For the first time since the year 1230, when Oxford University made its first record of a vice-chancellor, the University has appointed a woman to the top job. ‘I look forward to the day when a woman being appointed isn’t in itself news,’ Professor Louise Richardson says. Quite right, but in the still male-dominated world of academia, her appointment IS momentous news. As she comments, ‘Unfortunately, academia like most professions is pyramid-shaped – the higher up you go the fewer women there are.’ She hopes her appointment will inspire current and future female undergraduates, and is determined to improve gender equality at the University.
Oxford’s rival, Cambridge, appointed its first female vice-chancellor, Dame Alison Richard, in 2003. Oxford has always tended to be one of the more traditional academic institutions when it comes to change. It took until 1920 for it to agree to award degrees to women, compared with London University which admitted women in 1878. By the 1980s, the undergraduate bias was still one-third women to two-thirds men. Today, the University clings to outdated traditions born of ancient, public school life such as all-male dining clubs, and studies as late as 2009 found that women were less likely than men to be offered a place at Oxford even when they had better grades and were from similar backgrounds. It remains the fact that only 45% of its undergraduates are women.
Equality of access
Professor Richardson has led St. Andrews University since 2009, and before that held several high-profile positions at Harvard. She is an internationally renowned scholar and expert in the growth of terrorist movements. But what makes her particularly interesting is that she came from a family without any academic background. Born in 1958 in County Waterford, southern Ireland, one of seven children, she told The Guardian newspaper: ‘My parents did not go to college, most of my siblings did not go to college. The trajectory of my life has been made possible by education. So I am utterly committed to others having the same opportunity I have had.’
She therefore wants to improve Oxford’s admission of undergraduates from poorer backgrounds and state schools. Despite years of trying to change the balance, more than 40% of the University’s annual undergraduate intake remains privately educated, far in excess of the proportion in the wider UK population. How Professor Richardson will tackle this inequality remains to be seen, but it won’t be easy: the fact is that pupils from independent schools get better A-level grades, so tend to take up a disproportionate number of places at the top universities. But then again, Cambridge has been much more successful recently in improving the proportion of state pupils among its students. It is surely critical that our very top universities provide true opportunities for people from every background to attain the highest academic achievement.
Richardson also takes on the thorny issue of funding. The current Oxford vice-chancellor, Professor Andrew Hamilton, said in 2013 that increasing student fees to £9,000 a year had made little difference to the University’s funding ‘chasm’ of an annual £70 million shortfall. The 24 Russell Group universities have tried to increase income by bringing in greater numbers of foreign students, who pay higher fees, doubling the number of overseas students between 2005 and 2013. This has meant the number of UK students has fallen in proportion, putting further pressure on the equality of access for students from poorer families. Professor Richardson has her work cut out.