Oxford: 'Once you are here, It does all it can to keep - you here'

June 4, 2004

Oxford and Wolverhampton represent opposite ends of the league tables. Claire Sanders and Tony Tysome visit them in search of common ground

* Raymond Dwek is head of the biochemistry department at Oxford University, one of the largest in Europe.

For Professor Dwek, what defines Oxford is the breadth and excellence of its research combined with the quality of teaching.

"Our undergraduates are taught by academics at the cutting edge of their field," he said.

"The quality of teaching can be seen in the quality of the undergraduates.

In the fourth year, students undertake a research project and, by the time they leave, many have already had work published."

It is crucial for the department that it gets the best students. Four members of staff look at all the applications to choose candidates for interview. The laboratories in the department take only 90 students.

Professor Dwek said: "The top ten pick themselves. They are the sort of people any top university would admit. With the rest of the applicants, we go to extraordinary lengths to ensure we spot potential."

The department has about 35 academic staff, 100 postdoctoral researchers and 150 postgraduate research students.

"At the research level, it is easy to spot the best students as they have such a track record behind them," Professor Dwek said. "But what worries me is that there are not enough coming through.

"We do our best to help graduates financially, but the debate on undergraduate finances has obscured the issues faced by some graduates."

* Fantastic facilities and cheap college food are among the benefits of undertaking a PhD at Oxford University, according to Angharad Thomas .

Ms Thomas came to Oxford after completing her first degree in medical biochemistry at Surrey University. She is now in the final year of a PhD and is a member of Worcester College.

She said: "College life is what you make of it. It can mean as much as you want it to. Some of my friends do not go into college at all."

Ms Thomas works for the Medical Research Council Unit in the department of pharmacology. Her study is funded by a scholarship worth £10,000 a year, and she pays no tax.

"It is not a lot of money. I rent a room in a house - I cannot afford to buy," she says.

To help make ends meet, Ms Thomas eats in college because it costs her very little - £2.50 for a three-course meal.

But what is central to her university life is the department - and at the heart of that is the lab.

"Our unit is very international, and the facilities are fantastic. It was the enthusiasm and commitment of the staff that attracted me," Ms Thomas said.

"I do not do any teaching - even the head of the unit does not do much teaching. The focus is research."

* Alison Kennedy  arrived at Hertford College, Oxford, from Northern Ireland three years ago.

"It is not usual to apply for Oxbridge if you are from Northern Ireland," she said, "but I was taught at school by an Oxford graduate who encouraged me to attend a Sutton Trust summer school."

Ms Kennedy applied to study French and German. Now in her final year in Nancy, France, Ms Kennedy said: "I feel I have been taught very well at Oxford. The emphasis is on independent study. I've been taught by people in the forefront of their fields."

Most Hertford students are from state schools. "I think it is easier to survive at Oxford than at other universities. Every college has a hardship fund and there are lots of college bursaries. Once you are here, it does all it can to keep you here."

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