Principal's Blog: Early June

blogBowerscrop1Release of Admissions Statistics:
On 23 May, the University released admissions statistics broken down by Colleges and departments for the first time. This was widely covered on the Today programme (although it had disappeared from BBC News bulletins by midday). It hopefully got over the key message that Oxford’s statistics on BME reflect broadly the number in the population, about 18%. The voices from the University African Caribbean Society heard on Today were especially effective. The trends are encouraging. The proportion of those from state schools rose between 2013 and 2017 from 56.8% to 58.2% and those from socio-economically disadvantaged areas from 6.8% to 10.6%. More UK women than men were admitted in 2017. This statistical report is likely to be an annual event.

Equality in a University is clearly crucial – academic excellence has to be predicated on ensuring that candidates with the most potential have equal opportunity, regardless of background. If we are missing talent, we are failing to secure the most promising students. Brasenose and the wider University offers an extraordinary education for the public benefit and it is important that this goes to the most talented and committed students, not disproportionately to the already privileged or simply the best prepared. Diversity, placing a positive value on differences, is also important as it secures the best conditions for learning – students gain the benefit of a wealth of different outlooks, and learn from each other. 

We cannot however, alone as a University or College, right the wrongs of the whole education system. We too call for improvements in the education system to ensure that all students, whatever their ethnicity or background, fulfil their potential, as the current A level results suggest is failing to happen in too many cases. 

We need to consider each of the stages of the admissions process. There is an issue about the differential rates of failure to accept black British and Asian students who do apply, but that has to be seen in the context of their applying in bigger numbers for the courses which are more difficult to get into such as Economics and Management or Law (although this may point to the lack of help for pupils as to what subject to choose as well as difficulties in expanding popular courses owing to the University’s capping total undergraduate places at 3,200).

In the case of black students gaining offers of places, about one in four do not actually go to Oxford (compared with about one in ten white students). This reflects a combination of either not gaining the predicted grades, or deciding to go to a different university, or withdrawing altogether from the admissions cycle. More work needs to be done to understand what is going on here.

As a College we do a major job to reach out to potential applicants. For example, we maintain an active presence on The Student Room and help many prospective applicants who wish to post queries and seek guidance that may not readily be available at their schools. In 2017, we were in contact with over 450 state schools with around 250 visits to a school or hosting a visit here (more than the 190 days in the school year). We also write to target schools thanking them for supporting applicants and encouraging others.

We already harness the fantastic resource of our current students, and they often contact school students at an earlier point in their studies to ensure that they select the right subjects for GCSE and A level. 

Joint service with Lincoln:
On 20 May, we held the Annual Joint Service with Lincoln College for Pentecost. This year it took place in the Lincoln Chapel. The Right Rev Humphrey Southern, the Principal of Cuddesdon College, gave the Sermon. The two choirs were superb as a joint ensemble.

Euclid to Hooke: Early Science and Technology at Brasenose:
I visited this excellent exhibition which spans the College Treasury and the Smith Reading Room of the Library. It has been running since the Greenland Library Dedication and has just finished. There are a large number of early scientific books in our Collection such as Euclid’s Elementa geometriae, a book published in Venice in 1482. This was the basis for mathematical teaching for centuries to come. It was bequeathed to the College by one of our founders, William Smyth, on his death in 1514. The exhibition also showcased the Compilation de astorum Scientia published in Augsburg in 1489. This is a compilation of ten treatises collected by Leopoldus a 13th century astronomer of Arabic texts and translated into Latin. There are a dozen other works in the excellent exhibition, on which I congratulate our Library staff.

Farewell to Prof Esteves:
On 29 May, High Table was packed to say a very fond farewell to Prof Rui Esteves, one of our two Fellows in Economics for the last 11 years and Curator of the Senior Common Room for three years, who is moving to the Geneva School of Management in September. In my speech, I hazarded a goodbye in Portuguese but Prof Esteves (I believed a touch unfairly) said that my Portuguese was as good as his Latin which he had failed to master notwithstanding his long sojourn in Oxford! It was a great evening and we wish him well.

Farewell to Heads of House:
We had a Heads of House Dinner on 21 May at Jesus College to pay tribute to those College Heads who are leaving us. There are an unusual number of departures this year and each gave an excellent speech in response to “essays” written by Professor Roger Ainsworth of St Catz. We said farewell to Sir Martin Taylor FRS of Merton, Revd Dr Ralph Waller of Harris Manchester, Professor Steve Cowley FRS FREng FInstP of Corpus, Professor Keith Gull CBE, FRS of St Edmunds Hall, Professor Werner Jeanrond St Benets Hall, Moira Wallace OBE of Oriel and Baroness Helena Kennedy of Mansfield. All of them have been helpful to me from time to time in performing my role at Brasenose. It is fantastic to be able to draw on the combined wisdom and experience of so many excellent people. Amazingly, Revd Dr Ralph Waller has been at Harris Manchester since 1988 and was the person who over the years gave the speech for those leaving.

Breakfast with Brasenose:
Professor Richard Boyd spoke to about forty at the spectacular offices of MSD near Kings Cross station over breakfast. These are the offices of Tom Lillie (1986, Physiological Sciences) and we thank him very much for hosting.

Dr Boyd taught Physiology at the College from 1980 until his retirement in 2012. In 2016 he won the University of Oxford Medical Sciences Teaching Excellence Life Time Achievement Award for high quality and sustained commitment to education throughout his career.  Touchingly, he has a bookshelf in the library named after him by one of his former students who has said that he inspired a generation of BNC medics. He gave a fascinating talk about his career in which he advised that it was important to leave space for the unimportant and made a plea that teaching medicine should be about learning how to do things and not just the doing. There was a terrific discussion afterwards of life as a doctor in which almost the whole audience participated. It was great to see some of our students present as well as alumni of various ages.

Eights Week:
I gave the address to the Boat Club over breakfast on 24 May and reminded them of the years when Brasenose was supreme on the river. One of the first ever rowing competitions was in 1815 against Jesus College. In 1840 we had five in the varsity boat. In the 1850s and 1860s we were head of river in 4 successive years. For the 9 years between 1886 and 1894 we were torpids head of the river. This year the W2 and M2 boats did well. W2 had also had a great first three days, despite a changeable crew, and went into Saturday +2. However, Wolfson 3 came at them strongly and we were bumped. +1 for the week with two great bumps!

M2 got to enjoy the crowds on the Saturday as the boat ahead of them bumped out, leaving them with a long race against Regents 1 for the finish line. The row over never looked in doubt though, as our powerful crew strolled home. +1 for the week.

On 14 May the choir sung evensong at Christ Church Cathedral.

On 22 May, Katherine Noren-Curtis Head of the Disability Advice Service spoke to our regular Welfare Lunch on provision for disabled students in a wide ranging address

On 25 May, representatives of the Treasury, BEIS and HMRC visited Oxford to meet members of the Law Faculty to speak of the simplification of employment status with particular reference to issues thrown up by the so called gig economy.

On 25 May I attended the Tanner Lecture by Prof Abhijit Banerjee and Prof Esther Duflo on “Economics for the human race”. Its aim was to show that economics should be part of a broader humanist project but that connection is often lost in the oversimplified version that dominates public discourse. They engaged with immigration and myths surrounding its coverage.

Our successful College Blurbs series continues. On 30 May the SCR speaker was Dr Chrystalina Antoniades who is a lecturer in Medicine at Brasenose and presented on 'Quantifying Parkinson's disease: the OxQUIIP study' i.e. the Oxford Study of Quantification in Parkinsons, an important longitudinal survey which Chrystalina leads. It is extraordinary to realise that between 600,000 and a million people in the UK have the disease to some degree. The HCR speaker was HCR President and final year DPhil student Mehroz Ehsan who spoke about: 'The problem with a big heart'. As usual graduates dined in Hall afterwards.

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