«Speech by Professor Martin Rees on the occasion of the launch of 750th Anniversary Campaign – Sustaining Excellence at Drapers’ Hall on Tuesday ...»
Speech by Professor Martin Rees on the occasion of
the launch of 750th Anniversary Campaign – Sustaining Excellence
at Drapers’ Hall on Tuesday 24th May
Even to an astronomer, three quarters of a millennium seems a long enough stretch of
time to be worth celebrating. But I feel somewhat miscast as a speaker on this great
Mertonian occasion. I come from Cambridge University - you may have heard of it. It
was founded 800 years ago by disaffected scholars from Oxford who trudged eastward towards the fens - and it still welcomes disaffected scholars from Oxford.
We all enjoy friendly rivalry, highlighting the contrasts between the two ancient universities in familiar aphorisms. For instance: „those from Oxford think they own the world - those from Cambridge don‟t care who owns it‟.
But, more seriously, our two great institutions actually resemble each other more closely than they resemble any other university anywhere. And it‟s the distinctive excellence of Oxbridge that we should be unabashed to proclaim and should struggle to preserve - so that they remain not just the best universities in the UK, but high in the world league too.
Essential to this excellence is, of course, the distinctive collegiate structure - and above all the broad and intensive experience that a college, and college life, offers to undergraduates.
All Merton alumni here have benefited from this. Their memories of Oxford are substantially focussed on Merton; their years there were formative, often transformational; many lifelong friendships were forged there.
We mustn‟t, through our familiarity with it, forget just how special and precious this collegiate structure is. It‟s not matched even in the best American universities. At Harvard, for instance, there are „Houses‟. These offer communal life for the students.
They each have a Master or Warden. But the Harvard houses aren‟t a focus for tutorials, nor a place for interdisciplinary intellectual life. They involve only a small fraction of the Harvard faculty - whereas of course being a College Fellow is an important role for nearly all Oxford faculty. Merton‟s high table encompasses, in microcosm, Oxford‟s entire intellectual range.
Merton can‟t sustain its excellence unless the entire university in which it‟s embedded continues to flourish. And Oxford (and Cambridge) can‟t survive in a more interconnected world unless this country‟s higher education system flourishes and diversifies - and unless the schools improve. As an „outsider‟, I‟ve been asked by Martin Taylor to scan this wider picture.
Any ancient institution that‟s survived and flourished is a „work in progress‟ - Merton‟s been continually changing throughout its 750 years. I‟m reminded of an old cartoon showing Adam and Eve walking out of the Garden of Eden, with Adam saying „My dear, we‟re living in an age of transition‟.
But we are now undergoing specially sudden and anxious transition - higher education has become a political football, and a victim of changes which plainly weren‟t properly thought through before being implemented.
The overall teaching grant for all universities is being cut from £3.5 billion to only £0.7 billion - by 80 per cent. And in consequence there‟s a near-trebling in student fees.
This shift in university funding stems from both budgetary pressure and conservative ideology. It‟s justified by the claim that market pressure will drive up quality. Some people believe this strongly (and there may be a bit of truth in it). To many of us, however, the analogy between buying a restaurant meal and making a key life-choice about your education seems dubious.
We worry that the fee rise will have a psychological impact on students - it renders them hugely disadvantaged compared to those of the previous generation. Many of us got into imprudent debt when we were students- but debt now looms inevitably for many. We don‟t know what effect this will have on student choices and morale.
We‟ve reverted towards the pre-World War II situation - Colleges need to offer really substantial scholarships and bursaries if they‟re to be anywhere near „needs-blind‟.
The most drastic change is the elimination of basic direct government funding for teaching in the arts, humanities and social sciences. This seems driven by a „managerial‟ and „instrumental‟ view of education, failing to appreciate that it is a public good as well as a private benefit for our young people to become well educated in subjects crucial to our society, our well-being and the quality of our lives. (It‟s ironic that a government in which Oxford PPE graduates are not under-represented should promote such philistine presumptions.) This sudden shift in policy has been publicly deplored by the Vice Chancellors of both Oxford and Cambridge. But its impact on other universities with fewer endowments and less prospects of fundraising will be more profound, and more damaging. So let me comment on this wider perspective.
The UK‟s overall university system isn‟t optimal (as I‟ll discuss in a moment) but is in better shape than those of, for instance, France, Germany and Italy. Our universities have more autonomy over admissions of students, and over governance.
The American system is widely admired. It receives far more from private sources than ours does - but what‟s less well known is that the public funding in the US is also more generous, and amounts to a higher percentage of GDP than in the UK.
Oxford‟s Chancellor, Chris Patten, has repeatedly and forcefully deplored the fact that the UK invests less public money in its universities than most other OECD countries.
But there are genuine reasons for pride. One should be properly cynical about the spurious precision of the various „league tables‟, but it counts for something that we‟re the only country outside the US with several universities ranked in the „premier league‟ Oxford and Cambridge pre-eminent among them. There are all too few arenas where the UK ranks so high - we can be proud of our university system and „brainpower per buck‟ and we should surely not risk jeopardising the competitive advantage that thereby accrues to us.
The league tables focus on research, where Oxford ranks high (and where Merton has more than its pro rata share of the most distinguished scientists and scholars). As I‟ve mentioned, the collegiate system gives our teaching a real edge over the premier league universities in the United States, so in a more balanced ranking, where teaching got a proper weighting, we should come even higher.
But teaching and research are interlinked - Oxford is a „research university‟ - so let me offer a few comments on research. I‟m fortunate to know many of today‟s leading scientists - those who have achieved Nobel-level breakthroughs. Last year‟s winners of the Nobel Physics Prize, Andrei Geim and Konstatin Novoselov, are fine exemplars.
They discovered a remarkable new material, „graphine‟: carbon atoms can form a network only one atom think, with astonishing tensile strength and electrical properties.
Their work didn‟t need major equipment - the clinching experiment involved a piece of sellotape. But they staked several years of their lives, and their reputation, on their choice of topic. But it was „blue skies‟ research, pursued essentially in a spirit of enquiry without knowing what its applications might be. And Manchester University (with support from the Royal Society) offered the security and intellectual freedom they needed.
The difference in value between the very best research and the merely good is, by any measure, thousands of percent. So what matters most, even from a narrow accounting perspective, isn‟t the few percent savings that might be scooped up by improving efficiency in the „office management‟ sense. It‟s far more crucial to maximise the chance of landmark achievements by attracting and supporting the right people, backing the judgement of those with best credentials, and providing the optimum intellectual environment.
Our Universities won‟t stay internationally competitive unless they can attract and nurture really outstanding people at least as well as the best universities in the US or the Far East. And to do this their academic departments must sustain a spirit of enterprise and intellectual risk-taking. I‟m lucky to work such a department in Cambridge. But even in this privileged environment, my colleagues seem ever more preoccupied with grant cuts, proposal writing, impact assessments job security, and suchlike - it‟s the same in Oxford. Prospects of breakthroughs will plummet if such anxieties prey unduly on the minds of even the very best young researchers. The atmosphere is becoming corrosive to open-ended enquiry. To me, this is a serious concern - I suspect most of Oxford‟s senior scientists would echo it. That‟s why we increasingly need philanthropic funding. That‟s why college research fellowships are so precious for young academics.
Confidence and high morale drive creativity, innovation and risk-taking, whether in science, the arts, or entrepreneurial activity.
In the sciences, we are less hard-pressed than in the humanities (and the two key ministers, David Willetts and Vince Cable, deserve credit for fighting science‟s corner).
But we risk a relative decline: other countries are forging ahead.
Here a quote: „ We are supposed to be the clever country. We used to be the commonsense country. Not for much longer if the politicians continue to undervalue the potency of those Francis Bacon called the „merchants of light‟, of new knowledge........which is unarguably the only sure wealth of the future. „These words come not from a politician but from a lecture in the Sheldonian last year by Melvyn Bragg.
And here‟s another quote “If you‟re on an aeroplane that‟s overweight, it doesn‟t help to throw out an engine”. That‟s from Obama‟s State of the Union Address in January this year. He said that the US faced a „sputnik moment‟, and spearheading R and D would be the engine of economic recovery.
The United States benefits hugely by draining highly-skilled migrants from the rest of the world. And its allure has been enhanced by the Obama administration, which has boosted America‟s already world-leading academic community - in morale and in substance. And across all the sciences there‟s now competition from China, Taiwan, South Korea and other countries of the Far East - heavily investing in education, as prerequisite for fulfilling the aspirations of their fast-developing economies.
We should worry that, as compared to other nations, the UK is perceived to be less attractive to mobile talent than it was a few years ago. Perceptions of relative decline may be exaggerated, but they‟re important. Many foreigners who would a few years ago have contemplated coming here are now less likely to do so.
Oxford and Cambridge are major national assets because of the collective expertise of their faculty, the consequent quality of the graduates they feed into all walks of life, and the way they attract high-tech industry around them. If they don‟t remain in the world league, it will send a signal detrimental to our entire national life. They offer a public benefit over and above the private benefit they offer to those who graduate from them;
that‟s why they merit public as well as private funding Oxford academics provide personal teaching (generally excellent and sometimes inspirational) as well as pastoral care in colleges - far more contact hours, both formal and informal, than other universities offer. They also engage in learning and research at the highest level. It‟s crucial that enough top talent continues to enter this profession.
What attracts such people? Some would become academics come what may - the nerdish element (I‟m one myself). But academia can‟t survive just on these weirdoes. Oxford must continue to attract to its faculty people who are ambitious and have flexible talent -the kind who could have successfully pursued other far more lucrative career paths.
For many, the collegiate structure is a huge attractor. Colleges offer a unique kind of community, there‟s no fixed hierarchy; it‟s more like a partnership.
The organogram of Oxford looks a managerial nightmare - an intricate matrix of colleges and departments, this has its downsides. But it has genuine advantages over a „cleaner‟ system of line management. Even junior academics don‟t feel pushed around; they are free to develop their own interests and reputation. As they get older they can find a niche
-an optimum individual mix of teaching, research and administration; and a balance between departmental and college duties. It‟s through this flexibility that Oxford retains the dedicated loyalty of hundreds of highly able people. They‟re often individualistic and opinionated, but they‟re driven by maximal institutional loyalty, and minimal financial greed. Other walks of life, where the reverse applies, have cost the country more and served its interests less well. Universities need to be businesslike - so does a hospital, so even does a church. But that doesn‟t mean they should be like a business - indeed the inchoate „partnership‟ model is actually astonishingly cost-effective.
A few more words now about the broader higher education system in which Oxford and Cambridge are embedded. Enrollment in full-time higher education in the UK has risen from less than 10 percent of each age-group in the 1960s to around 40 percent today.
This expansion is surely welcome (though it‟s naturally resulted in public funding being more thinly spread); but it hasn‟t led to enhanced diversity. Indeed the Thatcher government‟s decision to re-label polytechnics as universities was a big step in the wrong direction.
This is an instance when we can learn from the United States. The US is home to several thousand institutions of higher education: junior and regional colleges, liberal arts colleges offering top-quality undergraduate education but no graduate-level work, huge „state universities‟ (many world-class) and the Ivy League private universities.