Letter from an Indian corner in Oxford

“Every week, we get emails from Indian students. Every year, we sift through 150 short-listed applications for scholarships from India.”

Reshma Patil

The only trial of my life in this lovely place is that I have not time to write and tell you everything about all I see, hear and do…”_18 October, 1889. (From ‘An Indian Portia,’ Selected writings of Cornelia Sorabji 1866 to 1954, Edited by Kusoom Vadgama)

A black-and-white photograph of Cornelia Sorabji, the first Indian woman admitted to Oxford in 1889, hangs in a nook of the law library of Somerville, a former women’s college. Portraits of Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher share a wall in another section of the campus on Woodstock Road. Women achievers frame every wall of its dining-hall, a place that is usually a bastion of male portraits in Oxford. And one may walk on its lawns, an activity strictly banned in bigger manicured colleges of Harry Potter fame.

Over a century since Sorabji became ‘the first woman (Indian or British) to sit the examination for the degree of bachelor of civil law at Somerville College, Oxford, in 1892,’ as Vadgama wrote, Oxford is now home to 390 Indian students among the total 23,195 students from over 140 nations.

India’s student strength in the very expensive intellectual capital of the UK is fourth-highest after the US, China and Germany. But it’s still below potential; just five more students compared to Italy.

India’s diaspora in the UK comprises nearly 1.5 million people of Indian origin _  equivalent to 1.8 per cent of the population. But barely an hour-long train ride away from London, on the leafy streets of Oxford’s grand old city-centre, one is likely to bump into more American and Chinese students: 1,573 and 1,151 respectively. The decrease in Indian enrolments in the UK since 2010 is reportedly mainly due to visa and immigration restrictions, but British diplomats have been saying that the numbers can improve again. “In numbers, this meant that in 2015/16, the number of student enrolments domiciled from India was 13,150 less than in 2011/12,’’ according to an estimate of the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

“There are now more students from America studying in the UK than from India,” The Independent reported last year. “Just five years ago Indian students outnumbered their US counterparts by two to one.”

A four-year-old centre at Somerville College, established with a partnership between the Indian government and the University of Oxford, is trying to make its niche contribution to expand the Indian student community in Oxford. The Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development, launched 2013, says that it aims to support ‘exceptional Indian scholars’ to study topics relating to India’s sustainable development at Oxford and ‘translate academic ideas to the ground’.

“Every week, I get emails from students in India who are eager to study here,’’ says Sara Kalim, Director of Development at the centre. “Each year, we sift through 150 short-listed applications for Master’s to DPhil courses from students who have already been accepted into Oxford. The calibre of Indian students is always outstanding.’’

Three of its new-comers are Indian women enrolled in the Cornelia Sorabji Law Programme launched here last year. The centre offers about 10 scholarships at any time and is in ‘fund-raising mode’ to launch more scholarships for example, in environmental law.

Often almost half the Indian applicants say they are unable to make it to Oxford largely due to lack of funding.

“In the short-term, we would like to double the number of Indian students on scholarships here,’’ says Kalim. “In the long-term, we would hope to build a place to house meaningful interactions between Oxford and India.’’

The centre looks for people who are seriously interested in innovative inter-disciplinary research and in returning to India to contribute to sustainable development in the teaching, academic, research and development fields. The centre’s current research activities focus on healthcare — developing inexpensive, remote technologies to monitor and treat large numbers of Parkinson’s disease patients, for example — and on sustainable nutrition issues such as mapping the rice supply chain, marine pollution and studying the sustainability of the public distribution system.

“The natural inter-disciplinary environment of Oxford lends itself well to some of the sustainable development problems of India,’’ says Kalim. “We are a centre for India, rather than about India.”

(A more detailed version of this blog was published on IndiaSpend and also reprinted on Business Standard )


Author: reshmapatil11

Reshma Patil enjoys connecting the dots between local and global news, and India and China, after over a decade in journalism. Her years in Beijing as the first China correspondent of a leading Indian newspaper inspired her non-fiction book Strangers across the Border: Indian Encounters in Boomtown China, (HarperCollins, 2014). Narrated from Beijing to small towns, from the Myanmar border to the South China Sea coast, it was short-listed for the first book (non-fiction) prize at the 2014 Tata Literary Festival in Mumbai. She’s a fellow of the Chevening South Asia Journalism Programme (2016) and she'll spend a semester this year in Oxford on a fellowship at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.