12 January 2016

Oxford’s new Vice Chancellor is very good news


Don’t mess with Louise Richardson, Oxford’s new Vice-Chancellor, as Alex Salmond discovered when he tried to pressurise her during Scotland’s bitter referendum campaign in 2014. She was then the Principal of St Andrew’s University. Angry Salmond phoned her and they reportedly had a “heated” discussion, during which she refused to be bullied by Salmond’s bluster. It was no surprise when she accepted the post at Oxford, such is the oppressive climate north of the border, with the Nationalist administration striving to eliminate all sources of individual thought. Scotland’s loss is Oxford’s gain.

Richardson’s address today at Oxford is that rarest of things. It is a ceremonial speech worth paying attention to, on two counts.

First, she criticises the government and excessive regulation. Why on earth great universities – proud institutions with a long history and many talented staff – cower in front of politicians and Whitehall pursuing the latest policy fad is beyond me. Oxford and other leading institutions could easily afford to tell the government to get stuffed, and should. Richardson doesn’t go that far and she is too polite to phrase it like that. But she criticises:

“…the ever increasing cost of compliance with ever more bureaucratic, ever more intrusive, and ever less useful regulation, much of it, paradoxically enough, designed to ensure value for money. Instead it diverts resources – both financial and intellectual – from the central tasks of research and teaching.”

Yep. We live in the age of compliance and targets which often have the opposite effect to the one intended. In the run-up to the financial crisis the excessive reliance on data-driven compliance gave those involved a misplaced confidence that all was well. It breeds complacency. Just comply, and pass it up the line. Ahead of 2008 it inhibited the application of judgment and ethics.

Even more encouragingly, Richardson had a polite go in her speech at the enemies of free speech – the safe spacers – menacing academic freedom in universities in the UK and the US.

“‘How do we ensure that they (students) appreciate the value of engaging with ideas they find objectionable, trying through reason to change another’s mind, while always being open to changing their own? How do we ensure that our students understand the true nature of freedom of inquiry and expression?”

How refreshing to hear such sentiments expressed by a senior figure in a leading British institution. Louise Richardson is very much a force for good.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX