Size and Shapelessness


J.R. Lucas

As the last College Meeting drew to its weary close, the Warden was moved to address the empty pews on the wickedness of not making attendance at meetings of the Governing Body a first call on one's time. Of course, it was waste of words to address them to absent auditors, but the sentiment was apposite. But it is inevitable with a Governing Body of fifty that each fellow feels on average only a 2% say in, and responsibility for, the affairs of the College. Large bodies are ineffective, and as the Fellowship has grown, papers have proliferated, committees have encroached on every available hour, and college life has degenerated into administration.

Similar stories can be told of other colleges and university departments, and junior members suffer other, often greater, inconveniences form there being too many. But when colleagues are invited to meditate on the dangers of excess bulk, they shrug their shoulders, and say "Like Topsy, we just growed". It is false. We did not just grow, we grew as a result of decisions, and a corporate failure to think things through, and unless we clear our minds now, our Alma Mater will continue her middle-aged spread into fatty degeneracy.

Colleges are good because they articulate and facilitate the ideal of a common life lived in the pursuit of shared intellectual values. But i cannot have all that many colleagues, or they cease to be colleagues and become mere acquaintances. The same is true of departments. Look through sections two and three of the university telephone directory, and note the unbroken column inches, indicating the impaired communities, whose members cannot really know one another, or be sensitive to what each is thinking. If Oxford is to do well in the next century, it needs to restore the conditions of intellectual initiative and stimulus, sometimes by trimming, sometimes by dividing, often by decentralising, the smaller units of which it is composed.

One of the ill consequences of the quarrel between Jowett and Pattison has been a polarization between colleges and university, and an assumption that departments ought to be uncollegiate. The reverse is true, and the rather close association between some new colleges and some departments is to be welcomed. The future shape of Oxford should be one in which every member of congregation is a full fellow of some small institution in which he lives a large part of his life, and for which he shares responsibility because he has an effective say in its affairs.

Many different pressures have resulted in over-growth. If we can recognise them, we may be able to resist them. Let me identify three. One is the ratchet effect of the argument from accommodation. Again and again in my time as a tutor there has been an accommodation crisis, with anxious meetings of concerned bodies, appeals for more money and sacrifices on the part of others. We dun Old Members, we squeeze tutors out of college, we use up endowments, buy up family houses, and accommodate all our junior members, but then find that some actually want to live out of college, or would rather live out of college than not come to Oxford, and we take the extra man on the understanding that he will not have rooms in college, and the cycle starts up again. But space in the centre of Oxford is limited, and is not just ours for the having. Oxford is not a campus university but a university town, and the town has its rights too. Too seldom we look at ourselves from outside, and see how cancerous our growth must seem to the City of Oxford, which rightly resents residential accommodation being removed from the housing stock, and being dedicated exclusively and in perpetuity to university purposes. We ought to accept that there should be no expansion whatever in graduate or undergraduate numbers, and that in so far as we need new research institutes---and we shall--they should be located, like the nuclear fusion and fission institutes at Culham and Harwell, at a decent distance from the city itself. The Bicester College of Biotechnology and the Brise Norton School of Experimental Theology may be on the map of things to come.

A second pressure for expansion has arisen from tutors unwillingness to teach their subjects. Time was when a history tutor would teach from the death of Diocletian to the Great Reform Act, not because he knew the whole of history but because he knew he did not need to in order to teach. Once we abandon the idea of the tutorial as an occasion for the undergraduate to try out his ideas on an older man, and think of it as a pupil-processing exercise, the argument from expertise gets going: "I am an expert on Merovingian Kingship---I cannot possibly listen to essays on Abelard or the War of Spanish Succession"; "I know about Ruthenium---we must have another tutor to cover Rubidium". We have long abandoned the idea that a tutor should reckon to teach---though not to know about---the whole syllabus, but ought to restore it to its proper place in the Oxford firmament. One of my few successful tutorial encounters was a term when I had to teach a special subject I knew hardly anything about. With the aid of a reading list from a colleague, I could set sensible essays, and in sharing my pupil's perplexity about what the Chosen Authorities meant, I was able to reduce them to one-syllable words which she too could understand.

If tutors were more willing to spread themselves, we should be able to resist the third great pressure for expansion, the argument from innovation. Of course there are new subjects. We are constantly thinking of them ourselves, and following them up. But it does not follow that we should have special institutes with special funding, a special syllabus and specialist pupils. For the most part we shall not get the funding in the penurious future that lies ahead, and for the most part should reckon to earn our keep by teaching people to think about the subjects they most want to think about. Our predecessors were able to pursue their own researches while listening to bread-and-butter essays on Stubbs Charters, and we ought to envisage the possibility that we might conceivably do the same. We might have to. One of the dominating factors in any discussion of the future shape and size of the university is the increasing unenthusiasm of the taxpayer---whatever the political complexion of future governments---to pay for academic activities. We should be wise to keep our sails reefed and a weather eye on havens where we can trade our marketable services.

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