Prof Lesley Smith on the need to attract young scholars into university teaching

Growing up in the North East, I almost never met a foreigner. That term included anyone from outside the region. Kids joining the class from down south weren’t like us; they seemed much more grown-up and worldly-wise. I vividly remember meeting my first real foreigner, my school’s new French assistant, Henri. Skinny, balding and with rabbit teeth – but the simple fact of being French made him an object of devotion for most of the girls. Poor chap!

Things could hardly be more different here in Oxford.

In my college, we regularly have students from all over mainland Europe, including Russia, from north and south America, Asia, the Middle East, Australia and Africa.

We gain from the ubiquity of the English language, which allows them to come here to study. I’m in awe of the linguistic powers of my students, who discuss complex philosophical ideas in their second, third or fourth language – English. It makes for a fascinating university experience, builds long-term international friendships, and forces us natives to re-evaluate our own views. Foreign students pay huge university fees. We’re lucky that Oxford’s prestige continues to draw them in, despite the debts they accumulate. Our reputation helps them get scholarships and bursaries to pay their way. That’s all to the good, and I’d hate us to become insular and unwelcoming. But there’s a problem with all of this.

One group is decreasing year on year: British graduate students. They simply can’t afford to come. It’s not so bad for the scientists, who can be funded by external bodies, but in humanities and social sciences, a graduate degree leaves home students with too much debt and too little chance of a job. It’s almost a decade since I supervised a British PhD student – though I’ve had new doctoral students every year.

So what? As long as they’re qualified, does it matter where our future university teachers come from? It may not – but it’s a waste of our home-grown talent.

The recent discovery of wax tablets under London mud prompted a newspaper eulogy to Dr Roger Tomlin, who had painstakingly deciphered fragmentary Roman cursive script scratched on to bits of wood. His skill has given us a whole new story of the earliest Londoners. But there’ll be no more Roger Tomlins, because no British graduate will dare to spend so many years training for such an impractical field. In future, it’ll be an Italian who tells us about our own past; they still nurture palaeography and papyrology in their universities. Several of them work in Oxford.

Selling Higher Education to the world is a British success story. But if the people working in HE are actually going to be British, we must make better provision for our graduate students. Oxford has worked very hard to build up funds to support them, but nowhere near demand.

At the same time, we pay our vice chancellor almost half a million pounds a year – an indefensible amount of money, when young scholars with doctorates teach in the university for £20 an hour. Of course it’s not the solution, but it would be a mark of solidarity if our vice chancellor gave half her salary every year to support British graduates.

That way, she’d be working not only for Oxford today, but for Oxford tomorrow, too.