely able and talented people who apply. So I think we’re much better and more sophisticated about that. 

We can only really get an overhaul, a really radical overhaul, of higher education if the parties do it together.

One of the things that always makes me a little bit annoyed is when things at Oxford still continue to look as though we haven’t left Brideshead Revisited behind, and some of the reporting of what happens. And most of the bad reporting about Oxford comes from people we’ve educated ourselves. I mean, it’s extraordinary in this country, we tend to rubbish the things we do best, and Oxford is one of the best universities in the world. I mean, everybody agrees with that, even Cambridge, and certainly, if you’re doing something like anything involving the health sector, it’s been top in the world rankings for over a decade. So it’s a great university, and therefore it’s easy to have a poke at it. 

But when you look at the bloody awful mess we’re in now in this country, and when you look at not just the economic mess, not just the undermining of standards of public behaviour, but issues like the Post Office Scandal , the infected blood plasma scandal, they tell you terrible things about the standards of governance across the board in this country, and it’s therefore all the more important to hold on to things we still do very well, like higher education. That’s not just Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial and Edinburgh and Warwick and others. It’s across the board, but it’s in a terrible state because of underfunding by government, and the fact that government doesn’t put our money where its mouth is. 

Governments again and again tell us all that they want to be. This is sort of typical Boris Johnsonism, that we should continue to be a world leader in science and technology and industry. They do damn all about funding it to ensure that we’re like that. And whoever is in government the next time around is going to have to direct some attention to that, and I hope that they’ll recognise that we can only really get an overhaul, a really radical overhaul, of higher education if the parties do it together. 

I think we have some big arguments ahead about the future of higher education.

It’s going to be a big challenge, I think, for Sir Keir Starmer, and it’s going to be a challenge for the Conservative Party not to engage in a sort of rats-in-the-sack argument about how much further the Conservative Party should move to the right. I think some elements in the conservative parties, such as they exist at the moment, seem not to recognise that it’s pretty bad if you’re an authoritarian, increasingly authoritarian, nationalist, populist party that isn’t popular. Well, I think populists shouldn’t be popular, I suppose. I think we have some big arguments ahead about the future of higher education, and because we’re in a particularly advantaged position in Oxford, both because of our history and because of our endowments and our resourcing, I think we should play a very active role in arguing the case for higher education.

A few weeks ago, the SU President released a report on college disparities in Oxford, which highlighted some differences in the experience depending on which college a student attends. What do you think of his proposed solutions, namely, the creation of an endowment fund, and what do you think that Oxford should do about college disparities?

Oxford is this strange but successful creation of a sort of collegiate federation. It’s a bit like the Austro Hungarian Empire, but without the army at the middle. Any political scientist, if asked how you find out where the real power lies in an institution, would say, follow the money. But that’s not true about Oxford. Most of the resources are at the centre, but there’s a huge amount of power in the colleges, and the system works, but there are scratchy bits where it doesn’t work. And it’s perfectly reasonable to raise the question of the extent to which the university as a whole is able to offer students the same experience whatever college they go to. And I think it’s a challenge for the colleges to sort this out themselves. I don’t think that the University can sort it out from the centre. It would just lead to revolts, not literally, but it would lead to a lot of rejection of the ideas by colleges. I think the University has to work with colleges to find ways of dealing with that. 

The system works, but there are scratchy bits where it doesn’t work.

I was interested when trying to, with Louise Richardson, resolve the disputes at Christ Church between the Governing Body and the outgoing dean. And it was a slight surprise to discover that the Governing Body were taking expensive legal advice and advice from PR consultants about whether to see Louise and I in the first place. It was interesting to compare, at the end of all that, the amount of money spent by Governing Body on lawyers over the last few years and on PR to compare that figure with the, for example, the total endowment of Mansfield College, which came several places above Christ Church on the Norrington Table. That’s not being beastly to Christ Church, it’s just saying that there are really important issues which the colleges and University have to look at. 

I think it’s a challenge for the colleges to sort this out themselves. I don’t think that the University can sort it out from the centre.

I think they have been very successful at the moment in looking with the Charity Commission and some of the issues of collegiate governance, and I think that the Charity Commission are being very constructive in those discussions. But there are issues there, and you can’t simply pretend they don’t exist. My favourite political maxim comes from I think in many respects, is the greatest European political novel, Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard – one of the characters in it, I think he’s called Prince Tancredi, says things have to change in order to remain the same, and it’s a really important lesson for Oxford to remember. Nobody in their right mind would want to throw everything up in the air and hope that it would come down in a better place. But some changes carefully thought through and carefully explained are, I think, essential, and we’ve done that very much in relation to admissions policy, and I think it’s worked pretty well. But it was a good report by the President.

You have been quite vocal defending the civil liberties, including the right to protest, of the people of Hong Kong, where you were the last British Governor in 1992 to 1997. Many students this year feel that they have been denied this right and are disappointed in the University’s response, especially to the encampment with certain protests being met by heavy police presence, sometimes even violence – on the other side, there’s also been quite a lot of criticism of the targeted campaign against the Vice Chancellor – which was a lot more controversial than any other university in the UK. What would you like to say to these students?

First of all, I don’t think that’s true, the last point you made, and second, in comparison with American universities, it doesn’t register on the radar. Let me just say three things about that. First of all, the issue itself is one on which I have, to some extent, self censored. I know more about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and the consequences for both Palestinians and moderate Israelis, that most human beings should want to know. I was for some years the President of Medical Aid for Palestinians. And I wish – perhaps they didn’t know about it, then – I wish that some of those who feel so concerned, and rightly concerned, about the position in Gaza had over the years been contributing resources to Medical Aid for Palestinians. 

I went under the aegis of Medical Aid for Palestinians to Gaza some years ago, a couple of times. I was in Hebron, and after going to Gaza on my last visit, which was a sort of dystopian experience. And leaving Tel Aviv airport after that event, I was strip-searched by the Israelis. They knew exactly who I was. And presumably [they] didn’t think I had a piece of Semtex [a type of plastic explosive] secreted on my back passage. But it was a fairly humiliating experience. 

I can sympathise with those who have felt very strongly about the consequences of the Netanyahu response to the disgraceful, wicked Hamas attacks of last October.

Secondly, when I was a European Commissioner, we had to endure a lot of criticism from both some Israeli groups, and some groups in this country and in America, for the fact that when the Israeli government cut off resources from the from tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority, the European Commission paid for the Palestinian Authority, and with extraordinary care about making sure that the money wasn’t going into the wrong hands. Nick Clegg’s wife used to work for me and she had that responsibility in my cabinet and she did it brilliantly. I was also a member of the Quad [Quadrilateral Security Dialogue], which tried after the appalling assassination of Yitzhak Rabin to keep the Oslo peace process going. But it was very often called by a very cynical Egyptian Foreign Minister, the Quad sans trois [Quad without three, meaning the US only], because the only people who really mattered in it, he used to argue, were the Americans. I had in particular two Israeli ministers who were colleagues, and even friends. One Yossi Beilin, one Shlomo Ben-Ami, one Justice Minister, one Foreign Minister, who are extremely powerful advocates for the peaceful existence of an Israeli state. But they were also powerful advocates of the case for a two state solution. So for all those reasons, I can sympathise with those who have felt very strongly about the consequences of the Netanyahu response to the disgraceful, wicked Hamas attacks of last October.

But there are two or three things, I also feel very strongly in relation to what’s happened. One of the things I think I learned at Oxford, was the distinction between an argument and a quarrel, and that however strongly you feel about issues in a university, which should be a bastion of liberal values, however strongly you feel, you should recognize that other people have strong feelings as well, and you should be able to deal with those in a way which is civil. We should be tolerant at a university of everything except intolerance.

We should be tolerant at a university of everything except intolerance.

So I’ve seen some of the attacks on the Vice Chancellor, which I think are beneath contempt. And I’ve seen some of the attacks on students and academics who feel very strongly about Gaza. I viewed those with some concern as well. So I think that the right to civil disobedience is one we have to hold on to. And I think that when I compare what students have been doing in Oxford, with the beating up, sometimes savage beating up of students in Hong Kong, and jailing, for being in favour of democracy, I think there’s a certain difference between those things to be perfectly honest. And I also think that while it it okay, provided you do so in a way, which recognises the rights of other people in the University, to pitch tents where you where you can, I’m not sure that I can compare that to the “liberated zones” that I saw in Gaza, or the West Bank, and I’m not sure how much other people would see that comparison.

I’ve seen people shot in Gaza, and bombed. I’ve seen people shot in China. And I think one has to be extremely careful not to allow a quite proper concern for events that outraged you in other parts of the world, not to engage in the sort of virtue signalling, which hurts other people. Nobody has a right not to be offended. But in a civilised community, you try to express your views by not offending people. 

In a civilised community, you try to express your views by not offending people. 

I think that the University at the centre, some of the Heads of Colleges who know a huge amount about these issues, like Tom Fletcher, who was Ambassador in Lebanon, Tim Hitchens, who was ambassador in Japan and before that, a senior diplomat, and I could go through others. And I admire the fact that they’ve tried to engage with people who are really concerned about these issues as much as possible. But in a university which recognises the right of civil disobedience, you have to understand that it involves some responsibilities too. And making it difficult for other people to revise for exams or do exams or whatever, doesn’t have much to be said for it. 

My wife, who was at Oxford, the same time as me, one of the many reasons why I’m keen on Oxford, he said like Mills & Boon, was taught law by somebody who became a member of the Supreme Court, Lennie Hoffman, who wrote probably the best judgments and legal arguments about civil disobedience that anybody’s written. So it’s, it’s a right in an open society. But it’s a right which comes with certain responsibilities, and I think we forget that at our peril. Oxford has not been like Columbia, Oxford has not been like some other institutions, and I think that’s to our credit. And we have to go on with dialogue, and we have to go on explaining. 

In a university which recognises the right of civil disobedience, you have to understand that it involves some responsibilities too.

But the other day, I was giving a lecture at St Antony’s, and there was a group of very well behaved students shouting outside about Gaza and the Middle East. I went out to talk to them, I asked them what they’ve read about the war between Israel and Palestinians, I named several books. I was surprised that at a university with people feeling so strongly about the issues, these books seem to come as strange Martian objects. So I do think as well as as part of responding responsibly, it’s quite important to know as much about the issue as you can, on both sides, and there are some people who’ve been protesting who know know a huge amount about the issue and there are some who disagree with them who know a lot about the issue. 

But it’s a funny old business when at a university you have to talk about tolerance. I said in one of my last speeches, and every time I make a farewell speech, goodbye seems to turn into au revoir, which isn’t really the objective. But I came up to Oxford quite young. Neither of my parents had been to university. My dad was a professional musician in a dance band. I was a Catholic, I still am. I came from a from a home where the newspaper we took was the Daily Express – it wasn’t quite as bad as the Daily Express today, it had some very good journalists on it – and I come to Oxford, and my moral tutor was a Marxist-atheist, who until recently, had been a member of the Communist Party. She actually left over the Hungarian intervention by the Soviet Union in 1956. And I think coming back to something I said earlier, I really learned from him and some others, that you could have disagreements without having quarrels. 

One of the words that is being thrown around a lot is “divestment”, especially by protesters. Do you think that it can be a useful political tool, especially for universities like Oxford, and what do you think that the University should do so that its members can better understand its finances and investments?

I think it’s been doing some of the things that people want it to do, which is, which include transparency about its investments, and about where it gets its money, and trying to ensure that they meet all our legal and moral obligations. I think we’re doing that. I think it’s very easy to find yourself – I don’t think we’re doing this in Oxford, but some other institutions are – in a real corner, in a way you approach this issue. I’m not sure how in the next few years it’s going to be possible to hold many book festivals because of the attitude which has pursued this. I’ve got no doubt at all that you should be concerned in a liberal institution about how your money is invested. 

I’ve got no doubt at all that you should be concerned in a liberal institution about how your money is invested.

And it also touches on research collaboration. A few years ago, at Oxford, we turned down a huge research collaboration with Huawei. Everybody assumed it was because I had intervened because of China and Hong Kong. Absolute balls, it was decided by a group of our academics – and that was why the government was still playing footsie with Huawei. So I think in my experience, we have been pretty good. But people will always suggest that you haven’t been good enough, which is a reasonable thing to be challenged about.

Far-right parties are on the rise across the world, especially in Europe, now, arguably, in Britain, and a big factor of that is social media presence, and the targeting of young voters. Do you think that universities have a role to play in educating those voters and especially for the younger generations, but also preventing disinformation generally, and what do you think about political campaigning on social media?

You’ve raised a seriously important point, and it’s interesting that you raise it because a lot of people are suggesting books that I should write next, and now I’ve got a bit more time, and one of them’s about the impact of social media on politics. I think it’s incredibly difficult. Because plainly, a lot of tech companies have not been as responsible as they should have been, in trying to protect accuracy and decency, as well as to stand up for free speech. And if individual companies don’t do it, then inevitably, governments find themselves against their better instincts, dragged into doing it themselves. 

It’s a different world, whether you’re talking about politics or pornography. I suppose in my generation, the worst you could see was the latest edition of Health and Efficiency. Nowadays, you read the figures for the amount of pornography which is seen by young people, let alone older people. And it does take your breath away really. And that’s true about politics.

One of the problems about social media and politics is that people very often live in the bubbles of their own prejudices.

I think one of the problems about social media and politics is that people very often live in the bubbles of their own prejudices. And thanks to algorithms, when they’re looking for information, they find all sorts of other people living in bubbles. So if the algorithm can identify you as being somebody who thinks that climate change is a hoax, when you’re looking for arguments about climate change, you’ll be put in touch with lots of people who share your view.

We have to avoid, as a University, being dragged into so-called culture wars.

I suppose the only thing you can do about that is by trying to ensure that every education at school, let alone at University, tries to open people’s minds to the threat provided by social media, as well as the opportunities. Tim Berners-Lee thought, to some extent correctly, that the internet was going to open up huge opportunities for people. It offers up huge dangers as well, unless you deal with the rest, you treated properly, or know how to treat it properly. But I’ve got no doubt at all that sort of populism represented by Farage, Tommy Robinson, and others, fueled to some extent by social media, also, by some tabloids and tabloid-isation of politics. We have to avoid, as a University, being dragged into so-called culture wars, which are invariably conducted by people who have no idea what culture means. It’s a big threat, and we have to face up to it.

What piece of advice would you give to anyone coming to Oxford next year, whether that be an undergrad fresher, or an academic taking up professorship?

For a student, I would say, if you don’t enjoy Oxford, you’re not very likely to enjoy life. And you’ll most enjoy it, of course. Doing well what it’s at heart about, which is learning, for an undergraduate, but also taking advantage of all the other things which are associated with it. The fantastic music, the sporting opportunities, the way you’ll make friends for life. Trouble is when you get to my age, you’ll find that those friends are disappearing at a rate of knots. But if you don’t enjoy Oxford, your chances of enjoying the rest of life we’re going to be pretty limited.

You have a huge responsibility to put back into life some of the things that life has taught you, has given you.

For an academic, understanding that of course it’s about doing great research, but it’s also about your responsibilities as a teacher to young people. I don’t want to sound patronising, but I think the best tutors, the best teachers, love those they’re teaching, and are very unlikely ever to be excessively critical of them. My best teacher would have been slightly rueful when we said or did something a bit daft, but would realise that making intellectual mistakes is part of a rite of passage. But if you don’t enjoy Oxford, whether you’re an academic or a student,I’m not sure what you will enjoy. 

And finally, understanding that if you have all the advantages of a great education and you’re part of what’s called a meritocracy, you have as Michael Sandel, the wonderful partly Oxford educated, Harvard philosopher says, you have a huge responsibility to put back into life some of the things that life has taught you, has given you. I used to be an Overseas Development Minister, and that’s certainly one of the lessons I got from getting to know quite a lot about Africa and Asia.