Speech given at a meeting of Congregation of the University of Oxford, 7 May 2019

Dr Duncan Robertson, Fellow of St Catherine’s

Vice-Chancellor, members of Congregation. I look around this room and see privilege.  Every one of us here in the Sheldonian Theatre is privileged; every member of Congregation reading the Gazette is privileged.  We are privileged not by our past but by our present: we all have the power to share in the democratic self-governance of the institution that is the Collegiate University of Oxford.

But democratic self-governance is hard.  It is time-consuming and troublesome, and is most easily left to specialists.  Specialists with a track record of delivering strategic plans at high speed.

The Vice Chancellor warned us of the dangers of high speed in her 2017 Oration, and I quote: Over 2,000 years ago Tacitus pointed out that ‘Truth is confirmed by inspection and delay; falsehood by haste and uncertainty’.

It is tempting to react quickly to short term opportunities in order to gain transient rewards, but this is, as my strategic management colleagues will confirm, often at the expense of more attractive opportunities foregone.  We must, at the very least, be able to give ad hoc proposals the service of being fully inspected.  The proposal to establish a new Society – or is it a College? – is a significant one, particularly when it is to have a distinctive culture as was the case with Templeton College before it.

The reason that an ‘education priority’ within the Strategic Plan has abruptly become a press release announcing Parks College, without the knowledge of Congregation, is that such proposals are now increasingly made without such scrutiny.  While the Strategic Plan was put to Congregation for approval, the Implementation Plan referred to within the Strategic Plan was not.  This ‘Plan within a Plan’ is administered by Programme Boards whose agenda and minutes are secret.  In short, Congregation does not know what is going on, and its ability to give informed consent is subverted.

One of the strengths of Oxford that sets it apart from its ‘competitors’ is its self-governance.  This has allowed the University to evolve and adapt to a changing environment, and mercifully not be suffocated by the latest management fads and fashions.  It is bewildering that ‘Senior Managers’ do not appear to recognize the capabilities available to them within Congregation, preferring to operate in a more comfortable ‘command and control’, top-down fashion.  If strategy is imposed, we as a University lose the ability to adapt and to take advantage of opportunities that may emerge – opportunities that may not be visible from the board room but are visible from the diversity of perspectives that each one of us holds as a unique member of Congregation.

The combined organizational capabilities of Congregation – all members of Congregation, experts in their own fields whatever they may be – are truly awe-inspiring.  It is not always easy to find consensus, but that does not mean that this University should give up and follow the lowest common denominator of managerial hubris.

Congregation must be allowed to review and guide the Legislative Proposal to create Parks College prior to giving its approval. The Strategic Plan spoke of creating a new College by 2023, not a new Society in 2019.

The Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life was established 25 years ago.  The principles of openness and accountability which it set out are as relevant now as they have ever been.  I urge you to vote against the Legislative proposal while we still have the right to exercise that privilege.

UKRI Future Leaders Fellowships Peer Review College Membership

I am very pleased to have been invited to join the Peer Review College for the UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) Future Leaders Fellowships.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) ‘is the national funding agency investing in science and research in the UK. Operating across the whole of the UK with a combined budget of more than £6 billion, UKRI brings together the 7 Research Councils, Innovate UK and Research England’.

‘The UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders Fellowships (FLF) will grow the strong supply of talented individuals needed to ensure that UK research and innovation continues to be world class.’

Accessing Academic Journal Articles when away from a University

Now is the time when students, and indeed academics, are away from universities.  From having academic journal articles at your fingertips, you can find yourself confronted by previously good natured academic publishers persuading you to part with your hard earned cash in order to access an article.

This is not a good thing.

So, from hardest to easiest, here are methods for accessing those articles.  This is for the University of Oxford, but other universities have the same setup.

University Library Journal Search

For example http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/ptfl/eresources/ejournals

Various journals have various sign in mechanisms, which is a bit of a pain, but you probably will be able to find what you are looking for here.

VPN

Many journals are accessible when connected within your university – access tends to be based on the IP address of your computer.  So, no access from outside.  To counter this, you can use a VPN – for example http://help.it.ox.ac.uk/network/vpn/index – you need to download VPN client software, and that should make it seem as though your computer is in Oxford, and you should have access.

Google Scholar

The other way of doing it is to search for the article title in Google Scholar.  See for example https://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?hl=en&q=Agent-Based+Models+and+Behavioral+Operations+Research&btnG=&as_sdt=1%2C5&as_sdtp= . The pdf link on the right should give you access.  If that doesn’t work, you can sometimes find the right version by clicking on ‘All n versions’, as one of those may be the pdf.

Google

And if that doesn’t work, just Google the name of the article followed by filetype:pdf, for example https://www.google.co.uk/search?site=&source=hp&q=Agent-Based+Models+and+Behavioral+Operations+Research+filetype%3Apdf&oq=Agent-Based+Models+and+Behavioral+Operations+Research+filetype%3Apdf

Appeal to the Author’s Vanity

And if that all fails, write to the author(s) directly.  We are vain people, and there’s nothing better than to receive a request from a student, particularly if they are genuinely interested in the work.  Just type their name into Google, and their university webpage should show you their contact email address.

The Exponential First

The first class honours degree is the ultimate prize for UK undergraduates.  It is a symbol of being the best of the best.  Undoubtedly, this is the case for some students.  Yet the statistics for the number of first class honours degrees awarded by UK Higher Education Institutions (‘universities’ to most of us) shows, well, things aren’t what they used to be.

There is a competitive problem for universities.  Undoubtedly, awarding first class degrees is attractive to students, their families, and employers.  It is a symbol of perceived quality.  And so, there is an incentive to increase the number of firsts awarded.  Which makes competitors less attractive, which leads them to award more firsts, which… well, you can see the problem.

And the figures say it all.  In the graph below, I have plotted the percentage of firsts awarded in the UK.  Over a 11 year period, this percentage has doubled.  While arguably being not quite exponential growth, the upward trajectory is clear.  Which indicates that this problem isn’t going away.

FirstGraph

But what to do?  Put a government imposed limit on the percentage of firsts allowed?  That would work, but universities would argue that they have a better intake so should be allowed to award more.  Scrap the degree classification and report marks?  That would be useful, but there is no comparison between students.  Maybe a rank position would work.  Yes, that may be the best solution.  But then how do you compare between universities?  Self-confident universities need to stand up and take the lead in declaring that their first is not the same as another university’s first.  The question is which ones – and when?