University of Oxford highlights of 2020

The far from exhaustive list that follows details some of our COVID-19-specific work, alongside the incredible achievements of those adapting to delivering business as usual, or planning a safe return to the University for both staff and students.  A scroll-through version of this message, created in Adobe Spark, is also available.


New Thank You Board 

We all know that every day there is work being done by teams and individuals that deserves recognition. This year has also helped to make us more aware that for some people everyday life presents its own difficulties, and we need to be mindful of their struggles.  

If you would like to acknowledge the exceptional work of your colleagues, please look out for a new online Thank You Board from Human Resources on the Staff Gateway in 2021. This will allow employees to post messages showing their gratitude to their colleagues for their valued help and support. 


  • The Oxford vaccine, developed jointly with AstraZeneca in record time, is easily manufactured and can be distributed using existing health care routes
  •  International agreements are in place to supply three billion doses of the vaccine, with access being built through more than 30 supply agreements and partner networks
  • With our goal being to create a vaccine that helps as many people as possible around the world, it can be easily distributed at fridge temperature and will be available on a not-for-profit basis during the pandemic
  • We should all have enormous pride in the work of the core Oxford team of more than 280 staff at the heart of this success – including over 50 academic authors and 65 nurses – and the many other teams across the University who have provided the project with their essential support.  

Vaccine trial participants 

Hear from two of the Oxford vaccine trial participants about what motivated them to volunteer, their experience on the trial and their hopes for the future. 

Treatments - the RECOVERY Trial

  • RECOVERY, led by the University, is the largest treatment trial in the world and has had more impact than any other clinical trial
  • It was started in just nine days and has enrolled over 20,000 patients from 176 hospitals
  • RECOVERY identified the only drug to save the lives of patients suffering from COVID-19, dexamethasone, which is now used worldwide
  • Since its announcement by the Prime Minister on 16 June, dexamethasone is estimated to have saved more than half a million lives worldwide globally.

Read more about the RECOVERY trial

Responding to  COVID-19 

Testing for COVID-19: Early Alert Service 

  • Number of cases has been contained this term with only a handful of residual cases   Although EAS testing has been restricted mainly to symptomatic cases, Christmas Travel testing shows there is no hidden reservoir of asymptomatic cases  
  • Only 46 (4%) cases in staff, with no evidence of student–staff spread 
  • Main factor in containment not testing but University-led public health response  
  • This is a great example of teamwork within the University and of NHS–University collaboration 

Return to on-site working (RTOSW) 

The RTOSW programme has highlighted the commitment and dedication of University staff across departments, divisions, professional services and colleges, who pulled together to ensure the ongoing operational business of the University in a new and unexpected environment.

Health Campaign 

For this 2020/21 academic year, the University has worked intensively to put in place measures that will minimise the risks to staff and students. The Health Communications Working Group (HCWG) initiated and coordinated health campaign messaging that encompassed testing, protective practices and health and welfare measures. Here is a snapshot of the campaign successes. 


COVID-19 hardship funding 

The University has set up a dedicated staff COVID-19 hardship fund to run alongside the existing Littlemore Trust (available at all times) to help employees in financial need at this time. Hardship funding is also available to assist students and postgraduate research students who have faced disadvantage or disruption as a result of COVID-19. 

COVID communications 

COVID conversations and the Oxford at Home lectures kept many of us informed and entertained during the first lockdown in the spring, and attracted large audiences. The COVID Conversations reached a total of 2,272,874 social newsfeeds; the figure for Oxford at Home was 1,765,955. 

  • Catch up with the latest CASE Gold Award winning Futuremakers podcast, this time looking at the The History of Pandemics

Keeping Oxford Reading

In 2020 the Bodleian Libraries brought more resources online, successfully rolled out the popular Click & Collect Service and most recently launched a new SpaceFinder tool to allow readers to check space availability when booking a space in the reading rooms.

External recognition and academic awards  

University Rankings 

Oxford was ranked number 1 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the fifth consecutive year. In addition, Oxford was awarded University of the Year by the Sunday Times and the top spot in The Guardian university rankings. Our placing in the international QS rankings makes us the highest-ranked university in the world outside of the United States. 

Nobel Prize in Physics  

This year’s Physics prize was awarded to Roger Penrose, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics and Fellow of Wadham (together with Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez), for his work on black holes.   

New Year’s Honours  

Seven members of the University received an award for their outstanding work in the Queen’s Honours, which celebrate the achievements of extraordinary people across the UK.

Royal Society Awards  

Four Oxford researchers were recognised for their outstanding contributions to science and medicine. 

British Academy Fellowships 

Ten Oxford academics from the Humanities and Social Sciences divisions were awarded British Academy fellowships – as the institution’s incoming president declares the 2020s to be the decade of these ‘vital’ subjects.

Royal Academy of Engineering - President's Special Award 

A team of engineers from Oxford’s Department of Engineering Science and the Oxford Suzhou Centre for Advanced Research received an award for their rapid viral RNA test for COVID-19. 

Rare 2020 Rising Star Awards  

Four Oxford postgraduate students were among the winners of the 2020 Awards, which celebrate the achievements of the UK’s top ten inspirational black African and Caribbean university students. 

Philip Leverhulme prizes  

Two Oxford researchers won prestigious £100k awards to further develop their work that has already made an international impact. 

CASE Awards 

Among others, the University won the CASE Platinum Award for the transformational Impact of the Oxford Thinking Campaign.

Internal Awards

The Vice-Chancellor’s Education Awards  

New for 2020, these awards celebrate high-quality education across the collegiate University. They recognise new and innovative approaches to teaching and the steps being taken to further the educational experience of Oxford’s students.  

The Vice-Chancellor’s Diversity Awards  

The University’s second biennial VC’s Diversity Awards recognised individuals and groups who have inspired others, demonstrated leadership and made a difference to equality and diversity in the University’s working, learning and social environment. 

The Vice-Chancellor’s Innovation Awards  

These awards celebrate research-led innovation at all University levels that makes a societal or economic impact. This year’s categories: Policy Engagement, Teamwork, Building Capacity, Inspiring Leadership and Early Career Innovator. 

Environmental Sustainability Awards 

The University’s Environmental Sustainability team manages various award schemes for staff and students. They include the Green Impact and Student Switch Off engagement schemes, the Sustainability Photographer of the Year competition and the Student Union Awards. 

Apprenticeship Awards 

The University’s annual Apprenticeship Awards and Expo event celebrates the apprentices and staff undertaking Apprenticeship training to develop their careers. 

Institutional Updates

Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre  

Development is progressing on the creation of the new Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities. Key appointments have included Hopkins Architects to design the building and renowned acoustician Ian Knowles to help to develop the concert hall and "Black Box" lab for experimental performance. The first public consultation on our initial plans for this state-of-the-art facility has taken place online.

Reuben College 

The University received a landmark £80 million donation in 2020 from the Reuben Foundation to transform Oxford’s newest college and to establish a major new scholarship programme for graduate and undergraduate students

Life and Mind building  

Demolition of the old Tinbergen continues, with construction of the new Life and Mind building commencing in summer 2021. The new building will provide 25% more usable space than Tinbergen and will unite the Departments of Zoology and Plant Sciences.  

Kavli Institute for NanoScience Discovery  

A new institute for nanoscience research is to open in Oxford thanks to a $10 million gift from The Kavli Foundation. It will offer a unique combination of structural biology with world-leading biochemistry, pathology, chemistry, physics, physiology and engineering.  

Environmental Sustainability 

2020 was dedicated to developing an ambitious draft Environmental Sustainability strategy for the University, aiming to achieve net zero carbon and biodiversity net gain by 2035. The strategy will reflect the University’s commitment to sustainability in research, education and operations. 

The Oxford University Gazette  

The Gazette, produced weekly during term time, celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2020. A new pictorial précis, providing a snapshot summary of each issue, is proving popular with readers. Subscribe to the précis for email updates on University business.

Equality and Diversity

Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index   

For the second year in a row, the University was named as one of the UK’s most inclusive employers for lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender staff (LGBT) by the charity Stonewall. Placed on Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index for the first time in 2019 at position 93, the 2020 list saw Oxford climb 17 places to 76.  

Women Making History  

A campaign was launched to mark the centenary of women becoming full members of the University. Online events include a panel discussion with Vice-Chancellor Professor Louise Richardson and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and a panel and Q&A event, moderated by Dr Rebecca Surender, University Advocate for Equality and Diversity and Pro-Vice-Chancellor. Digital resources have also been produced, such as a timeline of significant moments for gender equality over the last 100 years.

Oxford Living Wage  

Almost 2,000 employees at the University of Oxford received a pay rise as a result of the University signing up to pay the Oxford Living Wage from 1 August 2020.  

2020 Events:  

  • Launch of biannual Michael Dillon LGBT+ Lectures: the University, together with Frontline AIDS, launched a flagship biannual lecture series named after an Oxford alumnus and trans rights campaigner.  
  • LGBT History Month event 2020: keynote lecture by Dr Jill Liddington on Writing Anne Lister – the inspiration behind BBC’s 'Gentleman Jack' series.  
  • Annual Disability Lecture: #WhyDisabledPeopleDropOut – a reflection on the neurotypical University by Dr Kate West, a neurodivergent student-turned-academic. 
  • Black History Month LectureDiversity Activism: to do or not to do?  This year’s lecture was delivered by Margaret Casely-Hayford CBE, British lawyer, businesswoman and public figure active in the public sector.  

Race Equality Task Force  

A new Task Force was formed in November 2020 which, building on existing activities, will develop a University-wide strategy and business plan to address racial inequality within our institution. The Task Force reports to Council and comprises membership from across the collegiate University. 

Equality concerns regarding the COVID-19 response   

The University has sought to ensure that all aspects of equality and diversity have been fully considered in its response to the pandemic, and  has put in place a range of measures to mitigate its negative impacts. 

Research and Innovation

Oxford is renowned for its world-class research and innovation, and our groundbreaking COVID-19 research has attracted global interest throughout the year. Alongside this life-saving work we have continued to share our rich and diverse research findings throughout 2020.

This year, Oxford University Innovation produced its 200th spin-out company. Together these have raised  £3.2 billion in external investment since 2011, £856 million in the last 12 months alone. 

Here is just a small selection of our research news that hit the headlines: 


Visit our Research page to keep updated with Oxford research 


Remote teaching and assessment   

  • Resources developed by the Centre for Teaching and Learning to support flexible and inclusive teaching
  • Enhancements made to Canvas to support increased levels of remote learning  
  • To date, over 23,000 open-book exam sittings across over 1,100 exam papers  
  •  Innovation in hybrid online/in-person teaching (supported by significant investment in the Saïd Business School and the Blavatnik School of Government  

  Online admissions and outreach  

  • Supporting applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, after A-level results were released 
  • Moving outreach activities online – including the UNIQ and UNIQ+ and Target Oxbridge 2020 
  • Conducting the inaugural Opportunity Oxford bridging programme in-person in September, with over 100 participants  

Supporting students  

  • Collaborative working between the University, colleges and Oxford SU to make students’ experience as positive as possible, within the constraints of the pandemic  
  • Developing guidance and advice to support students continuing to take part in sports, clubs and society events, and performing arts activities  
  • The creation of the Mental Health Task Force, and resources to support students during the Christmas vacation  
  • Moving University student services to a remote format, including the Careers Service, Student Welfare and Support Services, Student Immigration and the Language Centre    

Keeping students and staff safe and well  

  • Setting up COVID-safe teaching spaces and in-person examinations, developing the Student Responsibility Agreement, and implementing case management protocols to help stop the spread of COVID-19  
  • The number of cases has decreased significantly in recent weeks, with no evidence of student-to-staff or staff-to-staff transmission.  
  • The implementation of Christmas Travel Tests – with thousands of students getting tested before leaving Oxford  


Whilst many University members are now familiar with attending meetings on Teams Live and Zoom – in November 27,400 users using chat messages and 37,000 users participating in Teams meetings – nine months ago these platforms were largely unknown.  

Event managers across the University have had to quickly adapting to move their events online – learning new skills and having to rethink every aspect of their event – no small feat! 

Benefits to online events include the low barriers to entry (time, location and cost) resulting in an increased audience reach – so hybrid events are also likely to be a bigger part of the programme going forward.   


Examples of how some of our key events have been delivered differently during 2020: 

  • Vice-Chancellor's Oration delivered live in the Sheldonian Theatre to a greatly reduced, socially distanced, mask wearing audience  
  • The Vice-Chancellor was filmed delivering the Matriculation address in an empty Sheldonian Theatre and broadcast to all our new students  
  • The Humanities Cultural Programme's planned series of events were successfully moved online – gaining more than 38,000 views from 23 countries 
  • The Meeting Minds event, usually held over a weekend in Oxford during September, pivoted to a series of online events, attracting alumni from 57 different countries –and the first alumni event ever attended for 81% of the participants
  • Open Forum with members of the senior team have experienced almost a 10-fold increase in staff attendance since delivering the events online 
  • The Romanes Lecture went online for the first time since the series origin in 1892,  delivered from our speaker’s (Rt Hon the Baroness Hale of Richmond DBE) home in Yorkshire. 
  • With museum sites closed to visitors, programmes shifted from onsite to digital and a variety of online resources were made available for the public to enjoy from home including online exhibitions, virtual tours and a diverse range of lectures.


Watch out for highlights from our Colleges early 2021