Not a Green Light


The Green Paper on Oxford's Academic Strategy (Gazette vol. 135 supplement II) needs to be read carefully. It is couched in managementspeak, full of superlatives, and proposing a strategy paved with good intentions. It brings out some difficult choices Oxford must face. But it suggests many others that should not be addressed, and would be damaging if decided in the way suggested.

The language should put members of Congregation on their guard. Besides the relentless use of superlatives, `divisionalisation' introduces itself, and the University is invited to ``Adopt an organisational structure which strikes an appropriate balance between inclusiveness, decisiveness, responsiveness accountability and effectiveness'. Most significant is the use of the word `staff''. Dons are no longer co-owners, but employees. Nor is this a mere verbal lapse. The whole document exudes the assumption that Oxford is a business to be managed so as to maximise its 2.4 Research output and 2.5 Learning. That is the assumption that underlies the Lambert Review. But the Lambert Review was a document produced by the Treasury to enhance business-university collaboration, and viewed universities from a utilitarian standpoint. It regarded Oxford and Cambridge with particular disfavour for enfranchising all dons and not being organized on hierarchical lines like other universities. In order to put the skids under the two universities it included, with Brown-like menace, the recommendation that the Vice-chancellors should report in three years' time on the progress of reform. That the Green paper (para 73) should welcome that threat should constitute at the very least an amber light.

Does it matter that we should become employees instead of co-owners? It does. It alters entirely the view we have of ourselves, and inhibits the risky pursuit of intellectual innovation. I was lucky enough to enjoy the equivalent of a ``parson's freehold''. It meant that I could afford to fly in the face of peer-group opinion, and follow my own thoughts to whatever conclusion they would lead me to. Each week I get from OUCS a report on the number of hits on different articles on my web site. Invariably there are more than a hundred for one which was reckoned by a bevy of Vice-chancellors to be too risky a project to be worth backing; and usually the second most popular is one about the Huxley-Wilbeforce encounter, which was not really philosophical at all. Would I have taken time off to write it, if my philosophical colleagues were saying, or might even just be supposed to be thinking, that I ought to be churning out philosophy in order to protect our five star rating at the next Assessment?

Academic research is not only risky, but necessarily individual. Only the academic himself is in a position to decide whether it is worth pursuing an idea. Not only is he less likely to if he is looking over his shoulder to think what his colleagues might decide, but their decision is necessarily less informed than his on some crucial issues. They will not be aware of some of the implications, some of the possibilities, some of the objections, which he will have already pondered. The defect is worse if peer-group reviews is formalised. Who will be willing to be the judges? It is a problem I have already encountered at the national level: first-class academics have better things to do with their time than plough through the work of their less good colleagues in order to decide, conscientiously and fairly, whether it is marginally second-rate or merely third-rate. It sounds good to ``review individual contributions, with scope to enhance financial rewards, re-balance academic duties, and address under-performance'', but actually it is a recipe for mediocrity: a few lazy dons may be spurred into activity, but many may be inhibited from following their own bent, and the waste of time will be prodigious.

There are other costs. Well-monitored employed staff will endeavour to meet the targets and benchmarks set by their superiors, but for that very reason will not so readily exercise their own judgement about what had best be done, and will not identify so strongly with the institution they serve. Often small details make all the difference. In a North American university there was a notice up in the xerox room ``Your bad organization is not our problem'', and woe betide the lecturer who had not completed his copy at least 24 hours before the handouts were required. When Merton had its first copying machine, there was similar move to keep the bumbling fingers of the fellows off it. But the fellows decided differently. Years later, when the printers were on strike, a colleague used his college key and stayed up all night copying a finals paper so that when candidates turned up at the Examination Schools the next morning, they would be able to take the exam they had prepared for. Identification with the institution is valuable. It is one major reason why academics choose to be at Oxford despite low pay. But it involves their being fully enfranchised members with an effective say, and not being monitored, assessed and reviewed, to see if their performance conforms with current guidelines.

Two proposals about teaching are sensible. Graduate students often make good teachers, because they are close to the undergraduates and have not forgotten what it was like to face examinations. Bernard Williams told me that during the student troubles in Cambridge almost everything was complained about, but there were no complaints about being taught by graduates. We need to be very careful not to over-work them---when I was a graduate I found that four hours a week was the most I could mange. But it would be good both for the graduates themselves and for the undergraduates to encourage graduates to teach.

It would be good also for the undergraduates to have fewer tutorials. The Franks recommendation that there should be only one a week was ignored for most of my time as a tutor, and even when it was recognised that undergraduates and tutors alike were suffering from too much teaching, many undergraduates were having at least twelve a term. It was largely due to ``Prisoners' Dilemmas'' both as between colleges and, in two-subject schools, between different subjects. We need to think through what tutorials, lectures and seminars are for, and to recognise that although tutorials are effective at cramming pupils so as to improve results in the Norrington Tables, we are really doing more for a pupil by allowing him to find his own level among the IIiis while discovering intellectual interests of his own, than by machining him into a IIi. Contrary to my general distrust of centralised authority, we may here need an inter-collegiate and inter-faculty watch-dog to police the rule against over-teaching.

I may be wrong about graduates. I should be reluctant to cut numbers of undergraduates, who are very good, and whom we teach rather well, in order to have more graduates, where we fare no better than many other good universities. But pecuniary considerations, I realise, may outweigh all else.

There are many other problems that Oxford, both the University and the Colleges, face, but the Green Paper does little to help us. It is full of words like `ensure', `foster' `review'', and the like, each one of which would introduce a layer of meddling into decisions which those taking them are already doing to the best of their ability. What does strategy V(c) really mean? Is it to be supposed that Colleges do not try to admit the best undergraduates? or is it a covert move to take away admission from the Colleges, and concentrate them in a university admissions office, it being supposed that the latter, not being confined by college choice, will be better able to choose the best, than college tutors who know the subjects and will be actually teaching those admitted?

Oxford is not a factory. The management approach is inappropriate, bound to distort understanding, and likely to lead to deleterious policies. No model drawn from some other sphere of life is entirely suitable, but the discourse of politics is the least unsuitable. We are a society based on a shared concern for the things of the mind, but comprising members with very different but strongly held opinions having interests that often are opposed. We have, and need to have, institutions which allow each to do his own thing, while encouraging us to work together with others to achieve limited common goals. As in political communities there are checks and balances which do not pretend to achieve the best but attempt to offer some security against some things going wrong. There is, as there needs to be, an earthy reality about some of our arrangements. If people look to America for guidance, they will find it in the Federalist Papers (New York, 1788), not in the glossy superlatives of modern tracts on Management Studies.