Reflections on the past academic year

Martin Williams - outside head and shoulder photo

As the academic year draws to a close and we all look forward to some well-deserved time for research, conferences and vacations, I wanted to reflect on just a few of the many education initiatives and issues that have come across my desk this year, and to take the opportunity to thank all colleagues for their commitment to students over the past year.

Acknowledging the challenging backdrop of the past academic year, including the current UCU marking and assessment boycott, colleagues across the collegiate university have, as ever, worked together to ensure that our students receive the best possible teaching and learning experience during their time at Oxford.

Access and Diversity

We have seen continued progress with our access and diversity agenda. A key milestone has been the selection of the first cohort of students for the Astrophoria Foundation Year, who will be joining us from late September. I want to acknowledge here the enormous achievements of the programme director Jo Begbie and her team, and the many staff in departments and colleges who have worked so hard to put the necessary processes and syllabuses in place.

We’ve been able to welcome a really inspiring cohort of displaced Ukrainian graduate scholars to Oxford over the past year and, with the support of XTX Markets, we look forward to welcoming many more next year. In May 2023, I was delighted that Oxford’s work to welcome and support those who have been forcibly displaced around the world was recognised when we were granted University of Sanctuary status. We’ve also seen the first year of our exciting programme for African Masters scholars supported by the Mastercard Foundation.

There remains a lot to do – for instance, our flagship Academic Futures graduate access scheme is having a positive impact, but urgently needs stable funding to enable it to reach many more students. 

Digital Education Strategy

Earlier this year Council approved the University’s second Digital Education Strategy, covering the period 2023-27. This sets out our ambitions for using digital tools to support innovation, inclusion and global reach of Oxford’s educational opportunities, and ensure that we continue to offer an excellent academic experience for all our students. The objectives will be delivered through funding coming from the University’s Digital Transformation programme. I have heard the dissatisfaction with some of the recently introduced digital tools, and want to make sure that future systems better meet the needs of staff and students. To this end, we will be adopting new modes of governance and implementation, with the aim of bringing more academics and students into the development and decision-making processes.

The emergence of ChatGPT earlier this academic year has, of course, sent ripples through academia. The early fear over the threat to academic integrity has not entirely dissipated, but we are now developing a more nuanced understanding of what AI can and can’t do, and of the positive opportunities that it can bring. This is going to be a fast-moving and important area of education policy over the coming years, but with our expertise in so many aspects of AI, Oxford is well placed to navigate through this.


We are in a period of rapid transition of modes of assessment. In the past year, while a number of subjects have retained the open-book formats that were forced on them in the pandemic, most exams have reverted back to their pre-pandemic format. This year, we have successfully run typed invigilated exams at large scale – over 5000 sittings – and we will be scaling up this approach next year.

However, there is some evidence that our traditional modes of assessment contribute to attainment gaps between men and women, which have been so difficult to eradicate. With the experience of the pandemic behind us and the growing influence of AI ahead, now is a good time to think deeply about what we are trying to achieve through our assessment of students, and how best to do it. Many subjects are embracing this challenge already. The Centre for Teaching and Learning offers a consultancy service to help departments work through their approach, which has already proved popular with several large subjects, and I hope more will take advantage of it next year.

Student wellbeing

This year has also seen significant developments in the area of student wellbeing, including the launch of the Common Approach to Student Mental Health. The approach ensures students have access to a standard provision of mental health support, whether presenting to their college or department. As part of the approach, a network of welfare leads will be introduced in every college and department.

Lastly, I want to again thank all colleagues for their commitment to students over the past year, and I wish you all a productive and enjoyable summer.