| Alison Richard
Cambridge, Sept. 16: Getting into Cambridge, confirmed recently as Britain’s top university, is getting increasingly tough but if a forthcoming visit to Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Calcutta by its vice-chancellor proves successful, this ancient seat of learning will make more room for the best and the brightest students from India.
Dr Alison Richard, 59, who has the distinction of being only the second woman to be vice-chancellor in 800 years and the first to do the job full time, will visit India from January 3-15 next year.
With her will be a senior team that is expected to include, at least, three top academics — Professor Mark Welland, director of the Nanoscience Centre; Sir Tom Blundell, the Sir William Dunn Professor of Biochemistry and chairman of the School of Biological Sciences; and Sir Christopher Bayly, the Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History at the Centre for South Asian Studies.
It would be a surprise if Professor Dame Sandra Dawson, KPMG Professor of Management at the Judge Business School, also doesn’t join the party, along with Dr Kate Pretty, Cambridge’s pro-vice chancellor with special responsibility for International Strategies and Student Recruitment.
Places at Cambridge can never be guaranteed, even for generous corporate sponsorship — and the vice-chancellor has set herself a target of raising one billion pounds by 2010 — but she is pretty confident that the pool of 170 students from India, two-thirds doing post graduate work, can be increased substantially.
“If I were guessing, my guess would be that we would see an increase in the number of students studying here from India — and I would be delighted with that,” she told The Telegraph in an exclusive interview in the vice-chancellor’s office in The Old Schools in Trinity Lane.
“There are exceptionally talented students from India, particularly in the fields of engineering, science, business, economics,” she emphasised.
Her desire to stop the most brilliant being lost to America explains why Calcutta has been added to the original itinerary of Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, where four workshops and alumni dinners are planned.
Richard, who was herself at Newham from 1966-69 and read anthropology, is keen to take in a quick tour of Presidency, Scottish Church, Brabourne, St Xavier’s and College Street if a suitable guide can be found when she is in Calcutta on January 10-11.
Meeting Santiniketan folk would be a bonus if that, too, could be arranged, she indicated, remarking with almost childlike enthusiasm: “That would be terrific. I am ready to put a lot of effort into this.”
Richard, who has been vice-chancellor since 2003 — she was enticed back from Yale where she had been Provost since 1994 – said that her carefully planned and long trip to India had “three dimensions”.
“One is quite simply a reaffirmation and celebration of Cambridge’s deep historic links to India, the continuation of those links into the present and the growth in the future,” she said.
“Second, it is an opportunity for us to connect or reconnect with alumni and friends and supporters of the university in India where Cambridge has not been as active as it could be or should be,” she went on.
“The third goal is to look for new opportunities for research partnerships and collaboration with universities, institutions, NGOs, the private sector,” she said.
The workshops will be in nanoscience and the life sciences, but there will be also be “a major conference with colleagues and a lot of cooperation and collaboration between a whole range of scholars in economics, law, history, particularly history”.
By American standards, Cambridge counts as a relatively small university. “There are just under 12,000 undergraduates and 6,000 postgraduates, the majority of whom are in PhD programmes but we also have some flourishing Masters’ programmes,” Richard said.
She recognised that Indian students were now heading to America in droves but detected an opportunity to attract some towards Cambridge (Oxford has similar ambitions).
“We know that post 9/11 the US changed its immigration laws and it was pretty much a catastrophe for universities,” she argued. “It opened up an opportunity for us to reassert our attractiveness, vitality and ties to India.”
She acknowledged: “Yes, the US is big, impressive but everybody does not want to put all of their eggs into one basket. People are looking for brilliant alternatives and we offer a brilliant alternative to the US.”
She pointed out that “67 seven per cent of overseas students are hosted by just six countries. The first of those countries is the US, the second is the UK. It has a history of empire but it is also a history of a great deal of exchange and a great deal of mutual respect and understanding. I sense that as I talk to colleagues and alumni from India. People love Cambridge and have a deep affection for this country.”
The vice-chancellor, one of whose best and enduring friends as an undergraduate was an Indian girl, Statira Guzdar (now Wadia), outlined her vision: “Across all of this is a desire to ensure that when really bright Indian students are lifting their eyes to the horizon and saying, ‘Where might I go to do my studies'’, be it as undergraduates or Masters’ or PhD students, they and their parents and their teachers all think of Cambridge.”
She is also looking for a closer engagement with the Indian private sector: “One of my hopes is that this visit to India will be an opportunity to be able to make support for Indian students studying at Cambridge an attractive opportunity for contributing to the campaign.”
An agreement with the National University of Singapore could act as a model. “Two departments of engineering at Cambridge are going to work with the NUS, helping them to recruit young academics but part of the recruitment package is that they come and spend six months or a year in a Cambridge lab. I would love to explore something like that (with India).”
She will visit the Cambridge University Press headquarters in Delhi and check the work of Cambridge Assessment, whose business in India formulating examinations is apparently “sky rocketing”.
She will also reassure Indians that “Cambridge is not abandoning Sanskrit.”
The undergraduate course has been dropped “because there were very few undergraduates who wanted to study Sanskrit. Sanskrit will be offered at the graduate level. We have extensive scholarly collections in Sanskrit and there is much more serious interest in graduate level study and having access to these extraordinary collections of writings in Sanskrit. The Indian press has been filled with hand wringing tales about Cambridge walking away from all of this and it’s not true and I am keen to get that out.”
What she really wants is collaboration between Cambridge and the Indian Institutes of Science and Technology, with whom there are agreements or MoUs — “and indeed in the field of archaeology and human evolution; the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies has interesting collaborative relationships. That, for the long haul, is absolutely where the greatest opportunity lies.”