Custodian of the ivory towers

30th June 2000 at 01:00
Oxford University vice-chancellor Colin Lucas wants only the best students - and he doesn't mind where they come from, writes Biddy Passmore

THERE must have been times in the past few weeks when Colin Lucas wished he had turned down a further three years as vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford.

His term of office has already been one of some distinction. He has steered through a major overhaul of the notoriously unwieldy management of an ancient institution. And one of his first acts on becoming vice-chancellor in 1997 was to set up and chair a working party on access that has already given rise to several initiatives aimed at broadening the intake. The proportion admitted from state schools is edging up.

All seemed set fair for him to return next year to the dream job for a serious intellectual with a taste for college conviviality: Master of Balliol. Instead, he bowed to the urgings of university colleagues and agreed to extend his term of office as vice-chancellor to 2004.

Then came the Battle of Laura, the remarks about "stuffed shirts" and "old school ties", the days when every aspect of Oxford life - and especially its system of interviewing - was held under a national searchlight.

Dr Lucas found himself on the Today programme, on BBC news and elsewhere, patiently trying to set the record straight and undo the damage inflicted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

But, if he feels the same kind of anger with the Government freely expressed by Anthony Smith, president of Magdalen, Dr Lucas does not show it. A large, calm, friendly man, who is unafraid of the press, he has left the expressions of indignation to others and concentrated instead on trying to get the facts across.

"I'm very conscious that you can - particularly from the outside - criticise what we do," he says. "But we invest an awful lot more in trying to make careful decisions about individuals than anybody else except Cambridge. It just doesn't wash to say that 'X' didn't get in because he or she was discriminated against by people trying to recruit their own like."

Dr Lucas, whose access working party considered the matter at some length, thinks that interviews should stay. "Almost any school-leaver not going on to university has to go through an interview to get a job," he points out. "And interviews are conducted with great care at Oxford. It's rare for anybody simply to be interviewed by one person - now up to six different people are offering judgments.

"The whole basis is not how much do you know but what do you do with what you know."

In line with the recommendations of his access working party, all tutors are now to be offered training in interviewing, which is governed by a code of practice, and Oxford applicants receive printed guides to interviews.

hat the university is not prepared to do is offer places just on predicted A-level results - a "fallible science", says Dr Lucas, and far more applicants get very good grades than the university has space for anyway.

He favours using as many differentiators as possible, provided the tests are sound and candidates are prepared to sit them. Oxford is piloting a test of potential that would track indicators of talent over an applicant's school career, including scholastic aptitude tests (which need interpreting just like anything else, he says).

Dr Lucas is quite familiar with the American way of college selection. When the call came to become Master of Balliol, he was dean of the University of Chicago's social sciences division, having moved to Chicago in 1990 at the age of 50, with the intention of ending his working life there.

After 17 years of teaching history at Balliol, including a spell as tutor for admissions, he had felt that he was "intellectually going to sleep" (nothing to do with Balliol, he adds hastily).

Chicago gave him the intellectual and cultural shake-up he needed. The University of Chicago he describes as "very hard-edged intellectually", and the city itself as "the best-kept secret in the United States".

He returned to Britain not only to return to collegiate life, but also to marry his second wife, an American who had lived in England for many years.

The child of an English father and French mother, Colin Lucas was largely brought up by his grandmother and won scholarships first to Sherborne School and then to Lincoln College Oxford.

He went up to Oxford intending to read modern languages but switched to history. Appropriately, his specialism is French history; he is an authority on the French revolution.

His style of administration is described by an admiring colleague as "common sense tempered with good humour". He is praised for having seen off the threat to turn Oxford into a predominantly post-graduate, research-based university. For him, the heart of Oxford University lies in its college-based tutorial system of undergraduate teaching and he has acted to

protect it.

As he wrote in The Times at the height of the Laura Spence affair, competition between universities for students, lecturers, resources and lucrative research contracts is now worldwide. Oxford is one of only a handful of British universities that can keep pace with foreign - mainly American - institutions. That is why he wants Oxford to have a reputation for being "fiercely meritocratic" and why he wants to take the best students, wherever they come from.

But his emphasis is on getting more pupils from state schools to apply, not on lowering the hurdles for them. "In the global race, we cannot afford to lower our standards," he says.

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