| Chris Patten
London, Feb.13: Forget the daunting dons and the ivory tower. When you think Oxford, picture a fun campus with modern, up-to-date courses. Even, if you so wish, think Bertie Wooster and boat race night and pinching of policemen’s helmets.
That could be the message from the Oxford chancellor when he visits India as part of his university’s war plans against the likes of Harvard and Yale.
Victory and defeat in the trans-Atlantic battle hinges on Lord Chris Patten’s success in recruiting enough Indians, but he realises his biggest hurdle is the university’s “conservative, stuffy image” in the country. The visit is meant to correct that perception.
Oxford is in a direct “fight” with its Ivy League rivals in America to lure India’s brightest students to enrol, Lord Patten told a British paper yesterday.
“We have to fight very hard to keep our position in the world league table, to stay up there with Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and MIT,” he said.
“One of the problems in India is that we have a rather conservative, stuffy image. People don’t realise the flexibility and modernity of our courses. We’re falling further and further behind the United States.”
About 17,000 Indian students arrive in Britain yearly compared with nearly 80,000 in the US, where leading colleges receive twice as much funding as their British equivalents.
But Lord Patten will take heart from figures revealed last week that show a sharp increase in Indian students coming to Britain for higher studies despite crippling fees and visa charges. Altogether 16,727 Indian students arrived in the UK in 2004-05, indicating a 14 per cent rise in inflow for two consecutive years.
Cambridge also said yesterday it was committed to attracting the best international students, though its focus has recently been more on China than India. Oxford, too, has twice as many Chinese as Indian students.
Lord Patten, a former European commissioner and governor of Hong Kong, said serious universities needed a coherent strategy for recruiting students from both India and China.
“I hope it will be the first of several visits to India and China over the next few years,” he told the paper. “I don’t think a serious university can do without a properly thought-through strategy for China and India.”
He might seriously consider the strategy of invoking Bertie Wooster’s capers on boat race night and his rather innocuous adventures with Britain’s law-enforcers, who have long enjoyed a reputation for common sense and gentleness.
The British Council believes this is a good time to promote Britain in India against competition from the US, which has become suspicious of foreign students after 9/11. “The British,” its spokesman Guy Roberts said, “have been much more measured”.
Coincidentally or not, the number of Indian students in the UK began climbing significantly soon after the Twin Tower attacks. Some officials believe that if Britain can take advantage of America’s fear of foreign students, their numbers in the UK could treble in 15 years.
Whatever Lord Patten may say, Oxford has not entirely shed its conservatism, though. Many reforms proposed by vice-chancellor John Hood to meet government demands for better governance ' such as performance appraisals of academic staff -- have met with strong resistance.
The proposed reforms also give the chancellor -- currently a figurehead -- greater powers, making him chairman of a new board of trustees.
For now, Lord Patten will visit Bangalore, Mumbai and New Delhi to meet Oxford alumni, speak at a business school seminar and discuss ways of raising more money for bursaries for Indian students. He will also co-chair his first annual meeting of the UK-India Round Table in Goa.