The closing weeks of the Michaelmas term, followed immediately by more than two weeks of intensive work on undergraduate admissions for the autumn of 2012, created a hectic blur of activity in Somerville. Twenty-one student volunteers did a magnificent job of shepherding some one thousand interview candidates through the College, helping the Admissions Office to make each one feel welcome and ensuring they got to the right places at the right times. The main entrance hall, set up with tables, a book stall, games and jigsaw puzzles and a pretty constant supply of biscuits and chocolates, was the centre of operations. Each day as I passed through on my way to and from my study I would see a throng of new faces waiting for their interviews, some chirpy, some nervous, all pretty intently focused on what they might be asked in the ensuing hour. Over lunch one would see Fellows wilting with the effort of interviewing as many as fifty students in two days. The Oxford Admissions system is complicated, and most candidates get interviewed at more than one college. The outcome for Somerville will be a crop of about one hundred and twenty outstanding students.
Last year, my first experience of Admissions from the administrative end, I was greatly impressed with the meticulous standards we impose on ourselves and the immense care that is taken to ensure we choose students with not only the highest academic attainment but also the greatest potential. That impression holds good. I am also becoming more aware of how distinctive the student profile is at Somerville. For instance, with just short of 20% of our undergraduate students coming from outside the UK, we are distinctly more international than most Oxford colleges; a healthy indicator of diversity. Somerville is also high on the list for its proportion of students admitted from state schools. I find it intriguing, too, that we seem to end up with approximately a fifty-fifty split between male and female undergraduates each year despite the fact that we operate no quotas of any kind. More facts and figures will emerge from this year’s process in the next few weeks, but we already know that applications to Oxford declined this year by only about 0.8% (and Somerville’s figures were slightly up on last year), despite all prognostications that the new fee regime will drive people away from university. Meanwhile, my thoughts and sympathy go out to those candidates who came to Oxford full of hope and then just failed to get an offer of a place. They will surely do well elsewhere, but this is a tough time of year for all aspiring students and their families.
The fruits of our work in 2011 will include not just a new intake of students (with, we hope, more postgraduates than before) but also some stunning new research initiatives. I expect in my next blog post to be able to talk more about the Global Ocean Commission, an initiative of the Pew Environment Group in partnership with Somerville and the Adessium Foundation. It will bring a dimension of high-level international engagement to the extraordinary work that is being done in different parts of the University to tackle the urgent problems of the declining ocean environment world-wide. For Somerville it promises some fascinating openings for interdisciplinary interactions between scientists, lawyers, specialists in international relations and other fields; and significant opportunities for our students to benefit from close contact with high-level work on some of the most pressing environmental problems of our time. Meanwhile the discoveries made by Somerville Fellow Professor Alex Rogers in Antarctica have hit the headlines. During the autumn some Fellows of the College were also awarded large-scale research grants (some already announced and others coming soon) which will support their research endeavours over several years to come. There is good news for medical and biological sciences, linguistics, philosophy, history and more.