Andrew Hamilton became vice-chancellor of Oxford six months ago, the first appointee never to have studied in the city of dreaming spires. He is thought to earn more than the British prime minister but also has the huge responsibility of ensuring that Oxford’s bank balance looks healthy. On a visit to Delhi, Hamilton gave his first interview to a foreign publication since taking office, telling Rashmee Roshan Lall about the cutting-edge excitement of being a world-class chemical biologist as well as top-flight university administrator. Excerpts:
You are the 271st vice-chancellor of the oldest university in the English-speaking world but only the second to be recruited externally in Oxford’s 800-year history. Are you the point then, at which tradition and modernity meet?
I’m indeed the second vice-chancellor who’s been recruited from outside of Oxford. My predecessor was from New Zealand. However, I’m the first vice-chancellor who does not have a degree from Oxford. You can say that Oxford has made quite a step forward, particularly because I have a degree from Cambridge. So it’s even more of a leap.
So would you say you’re the point at which tradition and modernity meet in Oxford?
Well, I wouldn’t say tradition and modernity. Oxford has been engaging with modernity for a very long time. You can look back over many decades and see Oxford moving very quickly. I would even say Oxford is hurtling towards the future in terms of its focus on the problems of the 21st century.
“Hurtling towards the future” almost implies a lack of control. Is one aspect of that finances – or lack of – considering you have said fluctuations in the UK’s public purse will denude Oxford’s coffers of nearly 15 million pounds? Would it help to charge overseas students more?
Oxford is certainly, like all British universities, under considerable financial pressure at the moment. The most important strategy is to diversify the income streams by being more entrepreneurial, focusing more on the opportunities to ensure that discoveries made in Oxford are turned into potential benefits for society in terms of setting up companies.
In other words, getting patents?
Yes, getting patents, getting a spin-out company. But without any question, philanthropy is playing an increasingly important role as a source of income and Oxford is in the middle of a very significant fund-raising campaign. We call it Oxford Thinking because Oxford Universityis focused on developing thought. And the final source of income, of course, will be in student fees. In Great Britain, right now there is a very major government review of funding of universities. And one of the things they will be looking at will be the potential for a change in fee that is charged to British and European Union students.
What about overseas students?
There are no specific plans to make particular changes in fees for overseas students. But we are focused on philanthropy worldwide and happy to engage in conversations with our alumni.
You mention alumni. There are just 1,100 in India. That’s not very many is it, considering Indian students have been at Oxford since 1871?
As far as our records can tell us, we have 1,100 alumni in India and they include very significant people, including your Prime Minister and Indira Gandhi and Soha Ali Khan, a Bollywood actress. We have 320 Indian students at Oxford at present.
But doesn’t it surprise you that just 1,100 Indians have been to Oxford in 139 years, considering the hold this university has on our collective imagination?
No, no, it’s a significant number. Certainly, we hope that number will increase and it’s one of the reasons that I am here. This is the first significant overseas trip that I have taken as vice-chancellor and it’s because India is going to be such an important part of Oxford’s future.
You come at a significant time for us because the Indian government wants foreign universities to come in and set up shop. Will you?
We have many links to India already but we have no plans…in the foreseeable future to establish a campus in India and we have no plans to offer degree courses anywhere other than Oxford for the time being.
Any particular reason?
Oh, I think there are many reasons. Oxford is an institution 800 years in the making and recreating the very special environment that sits in 700-year-old colleges and the living environment that they provide and that critical mass of scholars and students that is present in Oxford, that is a very hard thing to reproduce anywhere else.
Would it be accurate then to say ‘Oxford’ is not really a brand you’re interested in franchising?
Universities are much more complex than talking of hamburgers and franchises.
What about reports that Oxford has agreed to be part of Lavasa township near Pune, which is coming up through the efforts of a niche developer HCC?
We are simply in discussions with Ajit Gulabchand who runs HCC to potentially offer educational programmes at some purpose-built facility in Lavasa. At present, there are no details to describe.
To return to foreign universities entering India, can they on the terms proposed by the Indian government – no repatriation of profit?
I think there will be many opportunities for strong connection and links between universities outside India and the education of undergraduate and graduate students in India.
That means ‘no’?
No, it means there are many ways. Oxford has taken 900 years to reach the place it is now and so how the university world will evolve in India will be fascinating to watch. I can’t comment on the particular conditions of the government proposal. I have done none of the detailed studies implicit in your question because at the present time, that’s not in Oxford’s strategic plan.
Staying at the forefront of the league table is surely about more than money? With reference to Cambridge, your old university, say ‘Cambridge’ here in India and people increasingly think of Cambridge, Massachusetts. They don’t think of Cambridge, England.
As a Cambridge graduate that is a dagger in my heart. I’m not sure that’s true actually. Cambridge, Massachusetts, the last time I looked, is not a university. It’s a town, a fine town in Massachusetts.
So how do you persuade young Indians to look to Oxford?
You present Oxford for what it is – one of the great intellectual magnets of the world. To be taught by some of the leading thinkers in the world. There is nothing more profound than being taught by someone who himself has re-defined a subject, written the rules of quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, organic chemistry.