Meet the Master: Interview with Kersti Börjars

We asked Master-elect, Professor Kersti Börjars, your questions.

 What are you most looking forward to about working at Catz?

There’s so much to look forward to. I am most excited about meeting the people of St Catherine’s: the students, the Fellows, the support staff and the alumni. I already met some alumni at the 150th Anniversary Weekend, and it was just delightful. They all have brilliant stories to tell about their time here and what they’ve gone on to do afterwards.

How well do you know Oxford?

One of my sons came to university here, so I know how hard it can be to park. Apart from that, I don’t know Oxford well at all, but I am really looking forward to getting to know it.

St Catherine’s is in a lovely area – I am a keen but slow runner and have now been on a few runs in different directions from the College. I’m certainly going to have to keep running once I’m in post – the food is brilliant here.

 What is your background?

After travelling as a student, I ended up with degrees from Sweden (Uppsala and Stockholm), The Netherlands (Leiden) and Manchester. I did my PhD in Manchester, and then stayed as a research assistant and then a lecturer. I’ve actually been at Manchester University since 1989. At Manchester, I’ve worked as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs in the Faculty of Humanities; Head of School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures; and Associate Vice-President for Teaching, Learning and Students.

What made you apply for the job here?

It must be said, there is a charm about being the Master of an Oxford college. I can see it when I tell people at Manchester why I’m leaving. People are jumping for joy for me in a way they wouldn’t be if I told them I was going on to be Dean or Pro-VC somewhere else.

More than anything, Catz felt right for me. Catz’s messages of redefining Oxford and mixing the new with the old spoke to me. It is the perfect mix of what you imagine an Oxford college to be, with something much more forward-thinking.

What do you see at the main challenges for Catz?

There is a lot of uncertainty and change in higher education in the UK right now. I’ll be looking at how this affects the College.

I think the main challenge will be making sure that we’re attracting the best students – wherever they come from – and making sure that we look after them well while they’re here.

Is outreach something that is important to you?

I feel very passionate about outreach. Some people may try to argue that ‘Oxford is just another university, it’s not particularly privileged’, but obviously it is. So, I feel passionate that those of us who are in this privileged position try to bestow that privilege on the people to whom it can make the biggest difference. It’s not a just a difference for them personally, but for the world. They will go on to do things that they may not have been able to without their Oxford education.

We should not only think about those who will benefit most from being here, but also who will contribute most to the College and to other students’ experience here. The educational experience of students depends not only on the College – that is the physical space, the Fellows, tutors and the Master – but also on the other students.

Outreach is one of the things that I will really want to focus on. St Catherine’s foundation as the Delegacy for Unattached Students means that it has a history of offering a unique opportunity to benefit from an Oxford education. I have been able to meet some of our alumni and hear their stories of how their time at St Catherine’s made all the difference. I think it’s important that we stay true to this founding ethos.

What do you think draws students to Catz?

I think the open layout of the College means it doesn’t have the intimidating feeling of some more traditional Oxford colleges. I think that the open layout is symbolic of our founding ethos. Catz is accessible for all – it’s inclusive.

One thing that I find wonderful about Catz, is that nearly all undergraduates live at the College for their whole time here. I think this is so important for the student experience and their connection with the College. It gives a real feeling of community, which I think Catz is known for. Having met some of the staff, students and alumni now, it certainly seems like a very friendly place, and I think that is a huge draw.

Will we be getting a College pet?

I like pets very, very much. At home we have had pet cats, a dog, chickens and rats – having four children we always lost the vote about getting a new pet.

It does seem to be that having a cat would be apt for a College named ‘Catz’. My husband is very keen on the idea of a college cocker spaniel… why not have both? I will have to see if I can get an Arne Jacobsen-esque cat flap installed.

If you were sent to a desert island, which one book would you take with you?

Dr Glas by Hjalmar Söderberg. I really like it – it’s gloomy, dark Scandinavian literature. It’s a relatively short book, but I think I’d be happy to keep reading it over and over again.

How do you feel about the title ‘Master’ for a woman?

For me it’s actually rather fitting… my husband and childrens’ surnames is Masters. This means that we now have a complete set of ‘Masters’ in the family.

If you were a combination of any two animals, which would they be and why?

I think I would have the head of a cat – they always look so content and relaxed – and the tail of a dog – all the happiness and energy is in the tail.