Dr Alice Prochaska, Somerville Principal, delivered the opening address at the Rhodes Conference on Higher Education in Africa and Asia on 16 July.
The conference, which was organised by Professor Raj Kumar, founding Vice-Chancellor of Jindal Global University in India, focused on the future of higher education in Africa and Asia – the fundamental purposes of universities in the regions, and on how provision might be improved.
In her address, Dr Prochaska reminded delegates of “the internationalist vision and the intention to change the world for the better” that underpins the Rhodes scholarships.
She also spoke about Somerville’s own particular links to India, represented today in the establishment of the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development, and historically by such alumni as Cornelia Sorabji, the first woman to practice law in India, and Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister of India.
In a wide-ranging address, Dr Prochaska questioned the focus on league tables, and addressed the risks of commercialisation, the purpose of international partnerships in higher education, and the need to continue to prioritise research.
Following her recent experience working on the Research Excellence Framework, Dr Prochaska emphasised the difficulties in evaluating the impact of higher education. For example, there is not widespread agreement over which courses are “useful” or on which communities should be prioritised as universities seek to situate themselves internationally.
“It seems to me that one of the most important things to understand and then to measure, is the value that a university adds to the population it serves,” she said.