Michael Beloff

Oxford needs inspiration

Bureaucrats are in danger of betraying the tutorial system

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Three days ago I demitted the presidency of Trinity College to which I had been elected exactly 30 years after ceasing to be a short-term college lecturer there. Oxford then, Oxford now? Tempora mutantur, but plus c’est la même chose.

Oxford University is an association of independent colleges with a distinctive tutorial system or it is nothing special; but the college community and tutorial system are both under strain. The dons of yesteryear, who lived not only in but for the college, are all but extinct. College offices are no longer shared out among the Fellowship, but have become the province of professionals. The younger Fellows are forced to prioritise research above teaching when their own job security and their departments’ research assessment exercise (RAE) depend on their paper output. Sabbaticals and buyouts, experiments with new methods of teaching — all mean that the one-on-one tutorial is increasingly rare.

Despite the douceur de vivre and the matchless architectural settings, tutors are justifiably restive about their pay. Some fret at the college salaries paid to an accountant or chef, which far exceed those of junior Fellows. All marvel at the starting incomes of graduates, who but yesterday were being conscientiously steered to a middling degree in PPE or Engineering, but today are embryo merchant bankers, management consultants or City lawyers. Imminent laws against age discrimination will stir up fresh turbulence in these areas.

On the surface informality reigns. Gowns and ties are worn only sporadically. Subfusc is under challenge (what incidentally is fusc?). There are more ‘bops’ or even ‘events’ than commemoration balls. But beneath the surface, regulations have replaced convention. No longer can the dean deal out summary judgment to junior members who accept a fair cop when they see one. Time-consuming procedures are required to satisfy the rules of natural justice. Gentlemen’s agreements are superseded by the Student Contract — a reflection rather than an agent of change. The class of 1968 — Tariq Ali et al — suggested that universities should be run by a cabal of students and workers. Their more sober successors sit on joint consultative committees. Their concerns are practical not philosophical — crash helmets, condom machines, Sky TV and en-suite showers.

This is a generation enlightened by gap years but not toughened by National Service, who find more solace in counselling than in religion. Tutorial and pastoral committees struggle to find ways to lessen student stress. Life is more serious in an age of increasing student debt and growing graduate unemployment.

Health and safety, anti-discrimination, employment and data protection laws are four horsemen of the apocalypse galloping through the groves of academia. Candles have to be removed from all but the front pews in Trinity chapel in case worshippers lean back and are, like the Protestant martyrs, incinerated for their faith. Endless forms have to be compiled to list ever more elaborate racial groupings within a community which is colour-blind. Students can withdraw permission for public display of their examination results. Time spent on doing has been sacrificed to time spent on analysing what has been done.

The new Vice-Chancellor’s team, John Hood and the Hoodies, came in with a modernising manifesto for Oxford governance. Convocation, Congregation, Council, Conference of Colleges — Oxford drowned in a sea of Cs. Its complexity makes the Schleswig-Holstein question seem like Sudoku. But the key proposal for a majority of external members on Council has provoked an anti-managerialist backlash. The fate of Hood mark 2 lies in the lap of Congregation, the democratic assembly of dons, which (archaically) contains resident 75-year-olds who are still (albeit retired) faculty members in Oxford — as a group, likely to be distinguished by two qualities, an attachment to things past and leisure time to vote. Justification for their continued participation in university governance seems barely more cogent than that in favour of the hereditary element of the House of Lords.

The relationship of colleges and Wellington Square — the Lubianka-like headquarters of the University — is very like that of the states and Washington DC in the US. There are now 39 colleges (or Private Halls) taking 39 steps not all at the University’s pace. The plan for an admissions process by which a candidate’s chance of an Oxford place would not depend arbitrarily on applying to the right college in the right subject at the right time does not yet deprive colleges of their autonomy, but the idea of a wholly centralised system is dormant, not dead.

The talk in the common rooms focuses on two subjects — money and access. The first Blair administration decided in a double whammy to phase out in a decade the Oxford premium, and to route all public funds direct to the University. To the fury of a powerful caucus of estates bursars, the University recently appeared to deny that an accord reached with colleges in 2000 as to how to share in the misery was still applicable. The JRAM — that most awkward of acronyms, the Joint Resource Allocation Method — will suggest a new, doubtless controversial scheme for dividing an inadequate cake. Protocols have been devised to determine where, how and for what the University or colleges may approach potential donors and the ethical criteria to be applied to such donations (if offered!). How to implant in British alumni the culture of philanthropy which prevails among their American equivalents, that is the question — as yet unresolved.

One explanation for these different attitudes to funding lies in the admissions process. Alumni preference in major American universities triggers alumni generosity — a bargain that cannot be struck this side of the Atlantic. Oxford pays a price for its admirable fidelity to meritocratic ideals.

But those ideals are assailed from another direction. The government complains that Oxford’s intake of students from state schools is lower than it would wish. Yet in the 1960s the percentage of undergraduates from state schools significantly outnumbered those from the private sector. The explanation for the altered statistics has nothing to do with conservative bias. It has everything to do with the destruction of the grammar schools, and the growing gulf between what the best independent schools supply by way of facilities and skills compared with all but a handful of comprehensives.

The colleges continue to mount outreach programmes, home and away, to combat the anti-Oxford attitudes among the teaching profession and the media pictures of an Oxford fossilised in the age of Brideshead Revisited. They must and will continue to solicit applications from under-represented constituencies. But offers of places have to be made to those with perceived ability to manoeuvre successfully the shoals of the degree course. Political correctness and social engineering can have no place in a university concerned with talent alone.

But Oxford has since the 1960s belatedly pushed fully open a door that was once barely ajar to the second sex. When St Hilda’s goes co-ed in 2008, men and women will have an equal chance of obtaining entry. By accident, not design, they have achieved near parity of numbers within the colleges. They have enhanced the intellectual standing and civilised the social mores of the undergraduate community. They have had an enviable record in achieving office in the Oxford Union where, reflecting national politics, the skills required to ascend to the president’s chair are those of a Mandelson, not a Gladstone.

The direction in which the Vice-Chancellor wishes to move the University — with more graduate studies, more international students — may not appeal to old members whose wallets the University seeks to tap, but whose memory of and vision for Oxford is essentially one of a training-ground for British undergraduates. There is, too, a sense that the shift is fuelled by economic, not academic objectives. The teaching of undergraduates is a loss-making activity.

Yet it is in undergraduate education that Oxford outstrips its United States counterparts. Despite fraying at the edges, the centre holds: there is all to play for. It is the combination of three factors — higher admissions standards, a more intimate system of tuition by dedicated dons, and more intensive work — which gives graduates of the two ancient universities their dominance in so many areas of national life.

There may have been some dumbing down of A-levels. In some areas, the sciences in particular, undergraduates may arrive less equipped in terms of skills and knowledge than some of their predecessors. But I do not doubt that in terms of academic ability the present generation can comfortably hold its own with that of the Sixties. How could it be otherwise when Oxford has the benefit (previously substantially denied it) of the best and brightest of young women?

The modern undergraduate may be less concerned with what ‘good brave causes’ are left: Iraq is not the new Vietnam, nor the animal rights movement the new CND. They may not, in an era of professionalisation of sport, enrich — rowing apart — national teams, but their energy, enthusiasm and creativity seem to me undiminished.

As a politician, Tony Blair’s attitude to Oxford was ambivalent. As a parent he showed his support. During his time as Prime Minister there has been no slippage in Oxford’s standing. It has for four years topped the Times league table of British universities and ranks in the premier league internationally. But it would receive no favours from a Brown premiership. His celebrated outburst in 2000 about Laura Spence, portrayed as an applicant Joan of Arc sacrificed to reactionary prejudice, had all the virtues except those of accuracy and honesty. And Oxford cannot necessarily rely on that nice young Mr Cameron, a graduate of Brasenose and the Bullingdon, and tutored by the A.J.P. Taylor de nos jours, Professor Vernon Bogdanor. Would he hug John Hood?

Oxford’s concern about who has the keys to No. 10 might disappear if it were no longer tied to governmental apron strings. To develop its mission as an elite university, Oxford needs inspiration as well as administration. Does it need privatisation? I’ve put that issue in my successor’s tray marked ‘Pending’. I wish him well. He will live in interesting times.