'Question Time' for Oxford's vice-chancellors

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The vice-chancellors of Oxford's two universities faced questions from the public in a historic event marking the start of Universities Week.

The vice-chancellors of Oxford’s two universities faced questions from the public in a historic event marking the start of Universities Week.

Professor Andrew Hamilton of the University of Oxford and Professor Janet Beer of Oxford Brookes (pictured) answered questions in front of an audience made up of members of the community which included Bob Price, the leader of Oxford City Council and Keith Mitchell CBE, leader of Oxfordshire County Council.

The event took place at the Saïd Business School in Oxford.

Newsreader Jon Snow hosted the evening and commented: “We’re at the start of Universities Week and what a way to celebrate it!”

The Oxford universities have never before staged a debate involving both vice-chancellors and the pair stressed their deep commitment to the city and county.

“I hope our contribution to Oxfordshire will continue to be extremely positive,” said Professor Hamilton. “That contribution will come in many different forms.”

Those contributions were tangible, he explained. They included the museums, parks, cultural events and technology transfer activity that played an important day-to-day role in the city.

“We must recognise and reinforce the importance of museums, the Ashmolean and Museum of Natural History and the Museum of the History of Science,” said Professor Hamilton.

“They are remarkably important cultural treasures and not without small economic benefit to the city. More than two million visitors come to the museums and cultural events Oxford University supports each year.”

In December 2009, Oxford University launched its Vital Partnership report in which it set out the benefits the collegiate University brings to the city and county.

In March, Oxford Brookes published an Economic Impact Report which estimates it contributes more than £1 million a day to the economy.

And Professor Beer listed the large numbers of workers trained at Brookes who find jobs in Oxfordshire.

Three-quarters of nurses trained at Brookes’ School of Health and Social Care go on to work in Oxfordshire’s hospitals. They join the physiotherapists, occupational therapists, architects, lawyers and teachers who pursue careers in the area.

Professor Hamilton said other benefits were more difficult to quantify: “Oxford University is contributing massively to the research infrastructure this city can build parts of its economic growth on,” he said. “Oxford can be the epicentre of the knowledge economy.”

All great cities, explained Professor Hamilton, boasted two universities to complement and reinforce each other.

Both vice-chancellors stressed the ongoing need for development in order to remain competitive and asked for the city and county councils to support them in their quest to remain competitive.

“We are going to create a building that is fit for our students to learn in and indeed learn independently as well as through contact,” said Professor Beer speaking about a new £132 million library building planned for the Gipsy Lane site on Headington Campus.

In response to a question from Councillor Matt Morton, who asked whether students lay in the communities or in the universities and where responsibility rests to make the relationships equitable, the vice-chancellors argued strongly that students make a positive contribution to the city.

Professor Beer said any students who were irresponsible would be dealt with.

“We have been taking steps. We are working very closely with the Thames Valley Police and we now have Police Community Support Officers.”

However, she explained that a large proportion of Brookes students were from Oxford already: “Sixty-one per cent of my students are mature and thirty per cent live at home. They are full members of this community with thirty per cent living here permanently. This is their home. Sometimes we make divides that don’t exist between students and Oxford.”