Graduates should donate to their universities every year, says Oxford’s vice-chancellor

Prof Irene Tracey said she urges her own three children to donate to their universities, 'even if it's just £5'
Prof Irene Tracey said she tells her own three children to donate to their universities, 'even if it's just £5' - LEON NEAL/GETTY IMAGES EUROPE
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Graduates should donate to their universities every year, the vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford has said as she warned institutions faced “falling to pieces” amid a funding crisis.

Prof Irene Tracey, 57, said the public had to “get behind our British universities” and said people “should give back to them”.

In an interview with The Telegraph, she said: “I keep telling my kids, ‘give back to your universities’. And even if it’s £5 a year, it doesn’t matter. It’s a vote of confidence. Because they need it.”

Prof Tracey, a neuroscientist who was admitted as Oxford’s 273rd vice-chancellor a year ago, has three children, including graduates of University College London and Durham University.

She said the “only real surprise” she had in her post last year was the realisation of “just how difficult the financial challenges” were for the higher education sector. She revealed her worries about some universities being overdependent on international students.

She said that Oxford was fortunate because the university was able to attract philanthropic donations, which totalled £222 million in the last academic year.

This meant that the university’s leaders “have not, thankfully, been driven to a model where we are dependent financially on the international fee structure”.

Prof Irene Tracey worries universities have become too dependent on international student fees
Prof Irene Tracey worries universities have become too dependent on international student fees - JOHN LAWRENCE for The Telegraph

Around a fifth of Oxford’s undergraduate students and two-thirds of its graduate students are from overseas, and bring “amazing” insights, cultures and talent, Prof Tracey said.

However, she recognised that some universities have become too dependent on them and said she worried this had created a “vulnerability in the system”.

Overseas students pay up to four times as much as British students, whose tuition fees have effectively been frozen at £9,250 since 2017.

The Russell Group estimates that universities in England made an average loss of £2,500 for every home student they educated last year.

Earlier this month, Universities UK, a lobby group for the sector, warned that large numbers of institutions risked falling into financial deficit after a recent fall in international student numbers.

Some university leaders have said that the number of international students taking up places in recent months has been lower than expected, blaming the Government’s rhetoric and a clampdown on overseas students bringing family members to the UK.

Prof Tracey said: “You can see that most universities are making a loss on every student that they’re teaching, and that money has to come from somewhere. So where does it come from? It means you don’t refurb that lab, you don’t refurb that roof, you don’t refurb that building, and you just start falling to pieces. And that’s what you’re seeing, right?”

She said there needed to be a “national conversation” about what we want from our higher education system, how it is funded, what its purpose is and what the shape and size of it should be, because the system is “creaking”.

‘Broaden things out’

Prof Tracey also called for a debate on the future of A-levels, because she believes that sixth form students have “the bandwidth to do more” than a small number of A-level subjects.

She said that Oxford has lots of students who did the International Baccalaureate instead of A-levels who have shown that they can go “deep and broad” with their education and “cope very well when they do a competitive university degree”.

“I think that our students that are in sixth form, and those that are wanting and capable to do more, have the bandwidth to do more and so therefore, we could broaden things out.”

That could mean encouraging students to do more A-level subjects, she said.

Prof Tracey studied Biochemistry at Oxford and held a postdoctoral position at Harvard before returning to Oxford in 1997 as a founding member of the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging.

The vice-chancellor has warned that students risk “deskilling” because of the divide between science and the humanities at a young age.

She said that when she ran a lab for 30 years she had to give her students books on basic English grammar and used to joke that she was running an English language lab instead of a scientific lab because “most of my time would be spent editing and correcting really bad English”.

She has launched the vice-chancellor’s colloquium at Oxford, an extra-curricular programme which offers students on any degree the opportunity to take part in seminars and projects to develop their skills in numeracy, data analysis, critical thinking and communication. The first programme is themed around climate change and does not include any additional assessment.

Prof Tracey warned that “as the world becomes more complex and data-driven”, the ability to tell a story and understand data will become more challenging.

She said that universities need to engage with school leaders about how to ensure the education system as a whole is “fit for purpose for what the world is now and going forwards”.

Robert Halfon, the universities minister, said: “We’ve kept maximum tuition fees frozen to deliver better value for students and taxpayers and we provide significant financial support to the higher education sector, plus more than £10 billion per year in tuition fee loans. The Office for Students’ latest report also showed that the overall financial position of the higher education sector remains sound.

“We are fully focused on striking the right balance between acting decisively to tackle net migration, which we are clear is far too high, and attracting the brightest students to study at our universities.”

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