Features | University of Oxford
Clouded Leopard
Head Shot of Clouded Leopard (Neofelis Nebulosa)
Credit: Shutterstock/Sarah Cheriton-Jones (Image ID:111480845)


Oxford and Burma

Young fish sellerA boy packs fresh fish in the San Pya market in Yangon. Oxford’s support will help improve young Burmese people’s educational and career opportunities.

Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo

Over the past three years Oxford has been working to aid the development of democracy and living standards in Burma, one of Asia’s most impoverished countries.

Aung San Suu Kyi and Andrew HamiltonAung San Suu Kyi and the Vice-Chancellor discuss ways to revitalise higher education in Burma.

Credit: Frank Noon

Burma, also known as Myanmar, is slowly emerging from years of military rule and international isolation. The post-junta period is fragile and presents many challenges: Burma’s economy, one of the least developed in the world, has struggled with corruption and a lack of foreign investment. Educational standards also need to improve – a fact highlighted by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in her speech on receiving an honorary degree from Oxford in June 2012.

Oxford’s aid to Burma is designed to have an impact throughout the nation: training we are providing to young lawyers will help them defend constitutional freedoms and safeguard economic growth from corruption; our collaborations in wildlife and geology will ensure a sustainable future for the country; and our partnership with Burma’s leading university, the University of Yangon, is helping to strengthen a national institution that the country’s other universities can learn from.

In meetings with key Burmese politicians, civil servants and university leaders, Oxonians including Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Development and External Affairs) Professor Nick Rawlins, who leads our activities in Burma, are offering advice on how they can deliver educational standards of international quality. These meetings support the collaborative educational and research programmes that Oxford has launched with Yangon and other Burmese organisations.

The University of Yangon was once one of Asia’s most vibrant universities, but it closed its doors to undergraduates for many years during the period of military rule. Since 2013 Yangon has once again welcomed undergraduates and is working hard to revive its teaching and research. Senior Yangon staff visited Oxford in early 2014 for training in curriculum and research design, student support and strategic planning, following which Yangon instituted wide-ranging reforms. Close collaboration continues, with Oxford providing ongoing advice, guest teaching and book donations.

Problems such as inadequate library resources at Yangon and Burma’s national higher education library have been addressed. Bodleian law librarian Ruth Bird and Andrew McLeod, of Oxford’s Burma Law Programme, designed a new digital library for staff and students, as well as training staff in cataloguing and shelving. Book donations have been sent from across Oxford, including more than 5,000 law reports and periodicals from the Bodleian Library and 3,600 books from the Radcliffe Science Library.

The Faculty of Law’s programme of aid to Yangon is one of the most substantive of Oxford’s Burma programmes. Hundreds of students from Yangon and other universities in the city of Rangoon have received training in core legal subjects through lectures delivered by Professor Andrew Burrows, Professor Adrian Briggs and Andrew McLeod. Professor Briggs has written the first-ever textbook on private international law in Myanmar, Professor Burrows has authored a paper on the country’s law of contract, while former Dean of Law Professor Timothy Endicott has travelled to Yangon to deliver a guest lecture on the interpretation of contracts. ‘We share the common law heritage with Myanmar,’ said Professor Endicott. ‘This means that we have something to contribute in teaching everything from commercial law to constitutional law.'

Burmese zoology studentsBurmese zoology students

Sustainable economic growth is particularly important for a country with an unspoilt landscape and burgeoning tourism industry. Oxford zoologists and their Burmese counterparts are collaborating in a conservation project to track the rare Clouded Leopard in the country’s forests. Geologists from Oxford’s Department of Earth Sciences are investigating ways of reviving the study of geology in Burma, a country rich in oil, gas and mineral deposits but without well-trained geologists. New medical research is also underway as the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit has opened a research base in Rangoon, to explore ways of preventing and treating diseases like malaria and typhoid.

Learning English improves young Burmese people’s educational and career opportunities, so Daw Suu’s alma mater, St Hugh’s College, has launched summer schools in English for secondary school pupils and students. Meanwhile, St Antony’s College has established a research fellowship to explore different aspects of Burma: the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies, which is also affiliated with the Department of Politics and International Relations. The department is also hosting a series of visiting research fellows. Lady Margaret Hall, through its International Gender Studies Centre, has appointed a Visiting Fellow in Gender in Burmese Studies and launched a women’s history research project in collaboration with Yangon.

As Burma continues to open to the world, we are also working to attract the best Burmese students to Oxford. Scholarships such as the prestigious Jardine Scholarships exist to cover the cost of fees and living expenses to outstanding students from south-east Asia. Oxford is already home to a small number of Burmese scholars, but there is still a need to improve academic attainment levels in the country and raise awareness of study opportunities among teachers and educational advisers for Oxford to broaden its Burmese cohort.

Professor Rawlins said: ‘We are proud of what we have achieved already but we still have a lot to do at this crucial stage in Burma’s development. It is a privilege to be able to help.’

Please note: The University of Oxford has no position on the correct name for the country referred to variously as ‘Burma’ and ‘Myanmar’ or for the city known as ‘Yangon’ and ‘Rangoon’. The choice of one name over another – or where both names are used, the order in which they appear – should not be taken as a statement of policy. In line with the University's commitment to work impartially with all actors, usage will reflect the nature and context of individual situations.

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Realising your potential

Richard BroadbridgeRichard Broadbridge

Credit: Oxford University Images/Rob Judges

Oxford’s Department for Continuing Education (OUDCE) offered a second chance to Richard Broadbridge: despite leaving school with few qualifications, he achieved a Foundation Certificate in History – equivalent to the first year of full-time University study. Now in his 30s, Richard, who lives in Oxford, is on the path to a full-time undergraduate degree – quite an accomplishment for someone who has struggled with dyslexia and OCD all his life. He was aided by specialist tutors at OUDCE who, he says, provided him with ‘learning strategies, kindness and utterly fantastic technology’ including computer software that scanned traditional books, turning them into web text that Richard was able to listen to as the computer read it aloud.

While some OUDCE students with limited previous learning opportunities want qualifications, others are seeking educational enrichment for its own sake. After many years of running a successful PR business, Julie Whyman completed more than 15 weekly courses. She then took a Foundation Certificate in English Literature, swiftly followed by a Master's in Literature and Arts, and is now contemplating doctoral research focused on Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s work. ‘The small incremental steps we take are bolstered by the support of staff in the department,’ Julie explains. ‘They give you the means to find a way to realise your passion.’

Teaching is delivered in weekly chunks or over a day or weekend, through summer schools and online. Some courses lead to masters’ and doctoral degrees. History and History of Art rank alongside Creative Writing and Archaeology as the most popular courses out of 1,000 part-time programmes on offer each year. ‘Creative writing students range from 18 years old to 80 plus in my experience of online and weekly classes,’ says Dr John Ballam, Director of the Undergraduate Diploma in Creative Writing. ‘Most are in their 30s to 50s and they are mainly women; there are all levels of academic achievement – from no qualifications to emeritus professors!’

Elisabeth GiffordElisabeth Gifford
Since taking the Undergraduate Diploma in Creative Writing in 2008 Elisabeth Gifford has had two novels published, including Secrets of the Sea House which was shortlisted for the Crown debut award for historical fiction. The novels were started on the diploma course, which ‘provided a wide breadth of inspiration and creative support’, she says, adding that ‘meeting the tutors and other writers was a wonderful experience’.

The community project Archeox (Archaeology of East Oxford) attracted hundreds of volunteers who come ‘from all walks of life’, according to project head Dr David Griffiths. He and fellow researcher Dr Jane Harrison dreamed up the idea on a dig in Scotland. ‘We were in the Orkney Islands, thinking there must be some brilliant research opportunities on our own doorstep in East Oxford,’ he explains. The project, which launched in 2010 with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, included a six-week excavation at Bartlemas Chapel in Cowley, the site of a medieval leper hospital, where they found 13 burials and even evidence of leprosy among the human remains.

An Archeox digAn Archeox dig

A H JohnsonA H Johnson
The history of the department dates back to 1878, when the Revd Arthur Johnson delivered the first ‘Oxford Extension’ lecture in Birmingham on 'The History of England in the 17th Century'. This followed much talk among dons of the moral and social imperative to promote education to non-traditional students. Johnson had an unassuming manner, telling pupils nature had destined him ‘for a groom or a games keeper, for anything but a scholar’, which went down well with his audience of working men, clerks and artisans. Women made up two-thirds of Extension students due to their otherwise limited opportunities for higher education at this time. Extension students included Vera Brittain, who achieved fame for her First World War memoir Testament of Youth. She won a scholarship to attend the 1913 Oxford University Summer Meeting, and two years later matriculated at Somerville College to read English. The Summer Meetings were the precursor to today’s summer schools, which still take place at the department and provide an opportunity for students to share their experiences in Oxford.

Since 1927 the department has had a physical base at Rewley House, but its core mission has remained much the same through the decades – to provide opportunities for lifelong learning. OUDCE’s cohort now outnumbers Oxford University’s full-time undergraduate community as enrolments have continued to rise steadily – from 14,000 in 2000 to almost 21,000 in 2014. OUDCE Director Professor Jonathan Michie explains: ‘We are not leaping on trains to give lectures around the country like the Revd Johnson, but we are delivering education to thousands of people in a myriad of ways. You don’t have to quit your job or study full time to enhance your career. With our support, people continue to seek new horizons and enrich their education – whatever their stage in life.’


A national treasure

Over the last few years a major refurbishment of one of Oxford’s most recognisable libraries has taken place behind hoardings on Broad Street. The New Bodleian Library was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and built in the 1930s. After being used to help the war effort, it was opened by King George VI in 1946. But the Bodleian wanted to create high-quality storage for its valuable special collections, to develop its space for supporting advanced research and to expand public access to collections.

Reading roomReading room

Credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford (photographer: John Cairns)

So plans were developed for an £80 million refurbishment, which was enabled by a £25 million donation from the Garfield Weston Foundation, a £5 million gift from Julian Blackwell and support from Oxford University Press. Since work began in 2011 84 kilometres of shelving, 6,500 tonnes of concrete and 1,000 tonnes of steel have been stripped out of the Grade II-listed building. The original book stack was removed down to the lowest basement level. The central stack was rebuilt along with the installation of three floors of secure storage below ground level. New study rooms, reading rooms and a Visiting Scholars’ Centre were created. The stone façade was cleaned. In March 2015 the building reopened as the Weston Library. The project seems to have been a success – the Weston has been shortlisted for awards including a Prime Minister’s Better Public Building Award and a conservation award from the Oxford Preservation Trust.

The façade of the building, on the corner of Broad Street and Parks Road in the heart of Oxford, has mostly remained unchanged from Giles Gilbert Scott’s original design. The most visible difference is that a new colonnaded entrance on Broad Street invites the public to enter the building. The entrance leads to the Blackwell Hall, a large atrium with a café, shop and exhibition galleries. The hall can also accommodate public events such as poetry readings and concerts. ‘We have opened up the ground floor area to create something comparable to an Oxford quadrangle but indoors,’ says Toby Kirtley, the Bodleian Libraries’ Estates Project Officer.

Ovenden_Hawking_AttenboroughRichard Ovenden, Stephen Hawking and Richard Attenborough

Credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford (photographer: John Cairns)

Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian, says the Weston Library will become a significant venue for exhibitions. The first exhibition, Marks of Genius, displayed some of the Bodleian’s greatest treasures, including a 1217 copy of the Magna Carta and Tolkien’s illustrations for the first dustjacket of The Hobbit. ‘We want more visitors seeing higher-quality exhibitions with digital interpretation, borrowed objects from other institutions and student involvement in the curation of exhibitions,’ he says. The early signs are good – as of October 2015 500,000 people had already visited the Weston.

The Weston Library has become the main home of the Bodleian’s special collections – its unrivalled archive of rare books, manuscripts, archives, music, ephemera and maps. Fire suppression and climate control systems have been installed to protect these treasures. Previously the collections were scattered across different locations, including the Radcliffe Science Library in Oxford and the Book Storage Facility in Swindon, but now they are able to be stored in the same place for the first time.

Conservation of old textsConservation of old texts

Credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford (photographer: John Cairns)

The refurbishment means that students and researchers can now study and handle the special collections more easily than ever before. Academics can book teaching rooms in the library and request that a manuscript is brought up for a lesson. ‘I can ask a curator or conservator to talk about a particular manuscript to a class of graduate students,’ says Nicholas Cronk, Professor of French Literature and Director of the Voltaire Foundation. ‘We have students in their first term here turning the pages of books from the 16th century,’ adds Dr Martin Kauffmann, who heads a team of curators who specialise in the Bodleian’s early and medieval manuscripts. ‘Whether they are inspired to become academics or they become venture capitalists, it is a really valuable experience.’

The Weston Library also houses the Bodleian’s expert team of conservators and curators who offer advice to researchers who are looking at the collections. ‘If someone is looking at an Anglo-Saxon manuscript and notices an inscription or a mark in the margin which was done by the printer, they can ask a conservator who will often recognise it as belonging to a particular printer,’ says Richard Ovenden. ‘That is something Google really struggles with.’

The Weston Library is intended to make studying an easier and more enjoyable experience, right down to the chairs in the reading rooms which were specially designed by BarberOsgerby. ‘Everything was carefully chosen and arranged, from the choice of wood to the lighting,’ says Richard Ovenden. There is also a café for readers and spaces for collaborative working, including a Centre for Digital Scholarship where scholars and students can conduct technology-based research with the collections.


Building for success

Oxford’s Department of Physics is one of the pre-eminent in the world, by any definition. It’s among the largest in size with more than 1,000 students, nearly 500 staff and a turnover of £42 million. It produces more first-class research than any other physics department in the country (according to the latest Research Excellence Framework), and in any given year around ten members of the department win major national and international awards for their research. And Oxford Physics produced one of the University’s first spin-out companies, Oxford Instruments, responsible for the superconducting magnets now used in MRI scanners.

Oxford Physics continues to flourish despite physical surroundings that, according to Head of Physics Professor John Wheater, are in many cases ‘fundamentally unsuitable for world-class research’. The department hasn’t had any major new research infrastructure in half a century – not a long time in the University’s overall lifespan, but a significant period given the rate of change and innovation in physics research. A 2008 review of the department highlighted the need for a better infrastructure in place of the dispersed mix of buildings and facilities, leading to the New Clarendon Laboratory project – a major redevelopment of the area around the current Clarendon Laboratory.

Artist’s impression of the new Beecroft BuildingArtist's impression of the Department of Physics' new Beecroft Building, which is currently under construction.

Image credit: Hawkins\Brown Architects

The first stage in this ambitious project is the new Beecroft Building, which broke ground on 2 October and will house the department’s theoreticians alongside modern laboratories for advanced microscopy and quantum science. The accommodation for theoretical physicists has been designed ‘to encourage the interaction of researchers which is the hallmark of a successful theoretical research environment’, according to Wheater. At the same time the building’s experimental physics labs have been designed for extremely high-precision work like the £38 million government-funded Networked Quantum Information Technologies Hub (NQIT) – a partnership to develop a demonstrator quantum computer by 2020. Projects like these don’t just require cutting-edge technology like lasers – they depend on being able to strictly control the temperature, humidity and even vibrations in every lab.

The Beecroft Building project officially began three years ago with the launch of an £8 million capital fundraising campaign towards the total cost of the building. Having reached its target ahead of schedule in January 2015, the Beecroft campaign stands as a model for capital fundraising success across the University. Helped by a gift totalling £4 million from Adrian Beecroft (a long-time supporter of the Physics Department and major donor to the Beecroft Institute of Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology), the campaign raised more than 90% of its total from just 12 principal gifts. The campaign’s success also clearly showed the strong support for the groundbreaking work of Oxford Physics among alumni – nearly the entire amount raised came from graduates of the University. In addition to the substantial major gifts, more than 60 alumni have pledged smaller amounts to join the Henry Moseley Society, dedicated to supporters of the Physics Department. The project has also benefited from a generous £1.9 million grant from the Wolfson Foundation and £3.6 million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, bringing the total external funding raised to £13.6 million.

The warmth and enthusiasm for the project among alumni was a defining characteristic of the campaign, according to Wheater, whose own efforts spearheading the project from planning to fundraising have ensured its success. That shouldn’t be surprising given the wide appeal of physics and the potential impact of its discoveries. Physics is literally the science of everything – from the forces that govern interactions of the smallest fundamental particles to the mathematical models that explain the universe. And physics research not only helps us understand the origins of time and space, it also enables scientific developments ranging from breakthroughs in medical technology, to manufacturing and environmental protection. Oxford physicists are at the frontline of much of the research that captures the public imagination and generates headlines – from the teams working on the Large Hadron Collider and Square Kilometre Array to the citizen science projects Zooniverse and Galaxy Zoo. The groundbreaking work of Oxford physicists has been embraced by alumni supporters – from Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Stephen Hawking, who both publicly endorsed the Beecroft campaign, to recent graduates whose engagement with physics continues even as they pursue careers in a wide range of fields.

‘The Beecroft Trust is delighted to have been able to help ensure that the new physics building will become a reality,’ says Adrian Beecroft. ‘Attracting and keeping world-class researchers is essential for Oxford to retain its position as a world leader in physics teaching and research. The new building will provide the cutting-edge facilities and space to support the innovative ideas and experiments of Oxford physicists for many years to come.’

Artist’s impression of the new Beecroft BuildingArtist’s impression of the new Beecroft Building

Credit: Hawkins\Brown Architects