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Oxford as Numero Uno

By Obadiah Mailafia

THE medieval city of Oxford (population 170,000), is just 92 km from London.  The Victorian English poet Matthew Arnold famously described it as the “city of dreaming spires”.  Looming large over the city is the university that bears  its name, founded in the twelfth century – the oldest in the English-speaking world.

The universities of Paris Sorbonne, and Bologna, Italy, are older. The prize for the oldest in the world belongs to the Arabs who were leaders in science, mathematics and philosophy whilst Europe wallowed in the Dark Ages. The oldest continually existing university is Al-Karouin in Fez, Morocco, founded in 859; followed Al-Azhar in Cairo, founded in 970.

The University of Oxford is a leading community of scholars and researchers made up of 38 autonomous colleges. The collegiate system can sometimes be confusing to those unfamiliar with it.  A  perfect illustration would be the Nigerian federation, comprising 36 states but all of them belonging to one sovereign Federal Republic.

Applicants must be admitted both by the university and a college. The college provides residency and teaching while the university provides lectures, laboratories, libraries and other facilities. Colleges prepare students for university examinations, which in Oxford are a gruelling public exercise. There is a healthy competition among colleges to bring out the best.

Oxford and its great rival Cambridge provide perhaps the best educational experience anyone could hope to get. Each student is assigned a college tutor. Every single week undergraduates present an essay to their tutor. There is no mucking about. If you don’t measure up after persistent warnings you could be sent down.

I spent 5 of my most formative years at Oriel College, eventually earning a doctorate (DPhil) in the Politics and Economics of Development — a life-changing experience I must say. Those medieval cloisters remain for me the most ideal learning environment; an abode of enlightenment and civilisation. Everything is geared towards inspiring you to reach your highest potential.

Colour, race, parentage, nationality or religion do not matter at Oxford. What counts is your intellect and what you can bring to the table of world intellectual culture. Children of kings and queens, presidents, prime ministers, billionaires and paupers live and learn together. Oxford is full of extraordinary people.

Competition for entry is inevitably stiff. Scoring all As at school doesn’t guarantee you a place. The dons are always on the lookout for geniuses and mavericks – those unreasonable men and women who discover new frontiers and effect change in the world. Neither the Queen of England nor the British Prime Minister or his ministers can influence the admission process, unlike the norm in Nigeria. These days, Nigerian students can even buy their class of degree.

Such things are unthinkable at Oxford, where everyone is held up to the highest standards of character and virtue. An Oxford First is the ultimate Gold Standard. You cannot earn it by stealth. If an examination script is found with even one single grammatical error the candidate cannot be awarded a First.

It is by no means a perfect system. Competition to excel is  so severe that suicides and mental breakdowns do happen. A few years ago, a Chinese son of a billionaire from Hong Kong went straight from his finals paper to a bridge, plunging headlong to his death. He believed he had bungled everything, only to be awarded a posthumous First.

Sadly, African and other minorities are heavily underrepresented in the student population as well as in the professoriate. Over the last two decades, we’ve had only three dons of African/Afro-Caribbean origin: Patricia Dalley in Environmental Sciences, Raufu Mustapha in Department of Politics and Wale Adebanwi, recently appointed to the prestigious Rhodes Professorship. Raufu Mustapha tragically succumbed to cancer in August this year.

Oxford has been ranked in first place in the 2017 Global University League Table. Cambridge came in second place; followed by  California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Harvard; Princeton; Imperial College London; Chicago; and, bracketing in tenth position, University of Pennsylvania and Zurich Federal Institute of Technology.

Oxford in the old days was a citadel of class and privilege; a bastion of the aristocracy. In a way, it still is. But today’s Oxford is more about excellence and ability rather than mere swaggering snob value as some American Ivy League institutions are. The institution expects all its graduates to live by a code of chivalrous honour while pursuing excellence — serving humanity with compassion and justice.

Remarkably, the university has produced 28 Nobel laureates, 27 British prime ministers and several world leaders such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan; King Abdullah of Jordan; Solomon Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka; Malcolm Fraser of Australia; Lester Pearson of Canada; Manhoman Singh of India; Eric Williams of Trinidad and Tobago; and John Kofi Agyekum Kufuor and Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, both of Ghana.

Today’s Oxford is a world leader in medical science, computing, robotics, particle physics, engineering, and earth sciences. The World Wide Webb was founded by Oxford computer scientist Timothy John Banners-Lee. If he had insisted on keeping monopoly over his intellectual property he would have been as rich as the legendary Croesus.

Rather, he made it freely available to humanity. Some of the world’s greatest mathematicians have been Oxford people, among them Stephen Hawking, Michael Atiyah and Andrew Wiles who solved the centuries-old Fermat’s Last Theorem. Erwin Schrodinger was an Oxford man as was the even more famous Albert Einstein. Oxford jurisprudence is second to none while the university remains the philosophy and literature.

The university is also the home of the Rhodes scholarship, founded by Cecil Rhodes  to educate the brightest minds in the English-speaking world. Selection is extremely competitive. As a basic minimum, you must have a First Class degree. But you must also demonstrate exceptional potential for leadership, service and moral force of character.

A Rhodes Scholar should have the potential to become a leader in government, diplomacy, finance or science. Former US President Bill Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar, although he did not end up with a degree at Oxford. Several scholars have gone on to become senators, Supreme Court justices, captains of industry and distinguished scholars and leaders in their chosen fields.

Last week, a team of us were in Lagos to interview the 15 finalists for the West Africa Rhodes scholarship for 2018. Our Chair was Ike Chioke, CEO of investment banking outfit Afrinvest, himself a former Rhodes Scholar. The scheme had been suspended for more than two decades because the Rhodes Trust made the mistake of contracting the selection process to the Federal Ministry of Education. As you would expect, the candidates that were presented were the type that were unfit for admission even in a second-rate British university. The Rhodes Trust, in their infinite wisdom, have put together a team of men and women of high integrity, most of them Oxford graduates, to take charge of the selection process going forward.

We created a rigorous selection framework that enabled us to weed out the wheat from the chaff. Over 500 candidates applied, out of which 15 finalists emerged. On Saturday the 2nd of December, in the ornate meeting rooms of the George Hotel Ikoyi, we interviewed the finalists, ending up with two successful candidates: Toluwalase Awoyemi, 24, best graduating medical student of the University of Ibadan; and Miss Emmanuelle Afaribea Dankwa, 21, an outstanding mathematics/statistics graduate of University of Ghana Legon.

I have no doubt that these young academic ambassadors will not only acquit themselves with distinction; they will present a good image of our beloved West Africa. Floreat oxoniensis!

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