United Kingdom

Head of universities watchdog warns Oxford dons to 'leave personal politics at home'

The head of the universities watchdog has blasted the Oxford dons who are threatening a boycott over the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oriel College and urged them to 'leave personal politics at home'.

Lord Wharton has said the dons are prioritising 'high-flown rhetoric' over the students' education as a group of professors have threatened to abstain from giving tutorials at the college until the statue of the imperialist is removed. 

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, the former Conservative MP said the threat was 'baffling and inexcusable' and would set a 'deeply concerning precedent'.

Pictured: Lord Wharton, chair of the Office for Students, has blasted the boycott threats made by a group of dons at Oxford University and warned them to 'leave personal politics at home'

He said: 'This is an abuse of their privileged status and is at the expense of students. 

'I wonder how many working people would threaten to effectively work to rule to change the building or logo of their employer.

'Many ordinary people will find it baffling and inexcusable, doubly so in such challenging times.

'A boycott would risk disrupting the education of Oriel's students after a challenging year, damage the chances of disadvantaged students getting to Oxford, and set a deeply concerning precedent.'

Oxford University descended into civil war earlier this week after academics urged colleagues to 'boycott' Oriel College over its refusal to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes.

In an unprecedented move, dons led by Professor Kate Tunstall – the head of another Oxford college – called on staff to stop holding tutorials for Oriel students until the monument to the colonialist is removed.

In an unprecedented move earlier this week, a group of professors called on staff to stop holding tutorials for Oriel students until the monument to the colonialist (pictured) is removed

While they will still give lectures, the 'work to rule' will see staff deny the college's 300 undergraduates the chance for in-depth discussion in small groups or one-to-one sessions.

One senior don told the Daily Mail: 'This is despicable and mean-minded.

'It is unprecedented for the head of one college to attack and detract from the teaching of students at another college.

'This is politics based on ignorance and bias, and should have nothing to do with Oxford or any other university, where the principal aim should be to educate students and not damage their learning through left-biased agitation.'

Yesterday, it emerged that several of the professors who were backing the boycott are benefiting from financial legacies built on forced labour as they were accused of 'biting the hand that feeds them'.

Four of the dons have received funding from the Leverhulme Trust, created with funding from Lord Leverhulme, a soap magnate who established plantations in the 1910s in the Belgian Congo.

One senior don told the Daily Mail: 'This is despicable and mean-minded. It is unprecedented for the head of one college to attack and detract from the teaching of students at another college. This is politics based on ignorance and bias, and should have nothing to do with Oxford or any other university, where the principal aim should be to educate students and not damage their learning through left-biased agitation'

A historian told The Telegraph that Leverhulme's 'private kingdom' in the African nation, which was then under Belgium's colonial rule, was 'reliant on the horrific Belgian system of forced labour, a programme that reduced the population of Congo by half and accounted for more deaths than the Nazi Holocaust'.

Others disagree and claim Leverhulme was more progressive than other leading industrialists of his time.

Among the boycotting professors are Dr Dan Hodgkinson and Dr Zoe Cormack, who are beneficiaries of the Leverhulme Early Career Fellows.

Last month saw Oriel reject calls to tear down the statue of Rhodes, after an independent commission produced a 144-page report on the isssue following a long-running Rhodes Must Fall campaign.

An Oxford student in the 1870s, Rhodes left money to Oriel on his death in 1902 and his statue stands on the college's building on Oxford High Street.

An imperialist, businessman and politician, he played a dominant role in southern Africa in the late 19th century, driving the annexation of vast swathes of land.

More than 1,400 people wrote to the independent commission with their views, including alumni who said removing Rhodes's statue would amount to 'censoring the past' and 'erasing history'.

The commission ultimately recommended that the statue be removed – but also highlighted how challenging it would be to conduct such work on a Grade II listed building.

In addition to the cost, such changes would also require permission from Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary.

Previous vows from ministers to protect statues from 'baying mobs' suggest any moves to remove Rhodes would be blocked by the Government.

Following Oriel's decision to keep the statue, college provost Lord Mendoza insisted any money needed to pay for its removal – and associated legal challenges – would be better spent on students.

But Professor Tunstall, interim provost of Worcester College, is among Oxford academics who invited colleagues to sign a 'statement of a boycott of Oriel College'.

Their joint declaration states: 'Faced with Oriel's stubborn attachment to a statue that glorifies colonialism and the wealth it produced for the College, we feel we have no choice but to withdraw all discretionary work and goodwill collaborations.'

'Oriel's decision undermines us all': What the incendiary petition says

The Collegiate University can only effectively and credibly work to eradicate racism and address the ongoing effects of colonialism today if all the Colleges do so. 

Oriel College's decision not to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes undermines us all. 

Faced with Oriel's stubborn attachment to a statue that glorifies colonialism and the wealth it produced for the College, we feel we have no choice but to withdraw all discretionary work and goodwill collaborations. 

With regret, then, we, the undersigned, agree that until Oriel makes a credible public commitment to remove the statue, we shall:

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