Tea party is on ice

October 15, 2004

Oxbridge academics do not want a revolution, they just want their freedom, says Anthony Smith

It is difficult to understand just what everyone means when they ask whether Oxford University should "go private". Dependence on government funding has declined in a generation from about 60 per cent to less than 30 per cent and may fall further. But major research universities can never become fully private institutions again because of the sheer cost of research. There can be no Boston Tea Party on the Isis or the Cam.

It would require an endowment enlarged by several billions of pounds for any university to sever its financial bonds with the government. Even if Oxford or Cambridge University acquired such a sum, it would merely enable them to maintain the existing level of activity. So I doubt whether "privatisation" is being considered seriously.

But the question has been raised by former students and by journalists, who can sense the exasperation in universities everywhere about the extent of government intrusion into the workings of autonomous, albeit dependent institutions.

The universities have in practice been nationalised since the funding changes of the Thatcher era. We were made to feel that producing graduates was a national economic function rather than a purely intellectual one.

That was a preposterous start to a demoralising process of ever-eroding autonomy.

The current wave of threatened intrusion concerns the Government's desire - which, of course, everyone shares - for a better social balance among the student population of leading universities. Some predict that institutions will be fined for failing to recruit a sufficient proportion of their students from state schools. I cannot believe that any government would stoop to such a measure, which would, at a stroke, turn universities into a kind of "outsourced" public service.

We have to keep stating the arguments for the autonomy of higher education before it is destroyed by a mixture of political vindictiveness and the blindness of the audit culture. The final step would be to end the right of academics to choose their own students.

The whole tutorial system of Oxbridge - which is the one surviving function in which the two ancient universities are internationally unsurpassed - is predicated on the idea that tutors select the students with whom they will interact for three or more years.

The Schwartz report places that in jeopardy. Anyone who observes the admissions process can see the scrupulousness with which it is conducted.

But you cannot interview students who do not apply. Oxbridge has made diligent efforts to attract applicants from a wide field for many years.

The results have been slim because of the condition of our schooling system where working-class children are more likely than middle-class children to be inhibited from recognising their Oxbridge potential.

Moreover, private schools are increasingly selective and provide scholarships for the able but impecunious. So some of the best working-class Oxbridge students now come, paradoxically, from the private sector. To draw a Manichaean line between state and private misses the point.

The number of students who now achieve A grades renders it ever harder to select the best without interviewing. It is an expensive and time-consuming process, but the interview is the only way to detect talent that has been previously misdirected by poor secondary teaching or through social disadvantage.

What we need is not "to go private" but to take back our autonomy as academic communities. We can do that through more effective public demonstrations of the value and quality of what we do. How rapidly the atmosphere of anger and distrust would dissipate if Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, told the world how glad they were that the UK had retained two universities of international standing. But new Labour today is suffering from an internal compulsion to class warfare and has picked Oxbridge as a convenient class enemy. I do not think that such healing words will be spoken.

Anthony Smith is president of Magdalen College, Oxford.

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