THE two most senior figures at Oxford University have waded into the row over a statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes, saying campaigners cannot "re-write history".

Speaking today at the ceremony to swear in Professor Louise Richardson as the university's new Vice-Chancellor, Chancellor Lord Patten of Barnes made a thinly-disguised attack on the campaign to remove the statue from Oriel College, which students say promotes racism.

The college is preparing to launch a consultation next month on the issue, with a plaque dedicated to Rhodes already set to go.

But in his speech to Congregation – the university's 'parliament' of dons – Lord Patten said: "Our history is not a blank page on which we can write our own version of what it should have been, according to our contemporary views and prejudices.

"We work, study and sleep in great buildings, many of which were constructed with the proceeds of activities that would be rightly condemned today.

"Because we value tolerance... we have to listen to those who presume they can re-write history within the confines of their own notion of what is politically, culturally and morally correct.

"But speaking for myself, it would be intellectually pusillanimous to listen for too long without saying what we think.

"We do not want to turn our university into a drab, bland, suburb of the soul where the diet is intellectual porridge."

His comments were backed by Prof Richardson, who in her first speech to Congregation said students needed to understand an Oxford education was "not meant to be a comfortable experience".

She added: "How do we ensure that they appreciate the value of engaging with ideas they find objectionable, trying to reason to change another's mind, while always being open to their own?

"How do we ensure that students understand the true nature of freedom of inquiry and expression? These are the questions I bring with me to this role."

Cecil Rhodes died in 1902 and left two per cent of his fortune to Oriel College, which funded a new building on High Street.

But students have demanded the college's statue of him be removed, describing the former mining magnate and politician in South Africa as a "racist and murderous colonialist".

The comments at the meeting came as Prof Richardson also used her speech to call for the university to be 'agile', adapt to new technology and continue to compete with the other top research institutions of the world.

She said: "If we can provide leaders for tomorrow who have been educated to think critically, to act ethically and always to question, these are the people who will prevent the next financial crisis.

"They will help us to grapple with the fundamental questions prompted by the accelerating pace of technological change, as we confront profound ethical choices about the prolongation and even replication of life. 

"People who will force us to confront the costs we are imposing on the next generation by our wasteful use of the earth’s resources; who will articulate our obligation to the vulnerable, the poor, the victims of war, oppression and disease, wherever they live."