Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Let Oxford Burn On A Pyre Of Heathenism

The Simon Jenkins' opinion piece in today's Times at least engages seriously with the issues of Oxford University's proposed reforms and the wider question of its future. In it, he advocates Oxford "return" to its roots as a private institution and throw off the shackles of twentieth-century state interference. Berating dons and masters with comparisons to American institutions ("the best," allegedly), his key demand is that "they should decide for themselves whom to charge and leave the poor to scholarships and the state."

This is a foolish course of action, based as it is on the assumption of undergraduate financial independence and the ability of eighteen-year-olds to make educational choices in the same spirit in which Simon Jenkins makes decisions put to him by his stockbroker. An investment mentality is killing elite education in Britain; it is a mentality reflected in reforms of the financing of British educational establishments and in Charles Clarke's comments that medieval history wasn't a useful thing to be funding. The management consultants who have nearly surplaced Sir Humphrey in the corridoors of Whitehall, now bang their firsts at the lodges of ivory towers, and education is now required to return investments or suffer rationalisation and reorganisations.

Education is a public matter, because it is concerned with equipping the nation with skills (hurrah!- an investment!) but also because it reflects the level to which a society is willing to make sacrifices for the personally and socially-enriching activity of university study and academic research. Education is a brilliant investment, not for the quantifiable financial returns sought by Westminster, but for the cultural, social and personal enrichment of individuals and wider society. Such claims sound like airey-fairey liberal notions, but it is reflective of a society how much they are willing to invest in long-term prospects and cultural projects for which they can see no empirical return.

Jenkins also makes an error in his assertion that, "universities do not need to 'go private'. They are private already." That is a rather unusual interpretation: Oxford has traditionally been neither a German-style state or Ivy League-style private institution, but public institution. They have recieved state capital and been intwined in a symbiotic relationship with the state, whose elite personnel are nurtured in its tutorials and lectures, but are yet independent agents, in which the nation has an interest but not political control. This situation has been abused, Jenkins is correct, by increasing interventions in the admissions system and university funding.

The move to tie university funding to the research produced by tutors has been the death-blow to elite universities. It is a move clearly based in the 'investments' mentality, as it latches onto the output of articles or monographs as a means of empirically measuring a faculty's success. It ignores the quality of their research or the quality of their teaching- the latter only ever judged in broad terms designed to curb failure rather than to acknowledge remarkable excellence.

The tutorial system of Oxford (and Cambridge) is now under threat froma funding system which pays for research done by tutors, not the hours they lavish on a socratic dialogue with each student. There is a reason the tutorial system defines Oxbridge: it is expensive, in time and money, but utterly brilliant and irreplacable. It seems to be the first casualty of the heathenism of British politicians, with tutorial provision either slashed or scrapped in favour of second-rate classes.

In response to anxieties such as this, British institutions do themselves not disservice by appealling against a funding system designed to churn through young people, and to slap a mortarboard on their head, thus increasing their future earning potential, rather than any goal connected with academic rigour and scholarly standards. These appeals are dismissed as public service whining by Simon Jenkins. For shame! The real disservice Oxford dons assume is when they defend stint reform (i.e. tutorial cuts) with platitudes about their working hours, assuming that students expect them to put up with the shoddy deal offered by Westminster. The willingness of elite institutions like Oxford to debase standards in the face of falling funding is wrong-headed. Innovations such as the use of alumni support can help plug the deficit. (And Simon Jenkins complains he has never been contacted by Oxford to give a donation- I shall e-mail him and give him the details of his old college's fundraising office!). But the willingness of university leaders to make cuts in academic standards, which is what the shift to classes can only be, is pathetic. It is far better for us to do things properly and allow the University to burn on a pyre of political heathenism than allow it to survive as a hollow shell, clutching the buildings, trademarks and vestiges of Oxford University, but no longer deserving to use that name.

In the acknowledgements to The Crisis of Conservatism (London, 1995), Euan Green thanked his deceased dog, Cadbury. He reflected, "to any readers who might feel sceptical about this canine contribution, I can only say that she was infinitely more helpful to my studies, and certainly talked more sense, than any education minister of the past fifteen years".

He can now make that twenty-five years, and the crisis of education still burns with the heathenism of successive short-sighted governments. It is better to burn, though, than to whimper quietly into the night as a 2nd-rate academic institution.