Memorandum submitted to Franks Commission

by

Mr J. R. LUCAS

I

I am a tutor, aged 35, who was brought up in Durham, and who have been since graduating, at Cambridge, Princeton and Leeds. I want to explain why I think Oxford and Cambridge to be, in spite of many defects, the best universities in the world, and why I brush off all tentative approaches from other places in the U. K. and North America. I believe my views are shared by a large number of other tutors, who are less able to speak than I am because they have not had actual experience of other places.

II

The peculiar merit of Oxford and Cambridge1 for a man of my age or younger is that we are members of self-governing corporations rather than employees of an academic business. The fact that one has an effective voice in the running of University and College makes a very great difference both to the conduct of affairs and to one's own feeling about them. Oxford is run by dons for dons and by tutors for undergraduates: other universities are run by administrators for administrators. Oxford is therefore academically far more efficient than other universities, because academic considerations do not have to give way to administrative convenience. The administrators in Oxford are servants, and often have a tough time carrying out the wishes of their masters: the administrators in provincial and American universities are the masters, and it is the academics who have the tough time. Being myself an academic, I like it the Oxford way.

III

In the first place, decisions, although reached slowly, are well-informed. Since everybody concerned is consulted, there is an opportunity for every relevant fact and every reasonable argument to be adduced. Other systems produce much quicker, bolder, or more imaginative results, but, all too easily, ones which are ill- considered or out of touch with realities. One can change the syllabus elsewhere at the stroke of a pen: the interminable discussions in the faculties at Oxford reduce proposed reforms from being merely exercises in the optative mood to realistic appraisals of results in terms of undergraduate essays that will actually get written. Or, to take a very different example, when last year undergraduates were being turned away from Hall because it was too full, I got to know of it almost as quickly as the Domestic Bursar, because some of a tutor's pupils know him well enough to tell him things; and if the Bursar had not organized extra dinners for the extra undergraduates, the College would have known about it too. Administrators in other universities do not know so well what is going on. Because power is concentrated in fewer hands, it is informed by fewer eyes. However well- intentioned he may be, the Vice-Chancellor of a provincial university does not himself see much, and is not likely to be told much: in particular, he is not likely to be told anything by undergraduates. Decentralization makes it possible for decisions to be taken near the grass roots, in full knowledge of what is going on there, and with effective feedback about the way in which policies are actually working out.

IV

In the second place, decentralization encourages initiative. The youngest Fellow can air his views, and, if he meets with any support, put forward a specific proposal with a tolerable chance of its being accepted by his College: and an undergraduate can canvass his tutor's support for his pet panacea, in the knowledge that if he can convince his tutor, something positive may get done. Such an atmosphere encourages us to think of ways of getting things done better. The discussion of reforms is not a mere academic exercise, but an activity that can have results. Therefore it is worth doing sensibly and responsibly. In other universities, discussions about what ought to be done were carried on with an air of defeated futility, because 'They wouldn't hear of it': the reason why 'they' would not hear of it was not, as was widely believed, that 'they' were peculiarly wicked or stupid, but that 'they' could not hear of it, not being present at the discussion. In Oxford, although one is often infuriated by the invincible ignorance, complacency, or prejudice of other people, at least one has the satisfaction of being able to get at them. The people one is talking with are people who matter. Nobody, at least ideally,2 is outside the pale. One feels that one can, without becoming a university politician, still have some influence on the course of events, and that therefore it is worth thinking of practical needs and practical remedies. I do not wish to suggest that such changes as I have been able to bring about have been all that many or all that beneficial: some---various Entrance Scholarships based on General Papers instead of Special Subject Papers, at Corpus, Cambridge, and at Merton--- have proved to be failures. Nor am I confident that the ideas and innovations of a professional administrator are less imaginative or less effective than those of an amateur academic. But I am confident that no matter how good a Vice-Chancellor or a Registrar may be, there are some worthwhile ideas which will occur to some don and not to him. A centralized system kills all initiative except that at the centre: the Oxford system encourages initiative everywhere. Therefore the Oxford system is better. This is why Oxford, contrary to the view put forward by her detractors, is not more oldfashioned than other universities, but is much more up-to-date. In other universities they are always waiting for some Vice- Chancellor, Registrar, Dean or Professor to die before a much-needed reform can take place: in Oxford nobody is in a position to resist proposals to the death; our die- hards are treated with courtesy and neglect: they are not hated, because they can be voted down.

Although in recent years Oxford may not have kept pace with all that needed to be done, I suspect we have failed less badly than many other institutions. It would be most regrettable if now, in pursuit of some ideal of administrative efficiency or in order to push through quickly a number of possibly desirable reforms, we should do anything to weaken the many individual initiatives dispersed throughout the whole university. I shall argue later3 that the advantages of centralization, great as they may be in business, the Civil Service, or the Army, are not to be had in university affairs: for the present I only want to point out that the price of centralization, in that it precludes the possibility of our generating our own reforms in time to come, is prohibitive.

V

A third merit of the Oxford system of decision-making is that decisions, when they are made, are actually carried out. Other systems produce many more decisions much more rapidly: but though they look impressive on paper, they have a marked tendency to be ignored in practice. Most American faculty members regard the Administration as their natural enemies: the Administration often requires faculty members to report on students' attendance at lectures, and the faculty members turn some figures in. In Oxford, though I often disagree with decisions taken, I have many motives for carrying them out, which my American and provincial counterparts lack. For one thing I know what the de- cision actually was, because I was there when it was taken. A directive from the Administration, couched in officialese, and placed on a distant notice board or half-way down my waste-paper basket, is a less effective form of communication. Secondly, although I may have argued against a decision, at least I know what the arguments for it were: this makes the decision more intelligible, and often more acceptable. I do not think the decision capricious or spiteful, even though I think it wrong or wrong-headed. Thirdly, and most importantly, even where the arguments in favour of a decision command no respect, the voices do. These are people I know, often whom I like, and who often have co-operated with me, and with whom I feel a consequent inclination to co- operate. Decisions in 0xford are actually carried out. It is a rare merit.

VI

The Oxford system makes for more intellectual freedom than is to be found elsewhere in Britain or America. It does not affect my interests if a particular professor thinks I am a fool or a nuisance. There is no promotion in his gift, no efficiency bar, no grants at his disposal. I am free to disagree with him and show him up as a fool with complete impunity. Although often, in England at least, provincial professors are careful not to let their judgement be biassed by personal considerations, and may be at pains to promote those they dislike or despise, the young lecturer cannot be sure of this. There are always arguments of prudence to swallow the final riposte, and to treat the professor's views with a respect they do not deserve. And this in turn can give rise to irrational hatreds of the sort portrayed in Lucky Jim. It cannot happen in Oxford --- in Arts subjects at least. Because every man serves two masters he is at the mercy of none. Within very wide limits, he is free to act and speak as he thinks best; if he falls out with his faculty, his College will support him, and if he quarrels with his College, other members of his faculty will speak up for him. It enables some men to be lazy, but encourages many more to be creative.

VII

The Oxford system is better not only for dons, but for undergraduates. An undergraduate in Oxford has access to the seats of power through a person he knows and meets regularly. He does not have to go to a strange man in strange office if he is in trouble or perplexity and needs some special decision made on his behalf. A tutor can discuss the problem and very often say on the spot what the College is likely to decide. He is able to help his pupils because he has power. It is this that lecturers in other universities lack, and it is because of this they cannot act as tutors. In my experience, lecturers at provincial universities do try and help their pupils, much more than is commonly supposed: but although they can offer friendship and advice, they cannot give the support that the young man really wants most, because they do not have an effective say in decisions which vitally affect his future. As soon as anything important crops up, it has to be referred to a professor or Registrar, who is unknown and appears to be unknowing. Lecturers in provincial universities, because they have no power, are unable to help in any serious way. they know it, and the young men know it, and therefore, in spite of considerable efforts, they cannot act as tutors.

VIII

All these advantages accrue not from the social amenities or architectural beauties of the Colleges, but from the power structure. People often think that it is the former two which constitute the essence of the College system, and that we could keep these as attractive features of Oxford, while setting up a professional administration to run the place. Without wishing to minimize the social or aesthetic attractions of Oxford, I should insist that its peculiar merit is that every Fellow is a member of a corporation which is small enough for him to have a real say in its decisions, and large enough for its decisions to be of importance to him. Other systems of administration may be more highly organized or more efficient, but they have the crucial disadvantage from the academic point of view that the administrator decides the way the academic wants him to only if it seems good to the administrator to do so; and in an imperfect world, in which neither the academic nor the administrator is perfectly rational, there is often a difference between what the academic thinks right and what the administrator thinks right, and this difference is always resolved the administrator's way: under the College system, however, the weight of human imperfection inclines in the opposite direction; if a Fellow wants something, then other Fellows have, in the absence of telling arguments either way, a good reason for letting him have it: for they all know that they may want his support at some later stage for their pet proposals. The burden of proof is in his favour, rather than against him. And therefore, quite apart from the factor of fellow feeling, which operates powerfully in some Colleges, there is a built-in tendency for the academic to get his own way---and this, in an academic institution, is a good thing.

IX

Most of the recent criticism of Oxford has been beside the mark. Much of it has come from a very narrow front-- -three Members of Parliament, the Manchester Guardian, The Observer, The Economist and the New Statesman. A good deal of it has been ill-informed, and in one case it has been downright dishonest. One criticism, however, which The Economist has been plugging, has gained some currency, namely that we are inefficient, and that the College system is antiquated and archaic, and ought to be replaced by a new, highly centralized, twentieth century, administration. I have tried to show some of the merits of the College system. I would also maintain that the demerits are not nearly so serious as The Economist makes out. The assumed analogy between a university and a business is not valid. In a business it is important that decisions should be rapid and uniform: the end- product of the business is, characteristically, standardized, and standard procedures are the rational ones to impose on executives. In a university the taking of decisions is much less important. The two ``products'' we really exist to produce are the insights that come upon the individual in his rooms, or in the Library, or in the Meadows, and the arguments that two individuals have with each other, in tutorials, or in seminars, or on punts. Bad decisions may frustrate the production of these, but good decisions cannot do more than create conditions in which they can occur. People will come to Oxford to meet thinkers or to argue with them, but never to admire our administrative machinery, no matter how much we altered it to please The Economist. It is no criticism of Oxford to say that its structure is amorphous, because it is not our business to be all doing the same thing but to be each doing his own thing.

It does not matter if two different Colleges pursue different policies, because there is no premium, as there is in the Civil Service, on consistency. All that is important is that both Colleges should be meeting the different needs of different people. In a university, unlike an army, no orders are better than bad orders. The criticisms of our administrative system which are based on the assumption that the University is, or ought to be, run like a business, or the Civil Service, or the Army, are beside the mark. It is only an inconvenience that decisions are taken slowly, and that different parts of the University act differently, and that there is no overall master plan. And it would not be worth removing any of these inconveniences at the price of disfranchising the ordinary don.

X

I have discussed only one of the current criticisms of Oxford, because this is the one on which I can contribute a worm's eye view. I will end by enumerating some other criticisms, which do stick.

XI

First, it follows from what I have said that it is wrong that there should be any `non-Fellows'. It would not be a solution to expand the existing Colleges, because the crucial attraction of being a Fellow is that of having an effective say in the affairs of the College, which is impossible if the Governing Body is too large. Trinity, King's and St John's, Cambridge, are too large. We therefore need to found new Colleges, and the existing Colleges, especially the richer ones, should be asked to pay a heavy tax for the purpose. The new Colleges need not be started on a very lavish scale. Departments and faculties should not be allowed to make appointments without having first made sure that there was a Fellowship available for the man appointed.

XII

Secondly, there are too many tutorials. Undergraduates are being given more than they can prepare for: tutors are giving more than they can if they are to give them effectively, and if they are to do creative work during term. No undergraduate should have more than one individual tutorial a week, some would fare better with one a fortnight. Tutors should teach their pupils- less, and do more to get to know them outside tutorials.

XIII

Thirdly, we should do more in the way of holding seminars and classes for undergraduates. It is particularly helpful to have two dons present, who can shoot each other down, or dons from different faculties arguing about some borderline topic.

XIV

Fourthly, the average age of tutors is getting too high. I state this criticism without proposing a remedy. It might be better if Colleges appointed younger men--- but that could be unfair on older candidates: it might be desirable that tutors should move on to other posts in their later years---but again there will be objections. At present, however, there is too large a gap between tutors and undergraduates. The typical tutor now is a middle-aged man. It was better when tutors were thought of as being young men.

XV

Fifthly, a much more difficult criticism to formulate. Many people find the intellectual atmosphere of Oxford arid and sterile. They are inhibited from saying what they believe to be true, because they fear they will be exposed to ridicule or hypercritical comment. It is more important to be able to dismiss a book with an epigrammatic sneer than to have written it. It is better to stay silent than run the slightest risk of being shown to be wrong. Our criticisms are too catty, and not constructive enough. We lack a certain sort of honesty and intellectual generosity.


1. Hereafter, for brevity, I shall not speak of Cambridge.

2. See below, Section XI.

3. See below, Section IX.

For the cross examination on this memorandum see:
For what it felt like to be cross-examined on this memorandum see:


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