Oxford academic blames poor funding for Irish universities’ rankings slide
Waterford-born University of Oxford head says societies must have conversation about who pays for third-level
Prof Louise Richardson, from Tramore, Co Waterford, was in Dublin for her address to the annual Oxford and Cambridge Society of Ireland dinner. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
The Co Waterford woman who heads the University of Oxford has said Irish universities’ slide down international rankings is a direct consequence of declining investment.
Prof Louise Richardson said the issue of university fees was a very difficult one for politicians but all societies must have a conversation about who pays for third-level education.
“Free university education is an ideal towards which every society should strive, but it is an extraordinary luxury and very expensive,” she said.
Before being head-hunted for the top Oxford job, she spent seven years as vice-chancellor and principal of the University of St Andrews in Scotland.
Her acclaimed research into international security has focused on terrorist movements.
Asked if she was saddened by Trinity’s slide down international rankings, she said: “Well, of course, yes. I feel enormously indebted to Trinity. I still think it’s a terrific university and I think Ireland has several really good universities. But they really have suffered from underinvestment in recent years.”
Irish universities’ falling rankings were a “direct consequence of declining investment in Irish universities, especially during the financial crisis”, she said.
“Universities require investment and I think that’s the reason for the decline in the rankings, quite clearly.”
Prof Richardson said the costs of third-level education should be shared between individual beneficiaries and governments.
“The question that politicians run away from because it is so difficult is … what is that fair distribution? And I think that can alter depending on the economics of the country.
“But we have to have that conversation or you’re not going to be able to have world-ranking universities.”
She recalled former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond’s claim in St Andrews in 2011 that “the rocks will melt with the sun” before he allowed tuition fees to be imposed in Scotland.
“But that translates into a massive middle-class subsidy and strangely enough it doesn’t increase the number of poor kids attending university,” she said.
It remained the case that less-well off Irish pupils were far less likely to go to university than the children of wealthy professionals. “That’s true in Scotland, it’s true in England, it’s true in Ireland. I think we as societies have an obligation to address that.”
She called for an increased culture of private philanthropy and said it was imperative that academic freedom was maintained when engaging with industry to fund research. Brexit offered opportunities for Irish universities.
Prof Richardson revealed she applied for British citizenship ahead of the Brexit vote to ensure she had the right to stay in the United Kingdom.
“To be perfectly honest I started the process of applying for British citizenship in anticipation of Brexit because I thought it could be difficult if I found myself as vice-chancellor of Oxford without the right to remain.
“So I initiated the process hoping I would never need it and I’ve since finalised it … I initiated the process as insurance.” She has retained her Irish passport along with her new British one.
British prime minister Theresa May’s claim in her Conservative Party conference speech of October 2016 that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere” was taken as a “slap in the face” by many European academics working in Britain, Prof Richardson said.
She said 18 per cent of Oxford staff were EU citizens and the university had 248 Irish students. Those teaching or researching at the university were “eminently poachable” and she was worried about losing them.
She was also concerned about the loss of research funding and access to collaborative academic networks.
Prof Richardson’s father, Arthur, was a sales manager for Esso and her mother, Julie, was a great reader. The couple had seven children. “The expectation was that I would get married. That was the expectation in those days of girls. And maybe the smart ones would be a teacher.” She did marry and has three children.
Reflecting on the changes in Irish society, she said Irish education was “very good” and it was part of the reason why there was so much foreign investment.
“It’s terrific to see how forward-looking Ireland is, how liberal it has become.” She said she was delighted to see the power of the Catholic hierarchy eroded in Irish society, “because that was such a regressive, domineering, closed-minded force”, although the church had also done many positive things, “in terms of its social work”.
She recalled campaigning for contraception as a student while living in Trinity Hall. The women students’ blocks had a porter to ensure no men entered, she said, while there was no such gatekeeper in the male accommodation.
A prank – which she said she had never admitted to before – stands out. “I remember when the porter was briefly out we covered his place in ‘Contraceptive Services Available Here’ posters.” The posters came from the Well Woman’s Centre.
Turning to contemporary students, she said she took a dim view of so-called “safe spaces” and “no-platforming” on university campuses. It was good for students to sit in a classroom with those with whom they disagreed. “It may be that middle-class children have been too cosseted by their professional parents … and it may be in part accentuated in social media where we tend to operate within an echo chamber of like-minded people.”