Oxford university

Could J.K. Rowling be Oxford’s next chancellor?

Among my generation of Oxford graduates – late fifties, early sixties – there is currently a great deal of talk about who the next chancellor should be. In February, the present incumbent, Chris Patten, announced he was stepping down at the end of this academic year, thereby triggering an election to find his successor. The electorate consists of anyone with a degree from the university, which is about 350,000 people. In addition to the predictable runners and riders – Tony Blair, Rory Stewart, Imran Khan – three ex-Conservative prime ministers are in the mix. The chancellorship of Oxford is one of the few remaining elected offices in the UK in

Work, walk, meditate: Practice, by Rosalind Brown, reviewed

Practice is a short novel set in a ‘narrow room’: one day in the life of an Oxford undergraduate writing an essay on Shakespeare’s sonnets. Annabel is trying to ‘perfect her routine, to get more out of each day’. She goes to bed early and rises at 6 a.m. She makes coffee like it’s a ritual and drinks it from the same small, brown mug. She has a plan. She will work, walk, do yoga, meditate, each at their allotted time. The restriction of the novel – a single day, a single character, discrete passages strung together like a sonnet sequence – lends itself to a delicate portrait of Annabel’s

Do Oxford students really need trigger warnings?

It is freshers’ week on campus. Brand new students get to make friends, get drunk and find their way around university. The excitement culminates with freshers’ fair, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to find your tribe by joining everything from the paragliding club to the Mao appreciation society. Who cares if you never attend a single meeting? For one brief moment, you can flirt with the person you might become. Freshers’ fairs offer new students a glimpse of the intellectual and political possibilities on offer at university. But sadly not at Oxford. This year, Oxford University’s freshers’ fair comes with a big fat trigger warning. Apologies. I should of course have prefaced

The visionary genius of Harold Wilson

‘Our generation owes an apology to the shades of Harold Wilson,’ the polling guru Peter Kellner once told me. Had Wilson not firmly resisted pressure from President Lyndon Johnson to send troops to Vietnam, Kellner and I were both old enough to have fought there. But in 1968 we loftily despised Wilson for twisting and turning to stay out of Vietnam and keep his party together. ‘What are the two worst things about Harold Wilson?’, we asked. ‘His face,’ we replied smugly. Britain has never quite forgiven Wilson for his cleverness. His reputation suffered a catastrophic decline in the immediate aftermath of his premiership. It was partially rescued by Ben

Can Oxford’s new Vice-Chancellor fix the university?

There’s a new Vice-Chancellor taking over at Oxford later this year. She’s Irene Tracey, warden of Merton College, and an expert on pain. Rather brilliantly, she wrote a Ladybird book about it, as well as specialist research, so she’s good at communication. More importantly, she’s an Oxford person all through, with only a postgraduate stint at the Harvard Medical School as a break from the university and the town. That sets her apart from the present Vice-Chancellor, Louise Richardson, whose specialist subject was terrorism and who didn’t have much to do with Oxford before she arrived in 2016. Irene Tracey is, in fact, a welcome return to the old sort

All talk and no trousers: is Oxford really to blame for Brexit?

Attacks on British elitism usually talk about Oxbridge, but Simon Kuper argues that it is specifically Oxford that is the problem, which has provided 11 (out of 15) prime ministers since the war. So what’s the explanation? Kuper thinks it’s all the fault of the Oxford Union, which fosters chaps who are clever at debating without particularly caring which side they are on. As a result, they acquire enough rhetorical skills to enable them to beat opponents who rely on thoughtful, fact-based arguments. Such arguments are ‘boring’, and being boring in the Oxford Union is the worst crime you can commit. This wouldn’t matter if it were confined to undergraduates

Does Oxford’s Bodleian Library really need a race adviser?

It’s a difficult time for libraries. Budget cutbacks, online competitors and rival forms of media all point to a grim future for bibliophiles. Still, at least one trend is creating new jobs: the ever-increasing demand for PC-approved books means woke curators are very much in vogue. And now it seems that even the crown jewel of British university book rooms, Oxford’s Bodleian library, is trying to get in on the act with its latest right-on recruitment advert. For Mr S has been sent a copy of the newest ‘job opportunity’ the Bod are putting out for a ‘project manager for race and inclusion.’ An ‘outstanding candidate’ is sought to ‘embed

The elementary misuse of ‘alumni’

My husband is forever being sent magazines from his Oxford college inviting him to give it money. I suggest he should ask it to give us money, since it has much more than we do. But the clever men at Oxford, as Mr Toad called them in his song, seem to have lost the use of their wits. The rot became apparent in 1988, with the publication of the university magazine: ‘This is the first appearance of the university alumni magazine, Oxford Today.’ What did they mean by alumni magazine? Of course they knew that alumni is the plural of alumnus. But why tack a plural noun on to magazine?

Scholars and spectres: The Runes Have Been Cast, by Robert Irwin, reviewed

It could be said that the power of a horror story depends on the possibility, however minute, of it being true. This is partly why so many masters of the genre, from Bram Stoker to Robert Louis Stevenson, have given their narratives the semblance of believability by including epistolary passages, ‘found’ documents and the commentaries of ‘editors’ in their books. In The Runes Have Been Cast, Robert Irwin takes the opposite approach, writing in a prologue: Should any of my readers incline to a serious study of the subject of this book, it is only right to urge them most strongly to refrain from being drawn into the practice of

Revealed: Huawei’s Oxbridge millions

British universities have received twice as much funding from Huawei as previous estimates suggest, according to new figures obtained by The Spectator. Freedom of Information requests sent by Steerpike show that a further £28.7 million has been received from the Chinese tech giant by nine leading UK universities, on top of the sums identified in a landmark report by the China Research Group in June. By far the biggest recipient of donations and research grants is Cambridge University which has taken £25.7 million from Huawei alone since 2016. Huawei has been banned from participating in Britain’s 5G network from 2027 amid security concerns. Last year MPs on the Commons Defence Select Committee claimed in a

Oxford has more to be ashamed of than Gove

Being the most prestigious university in the English-speaking world comes with its drawbacks. While the rolls of alumni are littered with famous names, not every Oxonian puts their formidable talents towards good. Even the most cursory glance will tell you that it’s not particularly surprising to learn that vice-chancellor Louise Richardson is ’embarrassed’ about the behaviour of one particular graduate. Aung San Suu Kyi has, after all, been explaining to The Hague that Myanmar has not been engaged in genocide, merely killing large numbers of an ethnic group that her government did not acknowledge exists. Fortunately for Suu Kyi, she has escaped the ire of the university on this occasion. Instead,

Floods you with fascinating facts: Trees A Crowd reviewed

Listening to Trees A Crowd, a podcast exploring the ‘56(ish) native trees of the British Isles’, solved one of childhood’s great mysteries for me. Why, when you plant a pip from one type of apple, does it grow into a completely different type of apple tree? The answer — one kind of apple tree will typically cross-pollinate with another variety to pass on a different set of genes — is less interesting than the next bit. Which is that if you do plant, say, a Braeburn seed, and it takes, you’re likely to end up with crab apples. The reason, as explained on the podcast, is that the wild crab

Rhodes to redemption: why Oxford needs a monument to Benjamin Jowett

Not since September 1642, when a mob of Parliamentary soldiers opened fire on the sculpture of the Virgin Mary carved into the side of the University Church, has Oxford been in such a fury over statues. The ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign that started among radical students in 2016 has now spread to the senior common rooms, particularly the SCR of Worcester College which, astonishingly, has taken over from Balliol and Wadham as the headquarters of the workers’ revolution. More than 150 academics have signed a petition calling for their fellow dons to maintain a virtual picket line around Oriel College — that is, to refuse to teach its students or

What would ‘sensitivity readers’ have made of my student scoops?

‘Whatever you do, don’t call them snowflakes,’ Caroline said the last time I spoke to Oxford students. ‘That’s not a grown-up way of conducting a political debate. It’s like calling you a gammon.’ She’s right, of course, but by God they make it hard. This week we learned that the Oxford University students’ union is planning to elect a ‘consultancy’ of ‘sensitivity readers’ to scrutinise articles in student newspapers before publication to make sure they won’t offend anyone. If the union has its way, the editor of Cherwell, one of Oxford’s oldest student publications, won’t have final say over what’s published in the weekly paper. Once he’s signed off on

Oxford, ‘sensitivity readers’ and the trouble with safe spaces

The list of things that students must apparently be protected from grows longer every day. Controversial speakers, rude comedians, sombreros (banned at the University of East Anglia in 2015 because apparently it is racist for non-Mexicans to wear them). And now, their own student newspapers. Yes, the list of terrifying things that might offend students and ever so slightly dent their self-esteem — the horror! — now includes the student press. Officials in the Oxford Student Union are thinking of setting up a Student Consultancy of Sensitivity Readers to check the output of the university’s newspapers and make sure that no ‘insensitive material’ is published. It really is as chilling

What happens now that Rhodes didn’t fall?

Oriel College, Oxford’s decision to retain the statue of Cecil Rhodes has generated the usual voluminous fury. It has also shown it to be just that: noise. The university’s willingness to face down activists could mark a turning point in proving that when campaigners don’t get their way, the world continues to turn. This might sound obvious but it marks a welcome change to the often depressing cycle of inevitability of protest-social media storm-surrender. All too often, it seems power really does lie with the various campaign groups, charities, and commentators pushing for change. The fact that Rhodes hasn’t fallen, whatever you might think of the man himself, shows that it doesn’t. This is why they are activists

In defence of Eton’s headmaster

My inbox is crowded with messages from Old Etonians attacking Simon Henderson, the headmaster of Eton. They are furious that he sacked a master, Will Knowland, for putting on YouTube his talk to boys about masculinity, and then refusing to take it down. As one complainant puts it: ‘Eton and Woke are both four-letter words, but they should have nothing in common beyond that.’ I agree, but the case is more complicated. In disciplinary questions, one must ask: ‘What else could the boss have done?’ Suppose I, when a newspaper editor, had told a staff journalist that he could not publish an article he had submitted, yet he went ahead

What we know so far about the Oxford vaccine

It’s three for three as far as positive outcomes from Covid vaccine trials are concerned. But the announcement from AstraZeneca and Oxford University, at a first glance, may not seem to be as exciting as those from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. The figures are a bit of a head-scratcher, so let’s look at them in more detail. Monday’s results from AstraZeneca and Oxford University state that the combined Phase 3 interim analysis from their COV002 and COV003 studies (based in the UK and Brazil respectively) included 131 Covid-19 cases and that the vaccine was found to be 70.4 per cent effective overall — but that vaccine efficacy in two dosing subgroups was

What I learnt as an Oxford vaccine guinea pig

Was the Oxford vaccine trial paused? Mine wasn’t. I signed up for it last week, in the 55 to 69-year-old category, and I was told on Friday that I should continue posting my swabs and attending follow-up appointments.  My friends were keen to tell me I was ‘utterly mad’ to join a trial. But I believe in vaccines. So do most anti-vaxxers, incidentally. It would be a rare adult who hadn’t benefited from childhood inoculations against polio, diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough. My parents, who were raised in the 1930s, didn’t just believe in vaccines they rejoiced in them. When they were little it was all too common for a family to

The inappropriate history of ‘ventriloquising’

‘What! No one told me,’ my husband shouted when I explained that the Hebdomadal Council at Oxford no longer existed (nor had since 2000). I don’t know why anyone should have told him, but I too regret its demise. Its title was high-sounding but meant no more than ‘a weekly meeting’. Indeed until an Act of Parliament in 1854, it was simply the Hebdomadal Meeting of heads of houses. We’d got on to that because my husband wanted the vice-chancellor of Oxford to jail some dons for writing a rude letter about her in the Daily Telegraph. He thought the proctors’ men could imprison them, in the Divinity Schools or