An English Summer at Oxford

Before I left for Oxford an Indian friend queried if it was really the best way for me to spend my summer, even if I didn’t have to pay for it. After all, he argued, I wasn’t a spring chicken anymore. Many Indians have this unfortunate idea that there is an age for studies; it is a premise that needs changing.

‘What would you suggest?’ I said.

‘Mature folk like us are supposed to do a yatra of the four dhams, aren’t they?’ he suggested slyly. Dhams are holy places of special significance and a trip to the four dhams is the rough Hindu equivalent I suppose to a Catholic going to the Vatican.

‘We’re not that mature,’ I said, ‘but as it happens I am intending on going to a dham

‘And which dham is that?’

‘An English dham. Wa – Dham.’ Wadham was the name of the college I would be living in during the course of that summer.

* * *

Despite the GPS installed inside the mini-cab that I took from my hotel in Central London to reach Oxford we had to do a fair bit of up-and-down a couple of streets before we eventually found the college. One reason why this happened, I suppose, is that a lot of these ancient buildings do not carry prominent sign boards outside; it would strike a jarring, too-modern note perhaps. The names of institutions are sometimes, though not always engraved in stone, but often the carving has gone faint.

A young student at the Porters Lodge at the entrance to Wadham College helped me to find my living quarters. I was thankful that she volunteered because as we reached the staircase that led up to my accommodation, she took charge of one of my suitcases and the two of us, baggage in hand had to trudge up three floors on a very narrow staircase to find a room that was half the size of student accommodation provided by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government at the time I studied there. But I guess the Americans have a much more spacious country, and the knowledge that I would be dining and living inside a 16th century edifice where many illustrious people had lived, taught and studied more than made up for somewhat cramped quarters.

‘It’s a bit like going into a cave, isn’t it?’ said Jane, the young blonde girl who helped me, ‘but the thing is that they can’t do much refurbishment here. It would risk damaging the structure, you see.’ She wrinkled her nose. ‘They can’t do much about the plumbing either.’

After I’d unpacked and made myself a cup of tea with the aid of a primitive looking kettle in the room (I suppose that could have been modernized) I left the college and made my way to the Refugee Studies Centre, part of the Department of International Development at Oxford, which was running the course I had come to attend.

* * *

Many of my co-participants had already arrived and registered, but they were still milling around to meet the rest of us. Heidi El-Megrisi the Summer School and Conferences Manager with her sunny disposition and helpful nature was there to greet us. As we, the students got introduced to each other, I quickly understood two things. Firstly, most of the participants on the course had been working for at least a few years and secondly, very many of them served with the United Nations. We were however not all birds of the same feather; there was great variation in the class in terms of age, nationalities as well as general background. We had with us, for instance, Chiaki, a young Japanese girl, barely out of her teens who fell in love with the atmosphere at university and the Oxford library. At the same time we had Lisa Kim, who worked on children’s issues in Cambodia, and her good friend Barbara who worked in Africa both of whom were in their mid to late twenties. Moving up the age and experience ladder we had an idealistic, though somewhat inflexible American professor from the Southern Methodist University, Texas (who believed, for instance, that instead of regulation there should be a blanket global ban on prostitution all across the world) as well as slightly greying Mr Yves del Monaco, a distinguished human rights activist who had started his career with Amnesty International but had gone on to work with different international organizations, including the United Nations across several continents. There was a great mix of nationalities which included, inter-alia, a Deputy Minister from Iraq, several Europeans, Africans and Americans, an extremely knowledgeable lady from the Bahamas, as well as energetic and charming Farhat from Pakistan who gave us all a high-speed but fascinating presentation on the refugee situation in Turkey. In terms of widely differing backgrounds we had a former British Chief Constable, the holder of an Order of the British Empire, as a student on the course as well as an attractive and out-of–the-box thinker in Maria Demidovic, from Belarus who spoke seven languages fluently (including Russian and Chinese) and taught management at a University in Beijing. And then there was someone whose country was actually suffering from a refugee crisis: slight, modest, scarfed but very articulate Wiaam from Syria. But I’ll stop here before this starts to look like a Who’s Who of the class of 2013.

The subject matter ‘Forced Migration’ covered within those two dull sounding words a large and fascinating terrain which encompassed refugee studies, human rights, disappearing islands, sex trafficking and so on and forth. While the United Nations is sort of center stage on many of these issues, especially agencies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) there are additionally hundreds of national and international NGO’s across the globe who work for greater justice and a better life on our planet. Some of the better heeled ones, like Aus Aid and Medicine Sans Frontiers had sponsor employees but there may have been many others who were priced out. To be fair to Oxford, the course is one of the lowest priced on offer anywhere in the University. In other words it is real value for money, provided of course that it happens to cover an area of your interest and your application is accepted.

* * *

Soon after Professor Dawn Chatty, the Director of the Refugees Studies Centre gave us an overview of the subject matter, the Director of the Summer School, Dr Matthew Gibney came up to the dais, discussed the programme, spoke about himself and introduced his colleagues one by one.

I was instantly taken back ten years to my first day at the University of Nottingham where all of us students had been introduced to the teaching faculty in a similar fashion. The same courteous English way of speaking, the same understated and self-deprecating humour, the same sly wit as for instance when Mathew introduced one of the tall lecturers as a ‘gentle giant’ and Professor Jane McAdam as the ‘best international lawyer on Refugee Law in the world’ (which is very possibly true, by the way).

Why did I suppose, I told myself, Oxford would be so very different from Nottingham? They were both British Universities and Nottingham was among the highly rated ones, even if it wasn’t at the very top. It may have been because in India there is often a huge difference between the quality of education between say a provincial university, and say one of the IIT’s or IIM’s. Not so in the UK. There will of course be differences between say a Polytechnic and a University in England but if you have University status, a certain edge to the quality to the education that is imparted is more or less guaranteed. And this is I suppose the reason why for many decades British Universities have been drawing in students in their thousands from across the world – and continue to do so.

For the summer school at Oxford there was a certain structure or design to our course. We were all divided into five groups of eight to ten students and each group had one of the senior lecturers or professors acting as a tutor. We all discussed similar things in our respective groups and kept coming together for plenaries which were attended by everyone.

This design was not without flaws, although overall it had more advantages than disadvantages. The chief flaw, as I see it, was that all our tutors were not similarly qualified, and yet they had to teach us the same stuff. Let me explain what I mean here. My own tutor was a kind, though formidable lady who was a psychologist by training, while another group had a highly regarded and extremely erudite law professor as the tutor. So while I may have gained extra insights into the sufferings of refugee populations as a result of my tutor’s background, at the same time I possibly lost out on developing a more sophisticated understanding of the international legal architecture that exists to protect refugee rights. Overall though, as I’ve mentioned there were more pluses than minuses to the design. I can think of two clear advantages.

Firstly, since our groups were so small, this approach made sure that each student participated, and that no one was left out. I remember a tall, young Dutch girl who was shy of public speaking. Because of the smallness of our group and encouragement from group members by the end of the course she had managed to overcome her reticence and turned into a confident speaker.

Secondly this division into groups was very useful for a series of planned exercises in which our groups took different roles. For instance an exercise was planned which envisaged a sudden refugee crisis developing in Country X, such as happened in Syria. Now in most such cases apart from the big powers and countries in the region who get involved, at the ground level in order to deal with the crisis there are a few principal actors who engage with each other. What followed was therefore was a partially scripted and play-acted interaction between a national military, international and national NGO’s representing refugees, and of course the refugees themselves, with each group given a particular role to play. I can believe that the exercise was indeed very useful for younger participants such as Chiaki who didn’t have much field experience. This wasn’t possibly as relevant for seasoned professionals like Yves del Monaco, but it was entertaining nevertheless.

I remember an Australian classmate playing the role of a military man. He may have intended to be overly realistic or possibly even have meant to caricature a man in the forces, but his tough and nasty attitude had the unintended consequence of getting some of the human rights girls really upset, despite their knowing it was all theatre. Poor Harry! He never heard the end of it. In real life Harry works for the rights of refugees.

As our studies commenced I started to realize that there was after all a difference between studying at a university such as Oxford and some other British university. For one thing, the wonderful ambience at Oxford, the way being surrounded by those wonderfully ancient buildings affects you, contributes in some strange mystical way to the development of your creative imagination; it became clear to me why Tolkien could have created his fantasy world only in such a place. There is also this fact that very many of the professors at Oxford have authored great books and produced world class research, and as a student you have the opportunity to engage with them. I imagine that there was, possibly, one other big difference between the University of Oxford, and most other British universities and this was the role of the tutor.

When I did my Masters at Nottingham a tutor was assigned to me who was supposed to guide me through the process of preparing and eventually submitting a ten thousand word dissertation. I had come to Nottingham as a mature student with years of work experience and had already published two books, so although I loved the seminar style classes which encouraged critical thinking, particularly those conducted by Professor DJ Harris, as far as my mini thesis was concerned I was not really looking forward to much supervision. To my surprise, my assigned tutor himself told me during the course of our very first private meeting with him, which lasted all of five minutes, that there was really no need for us to meet every week.

‘Come if you wish to,’ he said, the lack of enthusiasm apparent in his tone. ‘You don’t really need to!’

I never met him again as part of a tutor-tutee relationship, not even at the time I was finalizing my dissertation. And honestly, I was happy with this arrangement. To be fair to my tutor, it may be that he had sensed that I didn’t really need supervision from him, and he might have been treating other younger students differently.

Not necessarily though. At the time, Gwen, a young Chinese-Malaysian friend of mine was doing her PhD at a University not far from Nottingham. She was doing her research in the medical field and had paid a whopping sum of money by way of fees, more than say a PhD in the social sciences would have cost her, since her research required a fair amount of lab work. She was deeply disappointed with the entire PhD process. ‘You know, Raj,’ she confided in me one day. ‘My parents have paid all this sum of money for my PhD. What am I getting out of it? I meet my tutor once a month. And that too for fifteen minutes. And guess what? Out of those fifteen minutes we spend ten minutes talking about something else. Sometimes he asks me to come and meet him at the pub – and it’s so noisy there we can hardly ever properly discuss my work.’ She screwed up her face in thought. ‘What am I getting for all the money I’ve spent? Ten minutes of conversation every month. All right I can attend the classes that the Masters students go in for – they allow us such a privilege, but that’s not really for me. It’s also true that I have access to a fantastic library that I wouldn’t have had back home. Yet, how much should a library membership cost?’

I understood Gwen’s disappointment. She was certainly not alone in this regard. Narendra L., an old friend with whom I had studied at Delhi University registered for a PhD in Management at the London School of Economics, and spoke of having had a similar experience there. ‘My guide,’ my friend told me, ‘said to me at our very first meeting – “Okay, well….you know what your topic is. I suggest you just go ahead and write it up.” None of the long chats and mentoring that he was expecting. Narendra was stunned. After a year and a half he withdrew and shifted to a different British university but only after receiving assurances that at that other institution there would be closer and more intimate (sic) dealings with his supervisor.

To be fair to the British system, Indian universities are at the other extreme. Professors who act as guides at Indian universities exert far too much power over their students and are often excessively controlling; there exist innumerable horror stories about how students are exploited. All this is far less likely to happen in a Western milieu. I myself was an exception to the general student who comes from a developing country, many of whom might wish for or expect some kind of mentoring process and guidance from their assigned tutor. This is all too often lacking in many British Universities. Perhaps a balance needs to be struck. The professors in UK universities who are acting as research guides need to be more involved with their student’s projects; on the other hand in developing societies professors supervising theses need to be be less paternalistic in their attitude and encourage student-researchers to be more independent minded.

This brings me back to Oxford. Here the role of the tutor seemed to be different from that in most other British universities. The tutors here, I found, were rather more involved with their tutees. Even the University as a whole gets more involved with their students. A comparison from India comes to my mind. Many years previously, at Hindu College, Delhi University where I did my graduation, the college administration and teachers pretty much left the students free to do their own thing. On the other hand I noticed that the administration of St Stephens, ‘the college across the road,’ kept a close watch (much too close it seemed to all of us ‘freedom lovers’ at Hindu) over what their students were up to and kept them on a tighter leash.

Does Oxford pay higher amounts to their teaching staff to ensure that they tutor more rigorously? All over the world professors are remunerated for every bit of supervision they undertake, so this might not be the only factor. The real reason I suspect is the number of expatriate VIP students that gain admission to universities like Oxford or Cambridge.

Sample this. In 1996, around the time I studied at Nottingham the Guardian newspaper carried a story about Suharto Junior, son of the Indonesian dictator, who was studying at Cambridge. This fact was in itself not very remarkable as there are numerous such VIP progenies. What made the news was the story about how the young lad had chartered a flight and taken his entire class with him to Jakarta, Indonesia to celebrate his birthday! Suharto Junior is a symbol of the kind of young VIP’s from developing countries that elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge are swarming with. Oxford sets extremely high standards for admission as far as the British schoolboys are concerned who are required to get high grades to secure a place. At the same time, the University, together with Cambridge is rather more flexible when it comes to the admission of overseas students. Merit at home, feudalism overseas? As far as the children of third world students are concerned, leaving aside those who are especially meritorious and came in on a scholarship, the list of the parents of other fee-paying students reads possibly like a Who’s Who of the world. You have the children of prime ministers, presidents, big industrialists and other such global celebrities all studying at places like Oxford and Cambridge.

Many of these young VIP’s are conscious of their status. Some like Suharto Junior would qualify as spoilt brats, and with their first taste of freedom from family restrictions and ultra-conservative societies might just go off the rails. It is not a case of the foreign students alone though. Even within the UK, there are very many children of the British elite who have studied in the top schools, places like Harrow and Eton, who later gain admission to Oxford and Cambridge. And these children too, not so very differently from third world elite progenies perhaps, grow up in a relatively protected environment. So Oxford and Cambridge in a sense have over the centuries shaped themselves to receive and prepare these students, both domestic and foreigners, including many from elite and super elite backgrounds for their responsible transition into adult life.

So…the University has to be just that extra bit careful and paternalistic towards their students as compared with one of the more regular British universities.

* * *

What is there to do over the weekend at Oxford when there are no classes? You can listen to some organ music at one of the historic chapels if you are so inclined or take in a Shakespearian tragedy at the local theatre, or have lunch at prominent Indian restaurant adorned with photographs of the proprietor posing with visiting prime ministers and presidents who have chosen to give the place their custom. I spotted a youngish-looking Bill Clinton and Benazir Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari among others. There is even a castle in the neighborhood that is worth visiting. Such highbrow options apart, if you are at Oxford and are even remotely fond of shopping, you must absolutely visit Bicester Village. It’s a very different shopping experience for the Village is not a Mall. There are shops laid out one after the other like several High Streets merged into one. It’s also very convenient to visit Bicester from Oxford for there is a train which goes there and will deposit you outside the village in less than thirty minutes. When I visited the return ticket was less than two pounds, possibly the cheapest train journey anyone can have in England. It’s possible that the shopping association of Bicester subsidizes the ticket, though this could not be confirmed to me.

The train was not crowded, but there were a disproportionate number of Chinese passengers travelling with me. Of course the Chinese are as fond of shopping as any other nationality, but there must be a special draw to the place, I told myself. It turned out that in Bicester you can get great discounts for branded items and the Chinese are even crazier than the British about getting a bargain. I heard stories about instances where Chinese tourists flying into London have boarded a bus from Heathrow and headed straight to Bicester Village though this might be an exaggeration.

The week before I went to Bicester though there had been apparently some kind of a fracas at the Village. A particular company made highly exclusive ladies handbags. A group of Chinese tourists came in and wanted to buy twenty of them. The shop did have twenty in stock but was willing to sell only twelve. The Chinese visitors perceived this to be a case of rank and clear discrimination. The truth, I was told by an old Indian friend who lives in the vicinity, was otherwise. This particular company had left instructions with the retailers not to sell too many of those bags too soon as their marketing people felt this would impact negatively on the exclusivity of their brand. It took quite a bit of explaining to pacify the Chinese, and it’s doubtful if they were fully satisfied with the explanation. Moral of the story: Don’t keep things in your shop which are on display and which you are not prepared to sell. There are good chances are your reticence to sell will be misunderstood, and appear incomprehensible and insulting.

I explored shopping but didn’t buy much. To my surprise I found Chinese shop assistants in several shops. Shoppers I could understand, but shop assistants? Was this an instance of reverse colonization taking place? The two were inter-related my Indian friend explained to me. Having a Chinese shop assistant could be useful if many of your potential customers where Chinese and spoke little English. And where could you find such young and pleasant speaking shop assistants who spoke both Chinese and English? They were all Chinese students studying at British institutions of higher learning who worked on the weekends to earn a bit of money; a few were even from Oxford.

I bought myself a pair of branded sunglasses for forty pounds – it would not look good to say you went to Bicester and came back empty handed – and soaked in the sunshine and holiday atmosphere. It is fitting perhaps that Bicester is near Oxford as its general ambience blends in with that of the university town more than would, say, that of a high rise shopping mall. I’m not much of a shopper myself and steer clear of glitzy, crowded, multistoried affairs, but I would happily visit Bicester again.

* * *

How do the best of the British universities compare with the best in the US? In other words how does Oxford compare with Harvard? My own view is that Harvard trumps Oxford in terms of the quality of its teaching, though not necessarily in terms of how knowledgeable the professors are. The academic staff at Oxford is possibly even a shade more meticulous, more research oriented, more scholarly than their Americans counterparts are. Part of the explanation for this difference is clearly cultural. On an American university campus everyone is ‘how you doing’ you, whereas the British tend to be more reserved, though they are possibly more sincere once you get to know them properly.

The answer to the question: which university system is better, the British or the American is not a simple or easy one. When I was at Harvard one of my professors told of a campus joke about how students at that university never ever gave a straight answer, countering all queries with an ambiguous response, something like: ‘It depends …’ In this case however ‘it depends’ is actually the right answer. I would say that it all depends on what you are planning to study. It is often said, and I would tend to agree with this view, that if you wish to study History, goes to a Cambridge or Oxford. Why? Well, for one thing the universities themselves are stepped in such history; the United States itself is a relatively new entity. Secondly, given its super power status the US (and this includes its universities) cannot be perhaps as objective as the Brits, especially with regard to relatively recent historical events. If, on the other hand, you wish to do an MBA, do it in the US. The way Americans merge their more practical outlook and hands on lessons into academic discorse could make the MBA at one of the high ranking US universities more useful.

As regards the summer school itself that I was fortunate to attend I do recommend it very highly. Where else in the world can you find such a combination of distinguished experts in the field? Aside from lectures from extremely knowledgeable professors, we also had excellent presentations from practitioners who absolutely knew what they were talking about. Three such persons immediately come to my mind. We had Professor Bridget Anderson who came in to give a riveting talk on sex trafficking. On the issue of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP’s) we had presentations by practitioners as well as global authorities on the subject. We heard a talk by Dr Walter Kealin, formerly a Special Rapporteur on IDP’s and if that wasn’t enough we had another session with Dr Chaloka Beyani, the current Special Rapporteur. Dr Chaloka was an Oxford alumnus himself and could not have possibly refused his alma mater. He struck me as a person with genuine humility despite his learning and achievements.

I enjoyed my time at Oxford so much that I would not actually mind doing a second round, (only my organization would, alas, be unlikely to sponsor me for a repeat session). I have recommended the course to very many people including an old friend and colleague, Nasser Zakr, who currently oversees rule of law issues in the north of conflict ridden and troubled Mali. Nasser is on his way to participate in the 2014 session due to start in a few days. It will be interesting for me to learn about his impressions, and for us to swap notes.


More by :  Rajesh Talwar

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