On tap but not on top

September 8, 2006

Academic self-governance is on the wane across the UK, Michael North reports. But Bernard Crick says that fears for democracy at Oxford are unjustified

On air recently, arguing with a tabloid leader-writer about I forget what, I happened to quote the old Fabian socialist Beatrice Webb:

"Democracy is not the multiplication of ignorant opinions." Dozens of e-mails accused me of being "elitist", but a precious handful praised me for courage.

Well, one may need real courage to venture into the Oxford University storm in a teacup. Gladstone at his boldest reformed Oxford by an Act of Parliament to allow, inter alia , married dons. Now at least the vice-chancellors of Oxford and Cambridge are trying to get colleagues to reform themselves. And, after all, the need is always for good government as well as democracy.

Moves towards more centralised and co-ordinated financial control using advisers from business have raised the counter-cry of democracy. Such debates arouse my curiosity both as a student of government and a political theorist. The student of government notes that Congregation is called "the parliament of Oxford"; but parliaments are seldom democratic in any majoritarian sense.

If, as the writer Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "democracy is what the crowd wants", then the democracy of Oxford got us all into trouble by refusing the customary honorary degree to a Prime Minister of the day, an act of high-principled political recklessness that opened the way for the argument that higher education does not contribute nearly enough to the economy. The Treasury and the Department of Education then had to put teeth into the rhetoric and devised measurable performance indicators - hence the terrible mania of research ratings. The vice-chancellors of the day, led by Fred Dainton of Nottingham University, foolishly played along, pretending that all real academic subjects somehow boosted the economy. Reluctant (possibly) higher civil servants saw through this, or thought that it would never really hit their Oxbridge. The vice-chancellors lacked political sense and courage when they might have stirred parents, "middle England"

indeed, to defend liberal education against the excessively vocational.

As a political theorist I note that democracy is "an essentially contestable concept". Aristotle saw democracy as an element in the best possible state: the wise ruling with the consent of the many. To describe the fiercely independent oligarchies of the Oxbridge colleges as democratic is a wee bit fuzzy. If they are democratic at all, in a Periclean sense (and he, after all, was a demagogue playing the crowd with ideals of democracy to cement his own personal power, rather like Tony Blair today), then they must be democratic only in a way that sees students as non-citizens. Some colleges I have visited radiate a highly democratic ethos among the elite - an elite dedicated to the good purpose of educating others; but in other colleges stubborn personal animosities sour the system from which, or because of which, the security and immobility of appointments allows no escape.

Too many cries of democracy are self-indulgent red-herring rhetoric or simple intellectual muddle. The issue is one of good government, a rational use of resources for acceptable purposes. This is not to endorse the business model, still less to imagine that all businessmen are efficient and that success in business management is necessarily a transferable skill.

Some can do good government, some can't. Some are flexible, some aren't.

Some academics moving into university administration are good at it from experience, some lack elementary skills. There is such a thing as training, of course. Head teachers of schools now endure and usually benefit from training courses in school management.

Of course there are formidable cultural factors. The Thatcherite consumer society is far more driven by monetary rewards than in the past, although Thatcher only accelerated a trend. When the post-Robbins expansion took place, many Oxbridge firsts who couldn't get a fellowship or got tired of hanging about tutoring applied for jobs in provincial universities. But now, more and more go straight to the City. And in those universities at which most of our nation's students study, I have seen good departments of theoretical economics transformed into "Business, accountancy and economics".

I started teaching in the mid-1950s and can remember with humour and rage how inefficient and eccentric the old system of academic self-government could be. When I took my first chair at Sheffield University, I lost my department's car-parking allocation by asking my senior lecturer to attend a heads of departments meeting instead of me. I went roaring to the dean, who said: "Well, if you send a boy on a man's errand, that can happen. Come along yourself, and I'm sure we can put it right." The old fellows enjoyed petty business. That kind of thing has gone for ever in most universities.

But has the pendulum swung too far? It has in many of the provincial universities, certainly. I fancy that the big universities of London, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh have found some kind of middle way or Aristotelian via media with "the expert on tap but not on top", as the political theorist Harold Laski once said of ministers and civil servants.

But Oxford and Cambridge remain with a shambolic governance more confederal than even federal. No wonder the old South found it hard to wage the War of the Rebellion efficiently rather than just bravely. But it might need an Act of Parliament again to sort it out, if a Gladstone could ever emerge in today's climate.

Sir Bernard Crick is emeritus professor of politics at Birkbeck, University of London, and author of In Defence of Politics and George Orwell: A Life .

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