In her inaugural speech as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford on 12 January 2016, Professor Louise Richardson spoke passionately about the tradition and the history of this great university. The ceremony took place in the Sheldonian, Sir Christopher Wren’s great ceremonial hall, completed in 1669, a stone’s throw from the University Divinity School, which was completed in 1483, and in the heart of a city where evidence shows that university teaching has been underway since at least 1096. It is a special place to sit, and to witness the admission of the 272nd Vice-Chancellor to the university, taking on the mantle of leading one of the world’s greatest educational institutions, especially as the message from both the Chancellor, Lord Patten, and the new Vice-Chancellor, very firmly linked this tradition and history to the university’s leading-edge modernity and its international reach in today’s world.
Primarily, their message focused on the power of thought and critical reflection to push forward the boundaries of human knowledge and understanding. This, it was stressed, is part of a continuum of academic scholarship that has developed over centuries, withstanding vast historical movements, and is as relevant today as it has ever been. Central to this tradition has been the interaction of students from different national backgrounds with one another; indeed, as Professor Richardson reminded us, the first recorded student from overseas came to the university in 1190, and international students have been a vital part of the university since, as they should be in every university. She spoke passionately about the power of diversity of thought, describing her experiences teaching a Masters’ degree course on terrorism at her previous institution, the University of St Andrew’s, where it was rare for more than two students to share a nationality. “The quality of debate that takes place in a classroom in which nobody shares your assumptions, and yet everyone respects your right to an opinion, on a topic as charged as terrorism,”, she said, “is unrivalled.”, and she added: “It is exactly the kind of education we should be providing our students to prepare them to enter a globalised world.”
When different perspectives are brought together, elucidated and debated, then this assists individuals in the articulation and development of their own thinking, and it also leads to a greater appreciation of, and tolerance for, the views and attitudes of others. It creates new understandings and knowledge, and diversity of thought is a tremendously powerful stimulus in this act of creation. Moreover, as Professor Richardson reminded us, greater global mobility is enabling ever greater possibilities for pursuing these global perspectives, and this is to be welcomed with open arms.
International education is important in today’s world – and, in a technologically connected world, arguably more important than ever. When the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford stands up and says so, clearly and boldly, then every other educational institution which promotes international education and global thinking, from nursery through primary school, secondary school and beyond, including lifelong learning institutions, can be reassured that they are on exactly the right path of development.