Magazine article The Spectator

Decline and Fall

Magazine article The Spectator

Decline and Fall

Article excerpt

OXFORD University is failing, and does not care enough to succeed. I take no pleasure in the accusation; I make it out of loyalty and love. Oxford ought to be the university with most to offer its members: the richest, most transforming experiences; the most conducive environment for teaching and learning; the most vibrant cultural life and the most stimulating company, as well as some of the most innovative research and the most challenging scholarship. By tradition, resources and privileges of every kind Oxford is equipped to be the best. Yet in almost everything that matters rivals easily outstrip it.

Forget the new league table of research 'excellence'. It shows that the Oxford Faculty of Modern History - the biggest history department in the world - has been beaten on points by the former Oxford Poly. So what? The evidence of Oxford's crisis lies way beyond the reach of league tables, which are based on manipulable criteria, fallibly judged. They cover Britain, whereas Oxford should be measured against the best of the world. They privilege whatever is easily quantifiable, whereas real excellence is too dynamic to be measured, too soaring for calibration. The tables are important only because, first, it is scandalous for Oxford to be beaten by anybody, on any criteria. Second, most Oxford dons seem to react to the university's failure with depressing complacency. 'What crisis?' says the Senior Common Room. The want of passion and commitment are wormwood in the state. Finally, though tables are rubbish, people believe them. Prophecies of decline become self-fulfilling.

In the league table that matters most for the future - the table of prestige, which can be computed only impressionistically - Oxford is behind at least half-a-dozen institutions in America, has slipped far behind Cambridge, and is threatened by the spectacular improvement of other places in Europe. Most of Oxford's reforms in the last quarter-century or so have been designed to make it more like other universities in Britain - more everyday, more workaday, more representative, more unremarkable - whereas Oxford's historic peculiarities are its strength and ought to be nurtured. The best models to learn from are in America - a land of which Oxford, with its vast but underappreciated and underexploited American links, remains surprisingly ignorant. Oxford's top-brass decision-makers have outstanding qualities of civilisation and genius. But they are trapped in a web of committees and administrative structures that no one fully understands. Like other Leviathans, Oxford is uneasily manoeuvrable. Adverse currents of social and economic change have stranded the beast, while its own intractable procedures have been unable to refloat it.

When I was young I thought that there were two ways of running a university: the Oxford way and the wrong way. Then I went to America. I found happy campuses with a can-do attitude, where teachers, researchers and students follow their vocations freely. In Oxford I had assumed that unhappiness was part of the deal. Students and teachers get trapped in grooves that the dead have run out with their fingernails: old courses, imposed on teachers with little knowledge of them and on students with little interest in them. Exciting learning happens when courses are inspired with the oxygen of research, or where enlivening breadth is rewarded: that's the essence of America's lesson. Now I teach mainly in London, where - at least in my own part of the university - that lesson has been learnt. The classroom experience seems livelier and richer, the common-- room atmosphere more purposeful and collegial than in most of Oxford. Increasingly, able school-leavers, who sense the attractions of other universities, find Oxford unmagnetic. Brains drain to where conditions are more propitious or intellect more valued. This is not a matter of emoluments but of proper esteem: in Oxford, bursarial staff have dedicated parking places, but not the Regius Professor of Modern History. …

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