Author Robert Neild
Publisher Thames River Press
ISBN 9780857285157
RRP £14.99
The Financial History of Cambridge University

It is hard to believe that a history of Cambridge University’s finances wasn’t written long ago — harder still to believe that, as yet, no equivalent book exists for Oxford. It’s a great pity, because Professor Neild, Professor Emeritus of Economics at Trinity College, Cambridge, has done his University a great favour by throwing a loop around this massive subject in just 128 pages.

The good news is that Oxford features constantly — and where it doesn’t, one suspects that the narrative would be rather similar. For instance, Neild’s early judgement is that, at the first of three Royal Commissions set up to examine university reform in 1852, “Cambridge, like Oxford, was a quasi-monastic backwater.” Immediately this prompts scary insight: just how easily could have Oxbridge evaporated into irrelevance, bequeathing only physical architecture to posterity?

Arguably, it was only because of the blunt hand of government that Cambridge and Oxford made it half-credibly into the 20th century at all. But whereas this first state interference met with excessive cantankerousness, by the end of the book — with Blair, Cameron et al — the narrative has come full circle. Observing excessive and rising state interference coinciding with reduced and falling state funding, Neild sets himself the job of accounting for this paradox.

Along the way we discover plenty. First, there is nothing new about fundraising and private patronage. Cambridge had regular appeals in the 18th Century for large projects, without which we wouldn’t have the Senate House for example. Secondly, tuition fees were ubiquitous in the past, but existed on a dramatically sliding scale, so that a nobleman had to heft up £16 in 1842 for his tuition, while an impecunious sizar would wait on the nobleman at dinner in exchange for fees of just 15 shillings.

It’s easy to extrapolate to 2012, when both Universities are trying to endow new studentships to offset tuition fees for the poor. One of the issues Neild touches upon is the long tradition in the US of legacy preference: giving places to students whose families have been generous donors. Britain recoils in horror at such practices, yet virtually anyone with means could get into Oxbridge until World War Two, and academic standards were appropriately low. Meritocracy arose only with a rapid rise of state funding after 1945.

Neild goes on to explain why both Universities fell into the lap of the state: partly a result of world events; partly the result of poor investment decisions. Virtually all Oxbridge colleges suffered terribly from land-based investment portfolios between 1883 and 1920 during the agricultural depression, but the coup de grace was World War One and extensive price inflation. This easily explains why the state began to fund Oxbridge directly, from 1917.

Instances of extraordinary private philanthropy show what might have been. The seventh duke of Devonshire paid for the Cavendish laboratory from investments not in agricultural land but in Barrow-in-Furness, steel making and shipbuilding. As Neild explains, the colleges were hampered in their investment decisions by restrictive Elizabethan statutes — the same ones that enforced celibacy on fellows — and it was only in the 1920s that individuals like the economist John M. Keynes began to tilt college endowments towards equities.

One wonders why there wasn’t a more probing mindset among bursars and heads of college over four decades of dramatic underperformance, a period that coincided with a terrible neglect by Oxbridge of the broader reaches of British industrial success. This applies more to Oxford than to Cambridge, however, and it is notable how almost all of the examples of heroic philanthropy in Neild’s account are science-related.

Coincidentally, Trinity Cambridge's wealth is a result of a lucky purchase of land that included Felixstowe Dock. At the time of the purchase the objective of the college wasn’t to invest in industry but to exchange bad agricultural land for good. There was no brilliance behind it, just good luck. All the colleges could have been Trinitys had they embraced the non-agricultural economy. But they preferred to play at being country landowners, perhaps explaining why even today Shepherd and Woodward stock such a wide range of Barbour jackets.

Part of the answer to Neild’s paradox, of rising state interference with reducing contribution, is that the 1950s and 1960s were extraordinary. That is to say, the government officials who donated the money saw a direct link to broader economic success yet held off dictating how that link would be expressed. This golden era could not last as higher education expanded beyond its budgets while the economy contracted during the seventies.

The silvery lining is that academic standards are objectively higher now than they were, while meritocracy has been enshrined even as it is again threatened. The future rests on some sort of rapprochement between Oxbridge and the state — where, in exchange for less funding, there is less interference.