Trimesters, inspiring meetings with local fellows and vegetarian meals. How does the research visit at the Oxford University look like?

Dr. Jarolím Antal, the Director of the Centre for European Studies at the Faculty of International Relations in Prague University of Economics and Business was during the spring term 2022 an academic visitor at the St. Antony´s College in Oxford, UK. How does the Central-European education system differ from the “prestigious” one in Oxford? What is the project of Mr. Antal about, what are his future plans and which culture is personally closer to him – the British or the American one? Read the interview with Mr. Jarolím Antal., who shared his experience from his ongoing research visit.

Where did you get the opportunity to apply for the research visit?

In my concrete case, I have used the fund support of international mobilities granted by the EU through the programme “Science, research and education” which is available for all faculties of our university. These mobilities are dedicated to researchers and lecturers and their goal is to strengthen international relations of our faculty with other foreign institutions. Thanks to that, experts from abroad can visit the Prague University of Economics and Business and vice versa.

How does the selection process look like?

Whoever works or has a research proposal can apply. Nevertheless, the selection process includes with the description of the topic of the project, identification of parts that needs to be extended, where feedback is needed, or which field the researcher needs extend the network.

The key matter in the selection process was if the project is well designed if it is connected to the faculty or the department of the applicant and if it has the potential to help the researcher and the faculty as a whole.

Would you please tell us what project are you working on?

In my dissertation thesis almost 8 years ago, I have started the research about the relationship between the EU and the USA. Not only from the macroeconomic perspective, but more from the overall character of their cooperation and governance of the relations. I am analysing the nature of the cooperation, what problems arise from it and which direction they develop. These two entities are very developed, wealthy and are close to each other with the number values they share. Although they are interconnected through the huge amount of trade and investment, they have been facing certain obstacles that I am trying to describe in my project. I am trying to capture how the relations evolved in the recent period, especially under the Donald Trump´s administrative, together with new challenges that not only the transatlantic relations are facing these days: The climate change, new technologies, autonomous management, artificial intelligence etc.

One of the concrete issues is that both entities have very high standards and requirements for the goods and services and due to this, they sometimes have problems to mutually acknowledge their level of quality. Very often the goods certified in the EU, therefore “good enough” for all member states, are not automatically accepted by the US market.

Why have you decided for Oxford? Is it the right place for your project?

It was relatively long decision-making process. The original plan was the US. I was planning my stay for quite a long time when the pandemic changed everything. I had to rethink my options due to various restrictions and unpredictability. Also, I have decided to relocate temporarily with the whole family. Therefore, Europe was actually more convenient for this purpose. Oxford was, after this decision, the best option due to the reputation of the university. Another aspect that played an important role was the fact that Othon Anastaskis, who works at Oxford University and is visiting professor at FIR, helped me to organize the whole stay.

How does your usual day look like?

My usual day changes according to the part of the semester we are in. One of the main differences between the central-European and the British education system is that here the academic year is divided into the so-called trimesters. The two parts of it have 8 weeks and are divided by 6-week break. The 8-week blocs are usually quite intense in terms of seminars, meetings, and events. 6 weeks are, on the contrary, relatively calm: We can work on our projects, travel, or study. Generally speaking, the work organization is very different here and that is what defines my daily schedule. I usually do a lot of readings, collect literature, organize meetings, attend various seminars and conferences.

What do you prefer more, the FIR semester or the British trimester?

Here, in England, though, the experience is a little more demanding as the 8-week blocks are usually more intense in terms of educational load. It is more difficult to organize the teaching because you have generally less time compared to 13 weeks block we are used to. Students are also aware of it and because of that they study less subjects and they divide them into these two blocks accordingly. For lecturers, though, the trimester is more convenient approach as they can spend more time doing their research. Also, the teaching is much more individual, so without long lectures. Students are required to read a lot and discussions are central in the teaching process.

What is the most challenging thing you have come across so far? Did you have to deal with any problems?

Due to the pandemic, it was difficult to organize the whole stay. Everything was very hard to predict. Not only in the academic world, the intensity of international exchanges, events or seminars lowered significantly. Some conferences were moved to online, some were cancelled completely. This made the whole process complicated. On the other hand, as the situation is not yet fully back at the pre-pandemic stage, whoever I have a chance to meet, we establish more personal relations. That is an advantage.

Fortunately, I haven´t had to deal with bigger issues yet. Only with some minor ones, such as technical problems in our house when we experienced leaking from bathroom to the dining room. But these were relatively entertaining to deal with as we had a chance to meet local plumbers. Otherwise, our stay still goes on smoothly.

How is your project going?

What I learnt here is, that most of fellows I met here are on a longer academic stays, so the work on long term projects. I have met people who are here for the whole academic year and work on their books. It is amazing. It is obvious that for 3 months I would not manage it. I can extend the project, build it on relevant data and methodology, but it is too short time to make any other significant changes. On the other hand, I have managed to write one paper so far and to put the whole project together. Also, I have found various sources I can later use as a base for the book I am also planning to publish. But it is still a long-term plan.

What is the most valuable experience you will get from the visit?

The goal of my stay here is not only to work on my project, but also to develop the international cooperation and come back home with foreign experience and know-how. For instance, the community life here at the St. Antony´s College is a huge inspiration for me. This is where we – the FIR has a huge potential. One of the lessons learnt is that we need to establish more forums, meetings, and other casual events during which we could make networking possible and learn about what the other fellows work on and further build our networks and together to build a real academic community.

What are the advantages of FIR compared to the Oxford university?

I think that we are trying to compare the incomparable. In my opinion, the university should be active in the public discussion and actively contribute to public and expert discussions that the institution has an expertise in. The institution should organize conferences and seminars connected to what is the core activity of the faculty. I don´t want to say we are better in this matter than Oxford, but we certainly have a huge potential in this field. Especially in terms of our profile: International trade, world economy or regional and international studies.

Besides, both the Prague University of Economics and Business and the Faculty of International Relations have a good reputation. I don´t want to compare it to Oxford because thanks to its history, the town itself and its architecture is a certain attraction. At the same time, it uses the potential, the fact that Oxford has always been the centre of education, and this gives it the strategic position compared to other world universities.

On the other hand, I think that we can also build our reputation on solid base of skilled graduates, good-quality programmes, or results of research. Although I think it is necessary not to be focused only on the research. We are the institution that needs to be the connector between the practical experience and the academic world. This is where we should seek our place. This is where we have a chance for FIR to stand out from the crowd.

Would you share any interesting story you have experienced so far?

One of the most important parts of the academic life here are the so-called “High Tables”. These are events during which you can get to know experts from various fields that you would otherwise hardly meet in person. I have, for instance, had a conversation with prominent historian Archie Brown that has been working at the St. Antony´s College for decades and his expertise is the communist and post-communist history. These events are something that make these renowned institutions so fascinating. You have an opportunity to meet professionals that you would otherwise knew only from book covers.

Another interesting thing is that in the college dining hall where most dishes served are vegetarian. 3 years ago, the College has decided to lower its carbon footprint. And I think it is awesome! The meat is offered only twice a week and the main dish during all events is default vegetarian unless you specifically ask otherwise.

What are your future plans?

Speaking about my project, though, I am planning to write another paper. And from the long-term perspective, my ambition is to write a monography. Unless something extraordinary happens, I think I could make this happen in one year or in a year and half from now.

How do you perceive the British environment? What is personally closer to you, the British or the American culture?

The College where I am working is the most international college of the whole Oxford University. And I can approve it. You meet the British very rarely here. When I was in Washington a year ago, I had a similar favour. Both cities are very cosmopolitan, in both cases I have been living in an international bubble. Here I had a chance to experience the true British lifestyle only during our weekend family trips. This makes harder for me to compare these two cultures. What I can say for sure, though, is that British people have a little more European mindset than Americans, they are a little more direct and honest. They don´t bother to tell you that things are not going great, which makes the whole atmosphere a little colder, but more frank at the same time. Maybe due to this, the “always cool” Americans may be a little closer to me, personally.

Trimesters, inspiring meetings with local fellows and vegetarian meals. How does the research visit at the Oxford University look like?