At the helm of the largest Oxford college
Kersti Börjars studied English language and literature in Leiden. She became a professor and now she is Master of the largest college at the University of Oxford: St Catherine’s College. What impact is coronavirus having on St Catherine’s and how has she benefited from her studies in Leiden.
What is the impact of the corona crisis on your College?
‘Coronavirus has had a drastic effect on life in the UK, just as in the Netherlands. We were fortunate in Oxford, in the sense that when the restrictions came in and it was recommended that students should return home, the term was drawing to a close and most students were expecting to leave Oxford anyway. It was sad for our final-year students who had been planning to stay in College over the break and study together, and then to celebrate together. Now they had to leave instead, not being sure when they would next see each other.
‘Some students have not been able to leave, however, for instance because it was not safe to travel to their home country. This means that we now have 75 students left in College, whereas we would normally have over 500. They are told to follow Government guidance, which means keeping at least two metres away from others and only to go out to get food or for exercise.’
Any idea how long the situation will last?
‘Next term will start on 27 April, but all teaching and assessment will be online. Whether the students come back to stay in College will depend on what restrictions are in place then. I am staying in the Master’s Lodgings with my husband and two of our children, and we have just been joined by a puppy, who will grow up to be Catherine the College Dog. She provides a welcome distraction in what is otherwise a very quiet College.’
You have been Master, or head, of St Catherine’s College since January. How are you finding it?
‘It’s a truly special job. I didn’t really know what it would be like beforehand, but can now say that it is very enjoyable. Catz, as our college is called, has around 450 undergraduates and a further 450 master’s and PhD students. I have responsibility for people, academic affairs and the budget. However, Oxford colleges have a long democratic tradition, and the responsibility is shared with the approximately 40 Fellows: academics who are members of Catz’ governing body. I also have plenty of contact with the students – at major events and on a more everyday basis, such as a chat with the rowers, the members of the rugby team or the art club. All the undergraduates live here, as do I. I can see many of the students’ rooms from my house.’
Who: Professor Kersti Börjars (1960)
Degree: English language and literature (1982-1986)
Favourite spot in Leiden: ‘My student house, Vliet 15. A lovely spot on the canal.’
Student association: Quintus and Asopos de Vliet
Photo: John Cairns
Do you get any peace living here?
‘If I’m ever woken at night it’s usually by the geese on the lawn outside my house; it’s only very rarely that a student party wakes me. I live in a beautiful place with plenty of green and stylish modern college buildings. And yes, in historical Oxford I do sometimes feel as though I’m walking around in an episode of Inspector Morse. Morse has never been filmed here at Catz, but the prequel Endeavour, a series about the young Morse, has. The episode The Game, about a chess game, is set here in part.’
What kind of college is Catz?
‘It began in the 19th century as an association for students who couldn’t afford to live at a college but had passed the admissions test. It only became a college in the 1960s, but then still with the tradition of widening access to Oxford. All the colleges are now aware of the importance of a diverse student population, but that tradition is our founding ethos. This is reflected in our motto Nova et Vetera: the new and the old. The college offers both science and arts subjects and our alumni include four Nobel Prize winners, the most recent in 2019, John Goodenough (chemistry). The other three are John Cornfort (chemistry, 1975), John Vane (medicine, 1992) and John Walker (chemistry, 1997). We are very proud of them.’
More than 50 nationalities are represented at your college, and you yourself come from Sweden. Are you worried about the effects of Brexit?
‘I’m not worried about my personal situation because I have settled status. My husband is British and our four children grew up here. They have since flown the nest and settled in all corners of the country. But these are indeed uncertain times for EU citizens. This week we reminded EU citizens within the college that they have to apply for settled status, but apart from that there is little we can do at the moment because there is so much uncertainty about what exactly is going to happen. Are British researchers still entitled to grants that rely on European funding, for instance? And will students from the EU still want to come and study here? There has been so much discussion about Brexit in the past few years that most of us have become tired of it. The debate has put pressure on many relationships. We’ve got to get over it and mend.’
You grew up in Sweden. Why did you decide to study English language and literature in Leiden?
‘Having spent a few years studying at Uppsala University, I initially went to the Netherlands for six months. However, I enjoyed it so much that I decided to study English language and literature in Leiden. That was a very good decision. In many ways, my time in Leiden made me the person I am today. Certain assignments served as a wake-up call. In my first week, for instance, I had to analyse a poem, The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrel, without using secondary literature. It was terrifying at first, but it was a real learning experience too. It taught me not to be afraid of new tasks. I also enjoyed student life in Leiden. I rowed at Asopos de Vliet and was a member of Quintus. I still go on holiday with Atalanta, my group within Quintus. In a sense, they mean more to me now than they did during my studies.’
What did you do after you graduated?
‘While I was studying in Leiden I already spent a year working as a Dutch assistant at the University of Manchester. After I graduated, I did my PhD research there and became a professor in 2002. At the same time I was also a part-time professor of Nordic Studies at the University of Oslo from 2017 to 2019. In 2019, I was contacted about the role in Oxford.’
What differences have you noticed between British universities and Leiden University?
‘In England you tend to study and live at the university during the semester only. You go home during the holidays. In the Netherlands, students are more likely to attend university throughout the year, and they generally don’t live on a campus. Graduating within the time set has been the norm for much longer in England. Obviously, studying in the Netherlands has also changed in comparison with my own student days, from 1982 to 1988. While I was studying in Leiden, the grant system changed and I can still remember the outcry among the Dutch students because they were only entitled to a grant for six years! Nowadays students in the Netherlands also finish they degrees much sooner and are more career focused.’
What could we in Leiden learn from Oxford?
‘Student well-being and mental health is a big issue here. In a college we can give students plenty of attention because they also live here. They can discuss problems with their tutor and other support staff, but porters and scouts — that is the name for the cleaners — also keep an eye on them. They are in a tutor group with two or three other students so are given a lot of personal attention. Another difference is that it is so interdisciplinary here. Different disciplines are represented at a college, and at lunch every day I talk to colleagues from other disciplines such as biologists, physicists, historians, music experts and many more. Together, all these different disciplines offer great opportunities for interdisciplinary research.’