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15 November 1998: Sunday Times

Oxford Signs Rigg As Cambridge Avenger

Oxford University is turning to celebrities in an attempt to outdo its arch rival Cambridge, which is consistently outperforming it in league tables.

Dame Diana Rigg, who first made her mark playing Emma Peel in the cult 1960s series The Avengers, has been recruited as its new professor of theatre studies while Lady Archer, wife of the bestselling author and Tory peer and an academic in her own right, has been canvassed as a potential Oxford college principal.

The moves are part of a trend by universities to lure big-name academics and celebrities to raise their profile among potential students.

Businesses are also increasingly attracted to funding specialised university posts because of the cachet they can bring - particularly if they are filled by celebrities or academic superstars.

Rigg, one of the leading actresses of her generation, will take over the Oxford professor ship from Thelma Holt, the theatre producer, in January and will be expected to hold acting master classes and invite other actors, directors and producers to lecture. She was unavailable for comment last week.

Oxford academics have also canvassed Archer, a visiting professor in biochemistry at Imperial College, London, as the new provost of Queen's College, to boost the existing six female college principals. An announcement is expected soon.

Until now, universities have tended to use honorary degrees to link themselves with "star" names. Now, however, they want a firmer association, exploiting the growing number of "personal chairs" - professorships created in a specialised field often by a business sponsor.

Amos Oz, the Israeli author of 22 books including Black Box and My Michael, is one lit erary star recruited by Oxford, to the post of Weidenfeld professor in European comparative literature. Roberto Calasso, the Italian author of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, has been lined up to take over the professorship from Oz next year.

Mario Vargas Llosa, one of Latin America's leading nov elists and a former Peruvian presidential candidate, is also to spend a year at Oxford. Vargas Llosa has been visiting professor or writer in universities around the world, including Harvard and Princeton.

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Liverpool University, said such recruitment illustrated the change in the nature of appointments: "It used to be people were famous because of the academic work they did; now they are famous so they get lured by universities."

Cambridge - traditionally more scientifically oriented than Oxford - can boast Stephen Hawking, the physicist and author of the bestseller A Brief History of Time, and the British-born astronaut Michael Foale, who is an honorary fellow of Queens' College.

However, on the arts front, the university recently lost one of its most high-profile academics, Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch, when she was recruited to a professorship at Warwick. A leading Cambridge academic said: "Oxford is appointing recognisable names, particularly as visiting professors. We don't do it in the same way but the pressures are there."

Research from Heist, a Leeds-based marketing consultancy used by universities and colleges, said school-leavers considered a university's reputation a key influence in their decision-making. "We have found reputation isn't just about entry grades or word of mouth - it is about prestige, and that can come from association with third parties which can either be companies or well-known names. It matters to students," a spokesman said.

Gareth Williams, professor of higher education at the Institute of Education in London, said universities were appointing well-known names because students liked it.

"Students have always enjoyed thinking they are in the room with someone who has written a book," he said. "Universities appoint famous people because it encourages students to apply.

"It also shows they are reaching out to the community and they are no longer ivory towers."

Dr Paul Flather, of Oxford University, defended high-profile appointments. He said the university believed new chairs in film, theatre, literature and the media had meant "packed lecture halls and new ideas".

"Oxford is home to the most vibrant and challenging debates. It is only natural for us to want to attract the most exciting, lively and prestigious figures from all over the world to confront us and to inspire us."


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