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A ‘golden age’ for Oxford: In conversation with Chancellor Patten

Lord Christopher Patten has been the Chancellor of Oxford University since 2003. Before that, he acted as the last Governor of Hong Kong and as Chairman of the Conservative Party. 

In February 2024, Lord Patten announced his retirement from the Chancellorship;  intense media speculation about which British public figure might take over his role ensued.

Cherwell sat down with Lord Patten to go over his time as Chancellor, how the University has changed over the last two decades, and what it represents now. 

The Chancellor discussed his concerns with the future of higher education funding; the power of donations; western universities’ relationship with China; and the changing demographics of Oxford students.

Oxford students hear a lot from the Vice-Chancellor, but don’t get to interact as much with you. What is your role? What does your day look like? 

I do all the ceremonial stuff but I suppose I’m here, twice a week, sometimes more doing things at colleges. Sometimes fundraising, sometimes anniversaries. I do quite a lot of fundraising. Harold Macmillan, who was Chancellor when I was undergraduate, told me it’s the Vice-Chancellor who actually runs the university – but if you didn’t have a Chancellor, you could never be a Vice-Chancellor. I suppose the most important executive thing I do from time-to-time is chair the committee that chooses the Vice-Chancellor. 

What are some notable moments from your tenure?

It’s been really lucky that I’ve been Chancellor during a golden age for the University. You think about the scholarships, [and] everything from vaccines to huge numbers of academic and research successes. While I’ve been Chancellor, we’ve raised, I think, about five billion in private philanthropy. We’ve got some wonderful scholarships, you know, which helped to open up [Oxford] a bit for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds or disadvantaged schools. At the same time, it hasn’t distracted from the fact that its most important role is teaching its students. So I’ve been really lucky. 

On that note, Oxford has been the subject of some criticism that the donations they take don’t always align with the University’s values. 

There’s an academic committee, which decides what sort of collaborations we should have. Four or five years ago … we turned down a huge research collaboration with Huawei, for example. If you’ve got some rogue, who’s made a lot of money out of something dubious, we normally wouldn’t take the money. It’s happened once or twice … I think we are pretty careful.

Unlike America, you don’t have legacy preference [in the UK]. Legacy preference would make it very difficult for us to avoid being pushed around by the government about admissions.

You have been pretty vocal about being wary of the CCP and Chinese influence in western academic institutions.

There is a China problem. But that’s true of all universities. There are two aspects to it, one of which I think is very manageable, the other is which is more difficult. I think it’s pretty manageable to avoid taking money from dodgy Chinese interests, either universities or industry. You wouldn’t want to stop all research collaboration with Chinese universities. You wouldn’t want to stop collaboration on environmental issues, for example.

But to be doing research or receiving money from a Chinese company which is deep into surveillance technology, or is very suspect … But [that’s] more manageable than the question of ensuring that Chinese students who are here get the same liberal education as everybody else …  so we have to keep an eye on that. But I’m happy that there are so many Chinese students here. I don’t want to stop Chinese students from coming.

There has been some criticism about British universities’ dependence on international students for funding. 

I’ll tell you what makes me quite cross. Higher education is facing a real crisis in funding.

Above all, because the government doesn’t give us as much money as they should. Universities, not just this one, subsidise teaching prices. 

Look at how much [universities] get from foreign students who pay higher fees. They think it’s therefore sensible to try to attract more foreign students. And sometimes they do that by providing what administrators call Mickey Mouse degrees. If there are Mickey Mouse degrees, it’s because of Donald Duck politicians asking universities to do things which are contradictory to what they’re actually prepared to support. 

We’re lucky because we have endowments to escape that. But there are some universities which will go bust unless they’re helped by the government in substantial ways. And it’s obviously crazy if some universities have to fund research based on the income they get from well-off middle-class families in Nigeria or China or India. So I think there are really serious issues in the funding and organisation of higher education. And because we’re so much better placed than anybody else, except probably Cambridge and Imperial, to deal with them, I think we’ll have to take a leadership role [in the next few years] in arguing the case for better funding of higher education.

It seems clear that in a few weeks we might be faced with a new government. How does that play into funding issues?

I think there’s a threat to democracy if you don’t tell people they’re going to have to make future sacrifices. If you tell people it’s going to be all fine if you vote for them, and then after you vote for them they have to cut spending and increase taxes, that really undermines democracy.

I assume there’s going to be a Labour government and I hope that the next Chancellor will be able to convince them that higher education needs a greater priority.

In your 20 years, state school admissions have increased from about 52% to about 68%. Some have labelled it a British version of America’s affirmative action. To what extent should that trend continue?

I don’t think it’s that at all. I just think it’s a more intelligent approach to admissions policy, which some independent schools don’t like. If you’ve got two applicants, one of them went to a smart independent school and the other went to a comprehensive in Hackney or Sunderland, and they both have three stars, which one are you likely to give the place to? The one who’s managed to do very well despite the fact they’ve had a lousy education or education without much in the way of resources. To do that you have to be very careful. One, that you don’t assume that there is a direct correlation between independent education and the lack of social mobility. And two, you have to recognise that some kids go to independent schools because their parents make huge sacrifices.

I think you have to be quite careful that admissions policy, which isn’t a science, does take some account of the resources which those who want to be admitted here have been able to tap into.

We’ve done quite well, in opening up admissions and being more open about the proportion of BAME students and the proportion of students from socially disadvantaged areas.

The Prime Minister was talking, quite properly, about how important it was to have more maths teachers. I thought to myself, if I was debating with him, I would say that there’s no shortage of maths teachers at Winchester [College]. But I bet if you google comprehensives in the area, you’d find that there was a shortage of maths teachers, which is an argument for spending more on teaching and spending more on schools.

But then I’ve just been saying we need to spend more on higher education as well. It’s very difficult in a country … which has been rather badly governed for quite a long time. I don’t want to sound depressing, but I think we’re in a really difficult point [in time] in talking about resource issues.

There’s been controversy surrounding how democratic the elections for the next Chancellor will be, which will be held online for the first time this year. Should the process be democratic? Do you care? 

There was a certain old-fashioned charm [to the previous method]: you’d have students stand outside of the Divinity School, you’d see this queue of people waiting to vote. [At my election] I’d see my whole life in front of me. Permanent secretaries of departments, ambassadors who I had stayed around the world with, journalists whom I knew, businessmen whom I was aware of, and so on and so on. At the time, there was a lot of criticism because it was thought we weren’t keeping up with technology. And it would have been impossible to continue to argue for that today, when you can organise virtual voting with tech.

You have to have some sensible parameters. I don’t think it would make sense for us to have past MPs [as Chancellor]. I think all [the University] are trying to do now is to ensure that the people who are put forward meet certain, very general, reasonable specifics: that they represent what’s established in the law about equality and so on, that they’re respectable, that they’re serious. We were getting bloody lectures from Conservative MPs about [screening nominees to the Chancellorship]. But I’m going to have nothing to do except to say that whoever wins I’ll support. 

What advice would you give to the next Chancellor?

Enjoy it. And always try to publicly support the Vice-Chancellor. You need to support the sort of initiatives which the Chancellor and the administration want to take.

You have to get around the colleges as much as possible. You have to make a public case not just for universities as a whole, but for this one. This is one of the greatest universities in the world. You can’t look at many things in this country and say: ‘That’s the greatest in the world.’ [In Britain, we] don’t have as many of those things as we used to. Our higher education is regarded as enthusiastically or more enthusiastically in public as almost anything except the royal family, the NHS, and the armed forces.

So, I think a Chancellor has to enjoy it. Has to support the administration. Has to deal with government and external forces. And has to continually put forward the moral case for who we are.

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