Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Louise Richardson, has called the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump an “indictment” of universities, speaking in Trinity today.
Universities in the UK, she said, “need to be more engaged externally” to prove that they are “actually engines of the British economy and drivers of social mobility”.
The comments came during an interview with Prof Jane Ohlmeyer, Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub, ahead of Richardson being awarded an honorary degree from Trinity this afternoon.
The casual and often candid discussion saw Richardson discuss a range of issues that have long-dominated debates around higher education, including the importance of access, the threat of government regulation and the challenge of funding the sector.
Richardson has always been outspoken about the need for university autonomy, and has previously argued that declining state support for higher education funding is an opportunity that should be embraced.
Today, in response to a question from a member of the audience, she said free education for all was the “ideal towards which every liberal democracy should thrive”. She warned, however, that such a route was “expensive”.
The value of education, for Richardson, however, is beyond question. “I do see universities as the great protectors…They can’t afford to be starved of funding.”
Discussions around Brexit dominated proceedings. She was, she said, “surprised by the Brexit decision, completed stunned by Trump”.
The impact of the vote, she said, would have a large impact on Oxford – 12 per cent of their research funding comes from the European Research Council (ERC). EU staff in the university, too, are also concerned: “They’re worried their research won’t be funded, so we’re vulnerable to losing them.”
Richardson expressed concern too about the uncertainty in the UK following the vote, criticising the lack of clarity surrounding the process and statements from ministers that are “inconsistent with the previous one”.
Richardson, who was made an Honorary Fellow of Trinity, alongside Nobel Prize-winner Prof William C Campbell, in April, is a history graduate from Trinity. “I loved studying history. It is so much a part of who I am”, she said.
Discussion also centred around the challenges still facing female academics. Last November, Richardson was critical of Trinity’s plan to introduce a tenure-track employment model for entry-level academics, citing the “enormous pressure” such a system places on women.
Today, she noted the changes she had helped introduce to the University of St Andrews, where she was Principal and Vice-Chancellor until 2015. When she arrived, she was the only woman on the senior management team. When she left, women made up 50 per cent of the team.
“Key to me was not to make token appointments”, she said. Since her departure, the university has appointed another woman to the role. This, she said, has to “become completely normalised”.
The University of Oxford, now number one in the Times Higher Education university rankings, is often seen as an elite institution. Richardson, however, emphasised the “meritocratic” nature of the university.
Responding to a question from Ohlmeyer about her legacy as Vice-Chancellor, Richardson described herself as a “modernising” influence at Oxford.
“I very much hope I will have navigated us through Brexit”, she added.