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Hamilton: U.K. has lost sight of the public benefits of higher education

Professor Andrew Hamilton became the first vice chancellor of Oxford never to have been educated at the university when he took the job in 2009. He is English, educated at Exeter University and Cambridge, but for the previous 28 years had lived in America, the last 13 of them at Yale University, as professor of chemistry and then provost.

The university offices where he works are not so much brutalist as late 20th century ugly, spoiling the beauty of Wellington Square and its garden. The vice chancellor’s own office is spacious, but utilitarian. With his oval face and bald head, he looks the epitome of the egghead, meant in an affectionate intellectual sense, not the flabby Humpty-Dumpty sort.

He refuses to play the game of which is the best university in the world: Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, are all great universities, he says, adding Tokyo and Beida, using the Chinese name for Peking University, showing that he is a universal man of letters as well as a distinguished scientist. Oxford is special. “There is not a parliament on earth that is as old as the University of Oxford; the only institution I know that has existed longer than Oxford is the Catholic Church.”

He admits to some surprises: “Every now and then I am surprised how focused this 900-year-old university is on the short-term: one has to overcome a concern for immediate effect and immediate impact and remind one’s colleagues that a 900-year-old university should be thinking about the next 900 years, not just the next 90 days, which is sometimes what one encounters.

“There have been very, very many pleasant surprises. Besides the excellence of my colleagues, the willingness of this university to embrace change has been quite dramatic. I came here expecting to find a university bound by the past, where I would have to fight against limited horizons because of excessive traditions. I found the exact opposite, a university actually hurtling towards the future and doing so in a way that is recognizing the important role that change (plays) — change in the way in which we do our research, the way we fund our activities, the type of type of student and academic that we seek to bring to the university.”

He praises two new Oxford ventures: the Blavatnik School of Government launched thanks to £75 million donation from American industrialist Leonard Blavnatik and the interdisciplinary Oxford Martin School, named after James Martin, author of “The Wired Society”, who gave $100 million for its development. Hamilton notes: “In 900 years, Oxford may have trained many prime ministers but we have never had a focused graduate school in government. We now do.”

Roger Goodman, Nissan Professor of Japanese Studies and head of social studies at Oxford, in a separate interview adds that the ambition is that students who can’t find a place at Oxford will go to the Kennedy School at Harvard.

The vice chancellor praises, “the remarkable visionary philanthropy of Jim Martin (in making) Oxford a centre for interdisciplinary study and exploration of those critical challenges that society will face in the 21st century, (such as) climate change, aging society, migration, real cracks within the economic structure of the West, global health, infectious disease, impact of technology on society.”

As Oxford’s CEO, Hamilton says he regards the collegiate system as “the great jewel of Oxford University”, not as a rival. “The collegiate structure provides a sense of community to students and academics in a large university. It provides real personal attention to the academic and the social and personal development of students. The tutorial system (offers) personal attention to the intellectual development of the student, impossible in a large impersonal university. The colleges also provide a really quite intense incubator to interdisciplinarity” because students and academics come from all faculties of the university and can spark unexpected ideas and new projects.

Hamilton’s greatest challenge is money and funding cutbacks. He says: “I arrived here when higher education policy is in turmoil, and the changes that have been wrought on higher education have been quite tumultuous… The British government is taking the approach — whether one agrees or disagrees — to this financial crisis by cutting budgets, particularly in public expenditure. Universities are not immune and have seen very, very significant cuts in the support for undergraduate education.”

He makes a plea for a broader approach, arguing, “One of the unfortunate consequences of the changes in the UK is that they excessively under-emphasize the importance of the public good in higher education. Yes, indeed, an individual graduating from university receives considerable PRIVATE benefit, and there is a good argument that those individuals who benefit and are able to, should pay towards the cost of their education.

“My concern is that the debate has rather lost sight of the important public benefit, the importance to society of an educated citizenry, of ensuring that higher education is strong and available to all who are capable of benefitting from it.”