The University of Oxford: A History
Oxford University Press, 2016
An Oxford historian writes a review for the Oxonian Review of another, far more qualified Oxford historian, who has written a history of Oxford University. So far, so parochial. This one-volume tome is, ironically, a concise and popular version of the weighty eight-volume behemoth of an official history written at the turn of the century. Yet a history of Oxford University cannot solely deal with the city and institution alone. It has to consider it within various comparative contexts, and in this weighty yet aesthetically pleasing book Professor Brockliss has managed to balance the parochial with the global. He crams in the origins of the modern tutorial system and sometimes hilarious anecdotes of Victorian student antics, not least their penchant for bread-throwing. He also compares Oxford’s unique model to her sister universities, first in Europe, to which she bore both similarities and differences (even by the end of the sixteenth century Oxford and Cambridge differed sharply from other European institutions), and later of the world. Internal developments in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are considered within the envelope of the expansion of British higher education and changing government policies.
Throughout the work Brockliss is keen to stress the interplay of conservative impulses with campaigners for internal reformers and the external pressures for change. He is broadly on the side of the reformers. He contentiously suggests that Oxford’s future may lie in a digital approach to higher education and discusses, without endorsing, independence from the state through self-determined privatisation. One feature of the contest between change and conservation which could perhaps have been further explored is Oxford’s remarkable capacity for inventing new traditions. As Finalists hurry forth to do academic battle in written examinations dating back to 1800, in subjects predominantly formalised into independent courses in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, they often sport carnations, a traditional dating back to the 1950s. Sub-fusc can be dated back to the statutes of Archbishop Laud during the seventeenth century, although it has long since been shorn of its role as an indicator of social class among the students. But modern Oxford is the product of less than two centuries. This is true of the city, which has expanded greatly in geographical and numerical size, as well as of the University’s courses, entry requirements, tutorial teaching method for undergraduates, its ever-growing numbers of students, its focus on research, and a surprisingly high number of its buildings. For postgraduate students, the changes have been even more substantial. In 1986/7 (when David Cameron was in his second year as an undergraduate) there were roughly three-times as many undergraduate students as graduate students, and the latter barely exceeded the number of undergraduates present in 1923/4 (the figures are helpfully tabulated in the book’s appendix). Contrastingly, by 2014/5 there was almost parity between postgraduates and undergraduates. Whilst undergraduate numbers have quadrupled since 1914, they have risen hundred-fold for postgraduates. Similarly striking, the percentage of women as undergraduates, having remained fairly constant in the mid-teens for fifty years up to the 1960s, has risen rapidly to near-parity in the following half-a-century, accompanied by the end of the gender segregation between the colleges. Their professors also have shifted in focus, from predominantly being teachers of undergraduates to researchers, whose job prospects depend above-all on publications and performance in the contentious research excellence framework. Professor Brockliss is therefore quite right to distinguish between the pre and post-1945 universities.
Yet merely glancing around Oxford at its cornucopia of architectural gems (and duds) guards against simplistically discounting the pre-Victorian University as irrelevant to today. Three main threads can be drawn out from amongst the multiplicity of topics covered in this history. These combine the parochial with the global. They fit within wider intellectual and political debates and developments, yet have particular Oxford elements to them. The three threads are: Christianity, class, and the purpose of it all.
Throw a stone in Oxford and you are almost guaranteed to hit a place of worship. Normally this will be a college chapel. Many medieval colleges owe their existence to the religious-guilt of laymen or the benevolence and/or egoism of an ecclesiastic. This side of things is well-known. Oxford was into the nineteenth century primarily a seminary for training priests, first for the Latin Church that stretched across western and central Europe, and then for the Church of England. Only one hundred-and-forty-five years have elapsed since the abolition of requirement for fellows to subscribe to the 39 Articles of the Church of England. Oxford gave its name to the famous High-Church Oxford Movement, one of whose members (John Henry Newman) is hurrying rapidly to sainthood within the Roman Catholic Church, and another (John Keble) is memorialised in the college founded in his honour. But what is revealing and unexpected about Brockliss’s narrative is the role of Christianity in establishing the women’s colleges of the late Victorian era. He notes that a major driving factor was the expansion of secondary schooling to girls, with the requisite need, it was thought, for “well-educated but godly schoolmistresses”. The High-Church champions helped found Lady Margaret Hall, St Hugh’s and St Hilda’s, whilst the liberal Low-Church responded by founding Somerville. Even today, in more secularised times, the religious connections of Oxford persist. The impressive Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies commands the skyline overlooking Marston. The choirs of Oxford chapels continue to pour forth divine sound. Oxford colleges still determine the appointment of priests in far-flung parishes. The previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was the twentieth Oxonian to become ‘Primate of All England’. Grace continues to be said in formal halls; and even May Morning celebrations are marked by the singing of Magdalen College choir from atop their tower. Even in the institution of noted ‘New Atheist’ author and geneticist Richard Dawkins the spiritual still holds its own.
If religion has historically drawn Oxford into the national consciousness and heated debates, so class serves the same role today. This is nothing new. On the 8th July 1831 the radical MP Joseph Hume rose to oppose a Parliamentary grant to fund Oxford professors. Another radical, Henry Hunt (who had been arrested at the infamous ‘Peterloo’ massacre of 1819) joined his criticism, declaring “it was preposterous to expect that the poor weavers and other labourers who were nearly starving, should be called upon to pay for…the education of the sons of the rich.” The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Thomas Spring-Rice, defended the measure on the grounds that “many of the humblest received the benefit of education in those very institutions.” Admittedly these “humblest” incorporating men such Hardy, son of a naval commander and a servitor, who features in Tom Hughes’s account of Oxford in the 1840s, in Tom Brown at Oxford, the sequel to his more famous Tom Brown’s Schooldays. The relative wealth of Brown and Hardy triggers debate over wealth’s role at Oxford. Sadly these discussions are missing from Brockliss’s work, reflective perhaps of an under-emphasis (perhaps owing to space) on cultural depictions of Oxford, many of which, most famously Jude the Obscure and Brideshead Revisited, continue to shape impressions of Oxford far beyond its ivory towers. Modern parliamentary debates in Oxford would probably see calls for higher public spending on universities from the heirs to Hume and Hunt; whilst government ministers would assuredly censure ‘Oxbridge elitism’. The question of class is nonetheless dealt with insightfully in this history. Strikingly medieval Oxford was dominated by the sons of “yeomen and well-to-do husbandmen”, and in the case of Thomas Wolsey an Ipswich butcher, mainly competing for a small number of parish priest livings. Graduate unemployment and career difficulties are nothing new! The ruling classes, hitherto educated as squires in knightly households, began to populate Oxford through their commitment to the humanist education popularised by Thomas More and Erasmus. Numbers rose to record heights in the seventeenth century. But the civil war reversed this trend. Moreover poorer students, who had acted as servants to their richer colleagues began to see their jobs and income go to townsfolk. From the nineteenth century attempts to widen the demographic intake of Oxford have taken various different forms. These included establishing outposts beyond Oxford (notably Reading University). Ruskin College was another Victorian endeavour, which continues today. Less permanent was the creation of non-college places, which broke down when these students insisted on gathering together and eventually became St Catherine’s College. A more radical idea, proposed ironically by Lord Curzon during his reformist period as Chancellor of Oxford University, was a new college aimed solely at poor undergraduates. Nothing came of this, but abolishing the language requirements (for Greek and Latin) that impeded ‘access’, as it has become known, has come to pass. Sadly no mention is made of the origins of the myth-encrusted admissions interview. Oxford has evolved across the ensuing century into a resolutely middle class institution – how to continue this expansion remains a heated debate, inside and outside the institution.
Another subject on which external impressions and internal views markedly contrast on what is the purpose of an Oxford education. Brockliss highlights a dichotomy between what academics perceive as Oxford’s defining feature (cutting-edge, high-quality research) and public impressions of it as the intellectual grove of the British and global elites, which puts the focus on teaching. This poses a question about the curriculum. In the sixteenth century the humanist critique of the medieval ‘schools’ with its hefty dose of speculative philosophy and theology had been its practical uselessness even for clerics. The same criticism was levelled in the twentieth century. Some academics, such as Godfrey Hardy, Savilian Professor of Geometry in the inter-war years, revelled in it. Hardy reputedly “delighted in telling audiences that pure mathematics brought no public benefit whatsoever.” Such attitudes, despite lamentations about the functional, utilitarian, even philistine nature of successive governments, has receded. “Impact” is the buzzword of research; and the university is adorned with various “schools” dedicated to various vocational subjects. Admittedly a welcome component of these changing attitudes has been the rise of the natural sciences to an eminence equal with Cambridge and with the arts. Equally, whilst some may condemn (on intellectual, architectural or ethical grounds) the Sa—ód Business School, refusing to engage with the grubby world of commerce looks strange given the business-like nature of colleges as financial institutions and retains a whiff of anachronistic snobbery, however dressed up as hostility to capitalism. Oxford has not, so far, lost out because of the research excellence framework. Moreover, as Brockliss highlights the greater structural question in higher education is less about tuition fees and more about the ways in which people learn.
At times modern Oxford can seem a bundle of paradoxes – an old-fashioned teaching institution mingled with excellent modern research, medieval architectural masterpieces alongside award-winning modern gems, and sometimes stridently left-wing political views jarring with its image as a bastion of conservatism and the establishment. Yet this imperfect institution enjoys a higher reputation and benefits from higher standards of intellectual endeavour among students and academics alike than at any time in its history. Thus, the main message to take from this book would seem to be that Oxford flourishes best when it reforms to conserve, and doing so invariably changes what it conserves.
Edward Hicks  is in his third year of a DPhil in history at St Anne’s College, Oxford.