In Defence of Oxbridge
By= BRYAN WILSON
greducational paradox of our times is the owth in popular regard at all social and political levels for university education, accom- panied by a new uncertainty about the appro- priate style and character of that education. While almost any institution of advanced edu- cation now has a claim to the title of university, those which have been longest so-called, and on the example of which university education is so much demanded, find their methods, their opera- tion and their life-styles under attack.
It began most noticeably with the comments of the Robbins Report, whose authors found it inconvenient to have to except Oxbridge from generalisations made about British universities, and who disliked the slowness (in fact, the very considerable democracy) with which those uni- versities made their decisions. Remarks in a report designed to be monumental echoed in magisterial tones some of the less informed criticism of Oxbridge arising in other places— the sour grapes, the emphasis on equality even at the cost of quality, and the thirst for sen- sationalism which have marked social commen- tary in a society dominated by the mass media. The response, at least in Oxford, has been growing uncertainty and self-doubt—a type of mild, but widely pervasive, neurosis.
The idea that the two universities 'need look- ing into' is almost as recurrent in British public life as similar demands in regard to the House of Lords and the trade unions. And both uni- versities, in characteristically different ways, have set up bodies of inquiry for the contemplation of the institutional navel. The time has come,' the committee said, in an Oxford memorandum in 1964, 'to take a long hard look at ourselves.' That was the response when the one telling para- graph of the Robbins Report reverberated round the dreaming spires.
With just a few years' experience of Oxford, and rather longer experience of Redbrick uni- versities, I wonder what all the uncertainty is about. In national, and international, terms there can be no doubt that Oxford and Cambridge are remarkably successful institutions, and particu- larly so in their undergraduate teaching, which is probably unparalleled in any other university in the world. The Oxbridge don in an under- graduate college apparently does more teaching, despite shorter terms, than his counterparts in Redbrick universities, and the Oxbridge profes- sor, despite restricted lecturing and less adminis- tration, probably spends more time supervising than many of those in other universities. There is no idleness, and the results are good: but the induced uncertainty persists.
Despite the recent growth of graduate studies (none of it planned and some of it—like manage- ment studies at Oxford—specifically not planned), Oxford and Cambridge remain dominantly under- graduate universities. The legitimate demands of the public service and of an informed public will reinforce college dispositions to persist as such. Even the strongest advocates of graduate studies usually pay at least lip-service to the pri- macy of undergraduate studies at Oxbridge.
The outstanding features of Oxbridge under- graduate education, in marked contrast to Redbrick universities, are—apart from the col- legiate system itself—the tutorial with one pupil Dr Bryan Wilson is Reader in Sociology ar Oxford and a Fellow of All Souls. at a time (or at most with twe) and the absence of the lecture-examination nexus which domi- nates Redbrick universities.
The tutorial system obviously works unevenly. Anyone who has had to deal with undergraduates from different colleges sees how variously col- leges treat their junior members. From that experience in Oxford one comes to suspect that the colleges which have grown fastest and grown big discharge their duties less well than those which have grown slowly or which have re- mained small. But, however unevenly, the tutorial system does work, and works to meet the need of undergraduates as no other arrange- ment can. A good tutor can take things up with a man from the point which he has reached: what matters is not what the tutor can tell him, but what the pupil can make his own. Obviously, the context encourages the overflow from purely academic and intellectual to social and cultural concerns, where both tutor and pupil are so disposed. The associations sometimes last a lifetime.
Where lecturers are examiners, as they often are in Redbrick universities, lecture courses become preparatory discourses for examinations. There is less encouragement for students to read, learn or think for themselves. The situation en- courages impersonality and the lack of shared involvement which becomes 'the style of too- rapidly expanded universities. When examiners feel that they can set questions only on the specific topics on which they have lectured, edu- cations suffer a serious short-circuit.
In an age of considerable independence on the part of the young, the emphasis on the extra- professional function of academics is sometimes derided by students and neglected by dons. But those who make themselves available to under- graduates—and even also to graduates—find that behind the new student face there are often many old student problems and anxieties.
To suggest, as the Vice-Chancellor of one new university suggested to the Franks Commission, that 'universities which insist on a large measure of pastoral care,' as does Oxbridge, may 'find themselves unattractive to boys and girls of ability who will not accept the restrictions in- volved,' is to misread the needs of the young, to accept the 'with it' image which a few students would like to present, but which those who really spend much time with undergraduates quickly see through. In effect, it is also a com- petitive bid for the university's popularity with the pop-lobby. Many academics in Redbrick and new universities do, in fact, undertake the extra-
curricular duties of the pastoral tradition, but it is doubtful whether they are anywhere taken more seriously than in Oxbridge. The structural arrangements of some institutions of higher edu- cation mate it difficult for even acutely con- scientious teachers to do much along this line.
If Oxbridge is attacked for its pastoral con- cern by academics who reject their responsibility to stimulate and motivate the young people who become their charges, it is also attacked for taking extra-academic qualities into account in the selection of applicants. With these critics intellect alone counts. The `schoolmeam
sin- drome'—the idea which teachers sometimes get that the only good end for every bright girl is to become schoolma'ams like themselses—is by no means absent in modern university life. The 'new-image' academies with a narrow pro- fessional approach to their 'jobs' sometimes forget that the task of a university is not simply to recruit more academics, but is to educate liberally those whose lives will be lived in other work in the wider society.
Universities have their own ethos and climate, and it is not conditioned by purely intellectual exercises. It participates in a wider, richer range of cultural values. Such an environment may , even be necessary to draw out the intellectual best in undergraduates; it is certainly necessary to provide the social and cultural enrichment which a graduate should carry away with him. The cultivation of the intellect is only one of the civilising processes in which the university is appropriately engaged.
Inevitably where qualities of this kind are prized they must enter into selection as well as into education: the liberal education may he fulfilled at university, but it does not usually begin there. It might begin there for some, but if that 'some' were too many, it would certainly begin for none.
There is one other facet of this matter which Oxbridge critics might bear in mind. More efficient selection methods—more rational, they will no doubt be called—would skim off more effectively the intellectual cream of the schools. Oxbridge gets its full share already, and any- thing, such as completely centralised selection, which increased the proportion could only be to the detriment of other universities. Every university should get some people of the highest ability, and having examined in recent years for Oxford, London, two older, and one less old, civic university, and one of the new univer- sities, I am convinced that, as far as my subject is representative, they do.
The alternative would be a hierarchy of uni- versities on the American pattern. However well that arrangement works there, in a system where all universities, even Oxbridge, draw the major part of their revenues from the same public source, it would be something of a national catastrophe, for universities and for under- graduates. The wide diffusion of near-equal educational opportunities at different universities would be impaired, and less favoured univer- sities might be induced, like their American counterparts, to become preoccupied with their 'success image' rather than with real academic standards. Against this prospect there is a lot to be said .for encouraging Oxford to continue to have regard to qualities other than intellect alone; to take motivation, aspiration, personal interests, talents, qualities of character and even school connection into account in selecting its under- graduates. The unintended consequences of doing otherwise might ramify far beyond the ancient universities.