Brexit a concern for Oxford’s Irish vice-chancellor

Prof Louise Richardson fears dramatic increase in fees for university’s students

Brexit is a major concern for Prof Louise Richardson, the first woman vice-chancellor in the 900-year history of the University of Oxford.

On a visit to Paris at the invitation of the Irish Ambassador to France, Geraldine Byrne-Nason, and French alumni from Oxford, Richardson spoke in an interview about the effect of Brexit on Oxford, the value of university rankings and her area of expertise: terrorism.

She is deeply involved in overseeing Oxford’s £1.3 billion annual budget and in insuring the university attracts the best academics and students.

From Tramore, Co Waterford, she holds degrees from Trinity College Dublin, UCLA and Harvard. Before moving to Oxford last January, she spent seven years as the first woman principal of the University of St Andrews, Scotland.


The 15 per cent of Oxford students who are EU citizens but not from the UK are currently treated like UK citizens, Richardson notes. “If and when Britain leaves, the assumption is they will have to pay international fees.”

Current annual undergraduate fees for EU citizens at Oxford are £9,000. International fees are close to double that. If EU students have to pay international fees, “we could reasonably anticipate that the numbers would decline,” Richardson says. “That would be a loss for them and a loss for us.”

In Oxford, 17 per cent of its staff are from other EU member states. “I’ve tried hard to reassure them that they would be allowed to stay in the country, but the prime minister has not committed to that.”

The European Research Council provides 12 per cent of the university's research budget – £67 million last year. "We cannot afford to lose that income." Richardson also fears that academics whose research is funded by the ERC are vulnerable to being "poached" by other universities.

TCD and UCD fared poorly in the latest university rankings. “We all love to complain about rankings, but we all follow them assiduously,” Richardson says. “The fact they are global forces us to look outward and to be competitive and I think competition is good as a general principle.”

TCD-UCD merger

Asked whether TCD and UCD should consider merging, to create one “world-class university”. Richardson alludes to their cultures and histories.

“Competition between them is probably healthy. I wouldn’t advocate for their merger, it would be presumptuous of me, heading another university . . . But I can imagine it being quite unpopular within both institutions, and you can understand why.”

Byrne Nason introduced Richardson to an all-female audience of ambassadors and journalists as "one of the world's leading political scientists".

Richardson published three books on terrorism in the mid- 2000s. The New York Times described her What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat as “the essential primer on terrorism and how to tackle it”.

“The single most important motive for terrorists is a desire for revenge,” Richardson says. “The second motive is a desire to redress the humiliation they believe they have suffered, a desire for glory. Third, they want to provoke a reaction.”

Since 9/11, Richardson notes, the US government has spent an estimated $1.6 trillion on counter-terrorism and created 263 counter-terrorist organisations. She sees the rise of Islamic State, also known as Isis, as “a consequence of the western reaction to 9/11”.

“The wars that resulted from 9/11, the destruction of the forces of order, ghastly as those forces were, created a political vacuum. We now are looking at multiple, simultaneous civil wars in the Middle East. That has facilitated terrorism.”

Richardson praised the measured response of New York mayor Bill de Blasio to bombings at the weekend. “So often, governments unwittingly play into terrorists’ hands by overreacting to the attack.”

She cites President François Hollande’s “disappointing” reaction to attacks in France. “He immediately used the language of warfare. I would not do so, because it elevates the stature of the perpetrators of these atrocities to describe them as at war with a country of the stature of France.”


Richardson believes the West must develop a more powerful counter-narrative to jihadist ideology. “We have been very slow to wage a war of ideas. I believe passionately in the West, in freedoms, in democracy.

“We have lost one opportunity after another to make that case. After 9/11, it was as if only our grief mattered. ”

The atrocities in Paris last November showed up serious intelligence lapses, Richardson says. “The best source of good intelligence against the bad guys operating in our midst are the communities in which they operate,” she says.

“If those communities feel that the state is legitimate, feel ownership of the country and society in which they live, they will be prepared to turn in the people trying to destroy that society . . . We are losing a huge resource for our society by not integrating these people.”

Fifteen years after 9/11, she believes “we are safer from a very sophisticated attack on the scale of 9/11 . . . US intelligence is now superior to what it was, but the likelihood of these low-threshold attacks, somebody buying a pressure cooker and throwing some nails and Christmas lights into it – it’s just about impossible to protect against that in a free society.”

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times