The realities to be tackled in this job include the scaring implications of the Browne Review of student fees and the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review. The fallout from our sharply reduced finances will occupy meetings and preoccupy some of the finest minds in Oxford administration for a long time to come. As I start on my series of one-to-one meetings with each Somerville undergraduate, I’m dismayed by the enormity of the financial hurdles many of them face now and in the future. All of us who are involved in making higher education work for the well-being of our students and the nation’s research base, face acute challenges to maintain the extraordinary quality of what we do.
Meanwhile time still rushes by, and my own experience of getting to know Oxford and Somerville fills weeks, evenings and weekends in what can sometimes seem an enjoyable blur. It’s almost impossible to believe that I have already chaired my second meeting of the college’s Governing Body and presided over my second guest night. Our finances, as presented to Governing Body with the characteristic clarity and efficiency of the college’s excellent Treasury, present a reassuring picture that may turn out to be the calm before the storm. Guest nights find the college at its most ebullient: Hall filled to overflowing with students and their guests, and fellows and our guests; this week including some of the devoted members of our Development Board, who are doing so much to help us fill the financial gaps.
This has been a more than usually musical week. On Tuesday a large group of Somervillians joined members of the House of Lords, the Security Services, the FANYs and others in St Margaret’s Westminster to commemorate the life of an extraordinary Principal, Daphne Park, Baroness Park of Monmouth, who died last March. I will always regret that I did not have the chance to know Daphne well. Her students and colleagues remember her with abiding affection, and the word that seems to spring to mind more than any other in connection with this brave, wise and redoubtable lady is Fun. It was good to hear her career in MI6 openly celebrated (though I would have loved to see the veil of discretion lifted just a little further, to be told just who Daphne’s Controller –quoted several times in the encomium – was). The singing by Dame Emma Kirkby, Somervillian extraordinaire, was sublime. We left that lovely and historic church with her perfect rendering of “Sheep Shall Safely Graze” ringing in our ears, along with the rousing tones of “Jerusalem”, which must surely have been one of the patriotic Daphne’s favourite hymns.
Later in the week came a concert by the Oxford Philomusica in the Town Hall, with a beautiful performance of Chopin’s piano concerto no. 1 in E minor by the young Russian pianist Tatiana Kolesova. And this evening another musical treat: the Somerville Choir singing Bruckner’s Virga Jesse, among other pieces, in the Chapel. The college’s choir has been going from strength to strength under the leadership of director David Crown, and is now about to make its first commercial CD, a recording of Durufle’s Requiem. Each week in term time, the Chapel hosts a different variety of service, befitting the college’s secular and non-denominational foundation, and the congregation then repairs to Hall for supper.