how singular Oxford's evolution has been: a story not of entitlement but of hard work, difficult decisions, and a creative use of limited resources and advantagesProfessor Brockliss argues that Oxford's evolution has been a story not of entitlement, but of hard work, difficult decisions, and a creative use of limited resources and advantages

By Professor Laurence Brockliss  

There are 17,000 universities in the world today, and in international rankings Oxford is always placed in the top five, and often in the top three.  Have you ever wondered how Oxford has attained such an elevated position?  It is tempting to say it was inevitable in that Oxford is the world’s third oldest university, after Bologna and Paris.  But antiquity is no guarantee of success in the global age, and there is good reason to believe that Oxford, just like its rival Cambridge, is an unexpected presence at the top table.

The reredos (screen) depicting angels, saints, patriarchs and prophets around Christ Crucified, and altar in the medieval Chapel, New CollegeThe reredos depicting angels, saints, patriarchs and prophets around Christ Crucified in the fourteenth-century chapel at New College

When the first universities were established in the late middle ages, the European state-system was a complex patchwork of overlapping jurisdictions and multiple centres of power.  The sixty-odd universities active in 1500 were dotted haphazardly all over western and central Europe, wherever a pope, king, count, bishop or municipality felt moved to protect and foster schools of higher learning by giving them corporative status and special privileges.  Some universities for a time had a higher reputation than others and attracted students from far away but there was no obvious or consistent pecking-order.  By 1850, however, Europe’s university map, like the state-system itself, was much more clearly defined. The most prestigious, best financed, and most populous universities were located and continue to be found in the capital cities of Europe’s leading states. This was true even when, as in the case of the Universities of Berlin and Madrid, they were of recent creation. Indeed, a number of universities which had had the misfortune to be established in what were by then small provincial towns, such as Luther’s Wittenberg, had disappeared altogether around 1800.xford Martyrs were tried for heresy in 1555 and burnt at the stake in OxfordThe Oxford Martyrs' memorial, a reminder of the University's religious origins and upheaval during the Reformation 

How then did Oxford, a seat of learning in a town of 12,000 inhabitants in 1801 which still has only 150,000 today, defy the modern European Weltgeist and develop into a world-class university? The omens in the long nineteenth century did not look good.  In 1800 Oxford and Cambridge were the only English universities.  By 1914, they were not alone.  In 1826 a university was finally established in London, the rich heart of the expanding British Empire; in 1832 another in Durham; in 1880 the Victorian University of Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds; and in 1905 and 1909 the Universities of Sheffield and Bristol.   Oxford and Cambridge’s position was further eroded by the fact that until 1871 they were both confessional universities in an age when Anglicanism no longer enjoyed majority support.  It was not until 1854 that non-conformists could even study at Oxford.  Oxford at the turn of the twentieth century was particularly poorly placed.  Cambridge had grasped that the best universities in the future would be centres of research as well as teaching and was fast developing a high reputation in the natural sciences.  Oxford saw its primary role as teaching undergraduates and placed next to no emphasis on research until the interwar period.   There were prominent figures, too, on the eve of the First World War who would cheerfully have assigned Oxford and Cambridge to the dustbin of history.  The politician Viscount Haldane for one thought the old universities should stew in their old-fashioned juice. The future lay with the fast-growing University of London which should become the empire’s university and the centre of imperial research. 

Soldiers passing academics in the High Street during World War II, OxfordSoldiers passing academics on the High during the Second World War. From 1945 the University evolved into a meritocratic and secular institution 

In answer to the conundrum, a pleasing narrative could be constructed of how Oxford since 1914 has fought tenaciously against the disadvantages of its location, confessional history, and obsession with undergraduates and recreated itself as an international, multi-cultural, collegiate university dedicated to high quality research and teaching at all levels.  There is an element of truth in this.  Even in the nineteenth century, Oxford sheltered a bevy of tough, forward-thinking reformers who read the runes and strove to make the University relevant to the industrial age.  From 1945, the realists have largely been in charge and proved spectacularly successful in attracting far more than Oxford’s fair share of the funds governments have made available for infrastructure and research, as well as in more recent years cornering vast amounts of private money.  But good intentions and persistent lobbying would have buttered few parsnips if Oxford (and Cambridge) had not had and continue to have a singular advantage over their ever-growing number of UK rivals (some 160 at the latest count): the political, social, economic and cultural power of their alumni.

The medieval lodgings at Worcester, pictured in the early 1900s The medieval lodgings at Worcester, pictured in the early 1900s 

Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Oxford was of negligible importance intellectually, but in accordance with a long-standing tradition, it educated, with Cambridge, a large section of the country’s (and the empire’s) ruling elite.  This has remained the case until today:  a quarter of MPs, many leading journalists, and most cabinet ministers, judges and top civil servants are Oxford (or Cambridge) men and women.  The backgrounds of many of the elite may have changed since 1945 as oligarchy has given way to meritocracy but the two ancient universities have been very successful at remaining the gate-keepers to power.  In such circumstances, it is not difficult to see why Oxford has proved so adept at securing the funds it needed and needs to move and stay to the top.  In negotiations with government and grant-giving bodies, public and private, it is usually negotiating with its own.   Its political weight also makes it difficult for opponents to challenge its pole position. Between 1852 and 1922 four parliamentary commissions sat in judgement on Oxford and Cambridge but insider influence ensured that they were less critical and undermining than they could easily have been.  Since then the two universities have escaped further specific scrutiny.  Their prominence and dominance was queried by both Robbins and Dearing in 1993 and 1997 but no serious attempt was made to knock them off their pedestal.

When the first universities were established in the late middle ages, the European state-system was a complex patchwork of overlapping jurisdictions and multiple centres of power.  The sixty-odd universities active in 1500 were dotted haphazardly all overOf course, this does not mean that Oxford’s position at the top of the tree is permanently secure. Since the 1990s, it has been the policy of successive governments to reduce the stranglehold Oxford and Cambridge has over the British elite.  If this policy is ever seriously pursued, Oxford and Cambridge will find it much more difficult than hitherto to dominate the British university system and its resources, as its rivals in the Russell Group will leap at the chance to fight their own corner on a more level playing field.  Oxford’s HEFCE grant is still larger than the income it draws from its combined university and college endowment. Oxford city and the surrounding county today might be full of high-tech companies eager to piggy-back on Oxford’s first-class scientific research, but if the research funding goes elsewhere, so will the companies, and so too the international megastars.  Moreover, it is worth noting that for all its present research élan, Oxford has not had a Nobel Prize winner in science among its post holders since Rodney Porter retired in 1985.

The University of Oxford: A History is published through Oxford University Press

Professor Laurence Brockliss is a Fellow and Tutor in History at Magdalen

Read more on Oxford Today:

The Trouble with Oxford? Famous dons get short shrift from Stefan Collini

Her Dark Materials: Costa Book Winner Frances Hardinge

Images © Oxford University Images

Comments

By Philip Genres
on

"the two ancient universities have been very successful at remaining the gate-keepers to power"

"...spectacularly successful in attracting far more than Oxford’s fair share of the funds governments have made available for infrastructure and research"

"Between 1852 and 1922 four parliamentary commissions sat in judgement on Oxford and Cambridge but insider influence ensured that they were less critical and undermining than they could easily have been."

I wonder if Dr Brockliss of Magdalen College understands just how damning his article is of his own university. His basic argument is that Oxford occupies the upper echelons of UK universities only because it is able to use insider trading to hoard public money and public power, in a self-serving vicious cycle. He implies that the moment this monopoy ebbs, all will be lost for Oxford.

I was expecting to read that Oxford maintains its position because of an institutional commitment to educating the very brightest students instead of the greatest number of students. I am saddened to instead read an exultant account of Oxford taking public money away from other, perhaps more deserving universities, and crowding other universities' alumni out of the corridors of power.

By Martin Cooper
on

When I was at school (local Grammar) at the beginning of the 60s, it was assumed that anyone who could would go to Oxford or Cambridge; if you weren't good enough, you might go somewhere else. No-one seemed to question this. I didn't look at the course content: if I had, I might have asked some questions, such as, "Why is it called Modern Languages when half of it is medieval (or mediaeval)?" (It's all different now, of course.)
By the time my children were looking at universities in the 80s, they looked at courses, not university names. I don't know when this development occurred, but I suspect it was a catalyst for bringing Oxbridge courses more up to date.

By RH Findlay (SEH...
on

A correction to Oxford's claim to be the third oldest university after Bologna and Paris. Hanoi, Vietnam has claim to have provided a university issuing "doctorates" in 1066. The site can be visited in central Hanoi. I don't know how long it lasted after 1066, but Vietnam claims literacy back to before 230BC and with literacy comes some form of education.

One wonders what the Chinese might claim in respect of founding early centres of learning that may be termed "universities"? And if we go back to the Middle East, India and Egypt, those early civilisations too presumably they had centres of learning, some of which would have included astronomy as an early science. I understand that the Babylonians gave us the sexagesimal system, which we still use today in Euclidian geometry and navigation. Bologna, Paris, Oxford? Relative newcomers!

By Alan James
on

'In 1800 Oxford and Cambridge were the only English universities.' True, but there were four long-established universities in Scotland, already serving 'the expanding British Empire,' not to mention Trinity College Dublin. The account of 19th century developments is likewise wholly anglocentric, ignoring the universities and university colleges established in Wales and Northern Ireland.

By MONIKA Chmelova
on

I miss the mention of any Welsh universities too. In 1885 a Welsh University College (now known as the Bangor University), set up in 1884, received its charter...Wales is a part of Britain and yet it merits no attention?! It's true that it was getting its degrees from the Uni of London (until 1893), but... It became a constituent part of WELSH HIGHER EDUCATION pretty soon. Please look beyond England when you are reflecting on Britain!

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