Declaration of independence

The Ivy League’s autonomy has allowed its members to conquer the world. The UK must loosen the reins on its universities and establish an equivalent, Terence Kealey argues

October 11, 2012

Credit: Corbis

The Ivy League started with an argument. In the early 19th century, the professor of theology at Dartmouth College also acted as pastor of the local First Congregational Church, but in 1805 the college and the church fell out over who should be appointed to the joint role. A decade later the dispute had still not been resolved, so in 1815 the government of New Hampshire - claiming that as it was largely funding the college it should therefore direct it - threw out the trustees and the college president, installed its own people and nationalised the institution.

But the quarrel did not end there. The original trustees sued, and in 1819 the US Supreme Court found for them, judging that the state could not take over an independent corporation. The college thus retained its autonomy, with a charter (originally a royal charter) that enjoyed the status of a contract, the sanctity of which had to be respected.

The ruling was a landmark because it protected the independence from the State of all private American universities. Not that most people cared at the time: they supposed that without state support Dartmouth would soon go bust.

Nine colonial colleges had been created in North America before the US Declaration of Independence in 1776: Harvard in 1636 (as New College); the College of William & Mary in 1693; Yale in 1701 (renamed as such in 1718); Princeton in 1746 (then known as the College of New Jersey); Pennsylvania in 1751 (the College of Philadelphia); Columbia in 1754 (King’s College); Brown in 1764 (Rhode Island College); Rutgers in 1766 (Queen’s College); and Dartmouth in 1769.

The institutions were founded by clergymen as theological academies, with governance structures modelled on the colleges of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. So the governing body, or “corporation”, at Harvard, for example, comprised the president and fellows, they being either academics at the college or local clergymen who helped the institution. To this day, in recapitulation of its Oxbridge roots, the president of Harvard University chairs the corporation, and although the other trustees are now non-executive, they retain the title of fellows.

By 1776, the institutions today known as the Ivy League had already embraced their own governance revolution, when many of the academics on their governing bodies were replaced by politicians. In colonial days, Church and State were not separated, so governments readily funded what were largely theological colleges. This meant that American institutions then were like the mass of UK universities today: private charities that had surrendered some autonomy for state money. And the loss of autonomy was real: at Yale, for example, Connecticut’s governor, deputy governor and six state senators sat on the governing body and largely ran the institution.

But with the separation of Church and State enshrined in the US Constitution, the Ivy League embarked on its second governance revolution during the 19th century: it ejected the politicians from its councils and replaced them with private donors. Why? Because the politicians withheld their money. Whenever a dispute arose with the local colleges - and such disputes were perennial because the institutions had learned to defend their rights - the politicians stopped giving public money to the private bodies. Consequently, the colleges soon found themselves in financial difficulties.

However, to everybody’s surprise (including their own), seven of the colonial colleges survived on alumni donations and tuition fee income alone, and they went on to become the Ivy League (together with Cornell University, which, although founded in 1865, was admitted to what is formally a regional sports league, officially established only in 1954). Only William & Mary and Rutgers University resorted to state ownership.

Most universities in the world today are state institutions, and since higher education and scholarship are conventionally described as public goods that require government money, economic theory predicts that independent universities should languish at the bottom of the major international league tables. But Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities places Harvard first, Stanford University second, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology third, the University of California, Berkeley fourth and the University of Cambridge fifth. Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings 2012-13 rate the California Institute of Technology first, the University of Oxford and Stanford joint second, Harvard fourth and MIT fifth.

Different tables employ different methodologies, yet despite their inevitable shortcomings, they produce similar, credible results.

Of the first 20 universities in the tables, the ARWU lists just seven state-funded universities and only one non-anglophone example (the University of Tokyo). THE’s equivalent figures list eight state universities, including one non-anglophone institution (ETH Zürich - Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich). Broadly speaking, most of the top 100 universities globally are anglophone and/or independent.

Sherlock Holmes noted the curious incident of the dog that did nothing at night-time. That dog here is France. And Germany. And the rest of Europe. A great determinant of university excellence must be gross domestic product per capita - rich countries should have good universities - yet although Europe’s wealth is comparable to that of the US, its universities trail in the global league tables. Why? It may be partly because institutions such as the French grandes écoles do not fit well into the rankings, but largely it is because there is a second determinant of university excellence - autonomy.

The great division globally is between universities that speak English (basically, good) and those that do not (basically, not so good). That is not just because bibliometric measures favour the anglosphere, it is also because England’s universities experienced their own seminal, Dartmouth-like episode in 1687-88.

In those years, James II expelled the president and 25 fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford, replacing them with Catholics. Protestants were outraged, and the episode helped precipitate the Glorious Revolution. That in turn spawned the Bill of Rights of 1689, the third article of which stated: “That the commission for erecting the late Court of Commissioners for Ecclesiastical Causes, and all other commissions and courts of like nature, are illegal and pernicious.” Translated, this meant that England in 1689 recognised the ancient right of its universities to independence.

Europe’s universities were born independent. The first, the University of Bologna, was founded around 1100 by students seeking an education in law. Later on, the universities of Padua and Montpelier were founded, also as a student initiative, offering tutelage in medicine and the sciences. Those Mediterranean universities were democratically run by the students. Soon afterwards, Oxford and Cambridge were created by scholars, and they too were democratic, being run by the masters. But not long thereafter, universities were created by the Church (often from pre-existing cathedral schools) or by monarchs, and they were not so democratic, the key appointment - that of the leader (aka vice-chancellor, rector or president) - often being in the gift of the Church or the Crown.

Worse, the Church then took control of the erstwhile independent, democratic universities. As Pope Boniface VIII stated in 1294: “You Paris masters at your desk seem to think that the world should be ruled by your reasonings. I tell you that this is not so - it is to us that the world is entrusted, not to you.” The authorities thus forced Church oversight on to the universities, which is why many academic titles such as dean and doctor are ecclesiastical. Subsequently, under inquisitions, absolutism and Napoleon, continental Europe fettered its universities, generally nationalising them. But after 1689, England’s took an independent course.

England’s - later the UK’s - universities did not spin out of 1689 fully independent. During the 18th century, monarchs, politicians and bishops interfered relentlessly, but the institutions were on an autonomous trajectory. By 1914 they were as independent as today’s Ivy League universities when - catastrophically - the Great War bankrupted them: their fee income disappeared as young men joined up and their endowment income collapsed under wartime inflation.

So in 1919, the government’s University Grants Committee was instituted, initially with an annual budget of £1 million. Various government agencies were soon providing the bulk of the universities’ income, and with that funding came increasing central control.

The universities of the Dominions inherited the legal independence of 1689, but in various ways they came to similar settlements as the mother country’s: they, too, accepted state cash in exchange for less autonomy. The US has taken a more diverse course and today has a variety of higher education institutions: the Ivy League and similarly independent research universities including MIT, Stanford and the University of Chicago; the independent liberal arts colleges; state universities; state community colleges; and for-profit institutions.

We thus have an experiment involving different types of university, with the global league tables showing that (overlooking outliers) the US independent research universities are the best in the world; the anglophone legally independent but financially dependent universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and University College London come close; the state universities come after them; and the rest come nowhere. (However, worth noting is the fact that most of the rankings are research-orientated, to the disadvantage of the liberal arts colleges, which teach superbly, and the community colleges, which widen access. The for-profits rarely do well in any category.)

Why is autonomy an independent variable for university excellence? One answer is monopoly: when a government nationalises the universities and - as generally happens - abolishes tuition fees, it enjoys monopolistic control of higher education. Why, therefore, would it put into the universities a penny more than the absolute minimum? As the 2003 European Commission report The Role of the Universities in the Europe of Knowledgeacknowledged, the consequence is that “American universities have far more substantial means than those of European universities - on average, two to five times higher per student…The gap stems primarily from the low level of private funding of higher education in Europe.” Since one source of university excellence is money, the free-market US beats monopolistic Europe because students and their parents will contribute more in fees than will governments.

Competition is another source of excellence: when students pay, independent universities compete to satisfy them where state universities need not. Equally, in their search for reputation, independent institutions fight for research cash in ways that their public equivalents need not. And the former are more likely than apparatchiks in some distant capital to know how they should be run.

Moreover, the endowments of the US independents (Harvard, $30.7 billion (about £19 billion); Yale, $19.3 billion; Princeton, $17 billion; Stanford, $17 billion) show how public goods can attract private philanthropy, which in turn supplies social justice: the Ivy League operates “needs-blind admissions”, so no one is refused entry if they cannot pay.

Competition, moreover, spills over: higher education in the US is benchmarked by the Ivy League, so one reason the country’s state universities are unusually good is that they are forced to compete not only against each other (there are in effect 50 such systems in the US) but also against the Ivies, which is why some state universities have accumulated startling endowments themselves (the University of Texas, more than $17 billion; the University of Michigan, $7.8 billion; Texas A&M University, $7 billion; the University of California system, $6.3 billion; and the University of Virginia, $5 billion).

And then there’s academic freedom. In Academic Freedom in the Wired World: Political Extremism, Corporate Power, and the University (2008), Robert O’Neil, the former president of Virginia, reported how a politician, on disagreeing with Rodney Smolla, director of the Institute of Bill of Rights Law at state-owned William & Mary, threatened him. “Your institution will pay for this,” he said, to which Smolla replied: “I’ve just moved to the (independent) University of Richmond.” It is no coincidence that many of the challenging thinkers of our time, from Milton Friedman (Chicago) on the Right to Noam Chomsky (MIT) on the Left, have been based in independent universities.

An Ivy League university is independent in its undergraduate teaching, too, with none of the caps on tuition fees or numbers (nor any of the subjections to agencies such as the Office for Fair Access) that shackle our own. However, it does have competitive access to government research funding.

Ever since Margaret Thatcher’s introduction in 1980 of fees for foreign students, the UK’s universities have grown ever more independent (witness their ever-improving performance in the global league tables), so let us finalise that liberalisation and create our own Ivy League. How? The leading institutions should be free to cherry-pick quality-related (QR) research money from the Higher Education Funding Council for England - and that alone - because it is their access to Hefce’s teaching money that shackles them with caps and subjects them to Offa. The universities should thus be freed to charge the fees the market will bear and to expand or contract at will, while still accessing Hefce research money Ivy League-style.

In its Education at a Glance 2012 report, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that England’s tuition fees had produced the world’s most “advanced” support for students - without damaging social justice. If we completed our liberalisation and made the creation of a UK Ivy League a national goal, we could dominate the global league tables as readily as we now garner Olympic medals.

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