Above: The Chancellor Lord Patten spoke about identity politics, filled with a terrific range of illustrations from his rich career and former Governorship of Hong Kong 

By Dr Richard Lofthouse

Lucky me. At the recent alumni weekend, I stayed in probably the loveliest and least known student room in Oxford: Room 5 of the Siew-Sngiem Clock and Bell Tower, at Harris Manchester College. 

John_CairnsWe featured this when it was only half-built, in Oxford Today. It was easy to overestimate the slightly garish artist impression of the finished article, and to worry that the end result would be a bit kitsch. But when it was opened last September by HRH The Princess Royal, this fear didn’t materialise, not least because the tower contains five marvelous student rooms, all smelling freshly of beautifully worked oak, Sanderson print drapes on mechanical rollers and brand new everything. Oxford has a deep talent for doing things well. That was my overwhelming reaction when shown into the room at the top, which offers five windows. It felt as if I were at the top of a lighthouse.   

Admittedly there was a bit of a shock when the clock above the ceiling tolled on the hour. I felt it as much as I heard it: a great thunk of mechanical metal tolling that sent a shiver down the building. You certainly wouldn’t be late for lectures if you lived here!

Here’s a running report of several sessions I attended, purely personal of course. The Principal of Hertford College let slip that his 1990s book The State We’re In was the second most popular economics book in the twentieth century, after John Maynard-Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace. Now he has published How Good we can be: Ending the Mercenary Society and Building a Great Country. It chimes with the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, a point acknowledged by Will Hutton early on. Hutton began by issuing “a plea for the rediscovery of purpose.” He means moral purpose and he means it in business, in finance and in government. He says that far too much business life has been de-purposed in the name of shareholder value. He noted also that the scale of the UK’s current account deficit is the largest it has been since 1830. The broader point he was making was that if you can find a true purpose for a business, the profits will roll in as a consequence of doing ‘the right thing’. I immediately thought of Germany, where I used to live. Hutton mentioned Germany too. So his plea, if I am not mistaken, was that we all take the German model more seriously, where there are lots of tiny regional banks, co-determination between management and workers at car companies, and much better protection for property tenants. The only snag is that we’re not German and show no signs of becoming so. For that matter, how do you invent ‘moral purpose’ where there is none? This is where I am deeply skeptical and would defer to a philosopher like John Gray (with whom I recently spoke for a piece in the Michaelmas print issue of Oxford Today, out mid-October). Morality used to be linked to religion, but in Europe this link is broken. You cannot just re-build it. 


Very early on Saturday, the departing Vice Chancellor spoke to a coffee-awakened theatre at Said Business School. He posed the question, what would a league of the world’s leading universities have looked like 200 years ago? It would have included, he suggested, Salamanca, the Sorbonne, Heidelberg, Bologna and Rome. What happened to them all? Under-investment for sure, but also making them the tool of social engineering, Professor Andrew Hamilton suggested. He cited the fact that Rome university today has 150,000 students, 50,000 of whom are studying law. Oxford has 21,000 students, of whom 12,000 are undergraduates and 9,000 are graduates.

Elsewhere in the discussion, which was conducted by BBC veteran journalist Chris Lowe, he noted that the real cost of the tutorial system is somewhere in the region of £16-20,000 a year, for each student. This is an average figure across all subjects. So the £9,000 tuition cap is a problem. 

Finally, Oxford raised approximately £100m more in research funding in 2014 than the next best University in the UK, which was UCL not Cambridge, Hamilton reported. He said it was a huge frustration that the media persist with the outdated view of Oxford being arty and Cambridge being science-y. Oxford now leads the world in bioscience – a point that Hutton had also made the day before.John_Cairns

The Chancellor Lord Patten gave a terrific talk about identity politics. His central point – which was filled out with a terrific range of illustrations from his rich career and former Governorship of Hong Kong – was that the “manipulation of identity” is one of the greatest problems of modern politics. He cited a “deficit of civic humanism,” and recommended that everyone read (“immediately!”) Allan Massie’s A Question of Loyalties. He spoke of the need for a firm hand in managing populations, as well as tolerance and diversity and mutual respect. He is not a fan of single-faith schools. He also noted that non-intervention in Syria had hardly been a success, hinting that intervention might still have a case (“I don’t mean bombing,” he said). He noted that were the UK to leave the EU after a referendum, one of the immediate consequences would be that the French would send all the Calais migrants over to Dover and it would become a Dover problem not a Calais problem. 

There was a circularity in all this, I thought to myself. Will Hutton had conducted a straw poll of his largely alumni audience, concerning British membership of the EU. 75% of the c.100-strong auditorium wanted to stay in. 12.5% abstained (some were Americans and said that); the other 12.5% wanted to leave. So if Oxford alumni could decide the EU referendum, it would be a landslide for staying in.

With all that in mind I went back to my clock tower for a cup of tea.

Images © John Cairns