Oxford Needs Inspiration as Well as Administration

By Beloff, Michael | The Spectator, August 5, 2006 | Go to article overview

Oxford Needs Inspiration as Well as Administration


Beloff, Michael, The Spectator


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 Gentlemen's agreements are superseded by the Student Contract -- a reflection rather than an agent of change.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. …

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