Somerville reopens today, like most of the Oxford colleges, after nearly two weeks of closure. This was my family’s first Christmas for ten years back in England, and our very first in our new home, Radcliffe House, inside the college grounds. My colleagues kindly ensured that we would be well provided for even though the rest of the college was closed: from daily deliveries of mail by the wonderful assistant maintenance manager, who looks in on the college every day to ensure all is well (and Steve brought in his six-year-old daughter Emily once or twice as well) – to the loan of a high chair from the college Nursery for our baby granddaughter Eva, and college guest rooms left ready by housekeeping staff for members of my family to spend the night when we’d used up the space in the house. Thanks to all of this it was a lovely Christmas, and made even better by the unusual spectacle of Oxford under snow. From Christ Church Meadows to the University Parks, family walks in the bright crisp air were a rare treat. Best of all was Portmeadow, which spread out before us like a scene from a Brueghel painting: people skating, people running and bicycling, families with push-chairs, horses standing in the distance; and then all of a sudden a small micro-light aircraft appeared, its bright parachute-like wing dipping over the ice and rising again, motor sputtering and its single occupant pedaling away energetically. Somehow the expanses of snow dramatised Oxford’s riches of parkland and surrounding meadow.
I have been thinking about the contrasts between this and our previous life in Connecticut. In New Haven what I missed most about England was the spring. What I have missed here is the New England days full of sunshine, which lift the spirits even in the most arctic of weather. Heavy snow in New England is an annual event of course, and once it falls it comes in superabundance and stays around for months. The northern parts of the United States are infinitely better equipped to deal with snow than we are in the United Kingdom, where this year’s stories of ice-bound airports and stranded passengers were mortifying. But the differences seemed less marked this year. There are now leaf buds on the shrubs and trees in Oxford, and miraculously the autumn snow-drops in the parks seem to have survived. But the fuschias that were still in bloom in early December in our garden have frozen to death. Spring will come soon, and with it the daffodils, crocuses and primroses that I used to miss; but it seems we will have to adapt to a stern winter, not just this year but perhaps for the foreseeable future.
The prospects for the coming academic term will occupy future posts of this blog. With offices open again, all of us who have to worry about the future of our universities will be bending our collective minds to creative ways of supporting students and mitigating the potentially disastrous effect of the drastic cuts in higher education funding. (80%? Is that possible? I can’t be the only person in UK universities who finds it difficult to believe.) My personal agenda has always included a large element of fund-raising, like that of almost everyone else in a similar position to mine. This college like many others depends on regular donations for part of its regular running costs. Like others, we are building additional accommodation to help our students avoid the high costs of living out of college for part of their undergraduate careers: each extra, subsidised college room is in effect a kind of scholarship.
But we also need to raise funds for scholarships on a completely unprecedented scale to reassure potential students that they can afford the risk of attending university in the first place. And what of the government’s plans to ‘penalise’ universities if they do not demonstrate that they are broadening access to people from the most diverse possible backgrounds? New and creative ways of demonstrating that we do indeed seek the broadest possible student body with the highest possible potential, will have to be found. New ways of persuading people (and not only from the poorest families) that the rewards of an Oxford education are worth striving for. New ways of mitigating the deficiencies of secondary schools, which themselves will be struggling even more than before. The optimists among my colleagues (and I number myself with them) anticipate some radical new configurations and creative alliances. Whatever happens, it will be a mixed and challenging spring.