Cambridge comes calling with 'happening' card - Vice-chancellor on first overseas visit in 800th year stresses need to woo brightest young minds

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  • Published 10.01.09

University of Cambridge is 800 years old. The anniversary celebrations start on January 17. What was the university doing when it had turned 700?

“In the 1909 records there is no mention of the 700th year,” says professor Alicia Fettes Richard, the vice-chancellor of the university, who landed in Calcutta on Friday. The city was her first stop — she will be visiting New Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai next. The documents, instead, bear testimony to a fierce debate on whether to bring electricity to the university library.

A hundred years later, things have changed. There must be electricity in a lot of places in Cambridge. In 1909, Jawaharlal Nehru was one of the handful of Indians aspiring to Tripos; there are 290 Indians studying in Cambridge now. The university’s vice-chancellor, a woman — Cambridge opened its doors to women 130 years ago — accompanied by the deputy vice-chancellor, another woman, Dame Sandra Dawson, has come to India on her first overseas visit at the start of the anniversary year.

Richard, the first woman vice-chancellor of Cambridge and presumably one of the few vice-chancellors in the world who bicycle their way to office, was here last year too. India — and other countries — are that important for Cambridge.

A small, brisk woman with a bright smile, she stresses that she is here to build on the “Cambridge-India partnership”. Over the last decade, “the number of postgraduate students from India to Cambridge has doubled and the number of undergraduate students has risen by 50 per cent”. But obviously she wants the number to go up. She admits, though, that Cambridge needs an image makeover (not her words). Not all young people across the globe think of Cambridge as their first choice. “A youngster wants to be where things are happening.” The university, to be considered as one of the world’s top universities, needs the world’s brightest, many of who are going for higher studies now to the US, Australia and China.

“Cambridge needs to put itself on the map more,” says Richard. By using new communications technology — webcasting, podcasting and other media — to spread the message that Cambridge is willing. The future lies in “community and partnership”, in being global and glocal, in collaborating on cutting-edge projects, like the one on designing aircraft to reduce noise pollution with MIT. The university is signing an MoU with Infosys next week. (“Though I am a MoU sceptic,” says Richard, a physical anthropologist who studied complex social systems among primates.)

Technology, communications, globalisation, collaboration, revenues, numbers. Sounds like good business. What happens to someone who wants to study Keats?

If the proposal is good enough, silent aircraft and pure poetry will be treated with equal respect, Richard assures.