I enjoyed the recent issue of Oxford Today (Michaelmas 2014), and was impressed as ever by the quality of its production. But I do wonder whether the present style, of articles, news items, scenes from Oxford yesterday and so forth, is being sufficiently ambitious in engaging the attention and commitment of what must be a six-figure class of graduates all over the world.
In short, I would like to urge that, without losing its role as providing agreeable reading and visual matter, OT should also address serious major issues in the University as it is today. In my view, the vast majority of alumni, far from being out off by the presentation of current questions and developments, would be pleased to be taken, as it were, into the University’s confidence, and would feel more committed, not less.
I do not of course mean investigative journalism or much-raking, which would be inappropriate to OT as the voice of the University. But I see no reason why it should not include expressions of conflicting views on current questions, for instance, to take an obvious example, the Castle Mill flats beside Port Meadow. There has been a lot of negative publicity, local, national and even international. But the case for the building of these flats in this location has never been made publicly, either by the University or by any sympathiser. This case needs to be put.
Similarly, there is every reason for serious discussion of other major projects, such as the Andrew Wiles Maths Institute (or the ROQ in general), or the Blavatnik School. What developments the University is undertaking, what purposes they are designed for, how they are financed, and what the resultant buildings are like, are all questions which would interest a large proportion of alumni.
Another area of development which really needs to be expounded and discussed (but categorically not just in terms of bland publicity) is the huge expansion of Medical Sciences. An analysis of what elements the Division is composed of, where they are located (now largely in Headington), how it relates to the Hospitals and the NHS, what the balance is between teaching and research, and where its finances come from, are all issues of great interest, which require explaining not just to alumni but to members of Congregation.
Another very significant change in the nature of the University is the vast expansion of externally-funded short-term research posts (not least in medicine). The figures given in the Oxford Magazine in Noughth Week of Michaelmas 2013 are startling: 3,650 research posts as against 1,627 established academic posts. Most of the authors whose names go on research papers from Oxford are not members of Oxford University. This is a massive change in what the University ‘is’ and what it does, and our alumni are entitled to have the reasons for and the consequences of it set out for them to consider.
Related to this is the major change in the balance between undergraduates and graduates. Most alumni would, I believe, be amazed to hear that Oxford now awards more Master’s degrees and doctorates each year than BAs. Some might be appalled. Others might see this as a reflection of Oxford’s major role in the training of students from outside the UK.
The University’s concern over the problems created for students by the Government’s immigration policy, as set out by the Vice-Chancellor in his Oration, would also deserve a place here.
I need not continue — there are many other important and problematic issues over which the University could and should take its alumni into is confidence, paying them the compliment of their being capable and willing to attend to how the University is changing, and what problems it faces. To take this step would, in my view, evoke a higher, not lower, level of commitment. With apologies for the length of this, I would like to ask you to put it before your Editorial Advisory Board for their consideration.