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