The Oxford Vote

Peter Pulzer

The last ten years have seen a major expansion in the education service. The next ten will see expansion continue – as it must, if education is to make its full contribution to the vitality of our society and our economy.

Education: A Framework for Expansion, presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mrs Margaret Thatcher), December 1972.

I do not think that irrevocable damage has yet been done, but I do regard the situation as alarming in the sense that the contribution made by Britain to world science will be severely reduced if the factors now operating are allowed to continue for a number of years.

Sir Andrew Huxley, Presidential Address to Royal Society, 30 November 1984.

A lot has happened in the 12 years that separate these two pronouncements, much of which can be summed up as the revolution of declining expectations. Few now assume that the world will continue to supply more of everything and that each of its inhabitants can count on automatic increments of welfare. The result is that competition for resources has become fiercer and, in some cases at least, more ill-tempered. That is the context for the vote on 29 January by Congregation of Oxford University, by 738 votes to 319, not to award an Honorary Doctorate of Civil Law to the Prime Minister. The vote was not an end in itself. If it had been, some of the accusations of personal spite that have been levelled at the majority would be justified. It was a means to an end and the end was political: not in the partisan sense of Left versus Right, but as a statement of the changing relationship between academia and politicians.

There are two main components of that relationship: the political atmosphere in which we now live, and the universities’ own reassessment of their place in it. The atmosphere is that of the politics of conviction, of which Mrs Thatcher is the principal prophet, but not the only practitioner. No one has repudiated more explicitly than she the old consensus that saw Britain – for better or worse – through the post-war decades. Consensus does not mean absence of conflict. There were plenty of strikes and demos, and some violence, in those years. But the social fabric held together, because most people most of the time kept to the recognised rules of the game. Oxford, with Cambridge, had an accepted place in this world, as the principal supplier of civil servants, bishops, judges and prime ministers. As long ago as 1970 the Times complained that this cosy world of interlocking acquaintanceship offered the country no real choice: both parties were led by men who had been at Oxford together, along with the civil servants who were to administer their decisions.

To offer an honorary degree to a serving politician in those conditions was therefore not a political act at all, since Oxford and government were parts of the same world. Hence it could be taken for granted that Socialist dons would no more veto an honour for Edward Heath or Harold Macmillan than Tory dons would veto Harold Wilson. Even Michael Foot might have slipped through as a representative of the old order, a Thirties-ish, literary champion of the supremacy of Parliament, who caused offence mainly by mistaking the Cenotaph for the Aldermaston March. But Tony Benn of Westminster School and New College? Not on your life. One of the ironies of the whole episode was that the Iron Lady’s champions appealed to a set of conventions that she had done more than any other British politician to consign to the dustbin. Those who sow conviction politics must also reap them. Indeed our vote was not a snub at all, but an accolade, a recognition that we had learned to read the new map of politics.

Yet if the vote was a response to the changed political atmosphere it took a complicated form. Dons have responded to the increased politicisation of education, as of every other sphere of public life, by making their own withdrawal from the old consensus. In the old days they were, like the rest of the country, mainly Labour or Conservative, though in practice that probably meant Butskellite. As the two main parties move off more and more into their ideological cloud-cuckoo-lands, dons – like car workers and bank clerks – have cast off the partisan restraints that kept political conflict stable. According to a revealing opinion poll in the Times Higher Education Supplement of 18 January only 17 per cent of academics would now vote Conservative. But that is not because there has been a swing to the left. The Labour share is 28 per cent. Even in the Polytechnics, whatever their reputation may be, the Labour share is 32 per cent. The favoured parties of academics are those of the Liberal/SDP Alliance. Yet this is in many ways an apolitical, even anti-political stance. Few Alliance votes come from the deeply committed; most are a protest against polarisation and elective dictatorship, rather than for this or that item from a largely unread manifesto. The vote against Mrs Thatcher was another go at breaking the mould, or at least that bit of the mould whose motto was ‘You vote for my crook. I’ll vote for yours.’

There is more to the universities’ response to the changed atmosphere than a repudiation of the traditional courtesies, however. The biggest mould-breaker of them all is, after all, the Prime Minister herself. The universities, like the schools, like any number of other long-established institutions, are on the defensive. True reformer that she is, Mrs Thatcher is making us account for ourselves. Perhaps the British record of slow but steady national decline really does call for a great ceremony of public repentance, some auto-da-fe in which we throw off our old, comfortable habits. What we now realise is that universities have in the past hoped to survive by being ignored, either unaware of how weak their base of public support is or keeping their fingers crossed that this weakness would not be exposed. In the light of the substantial backlash against the Thatcher vote we can no longer plead ignorance. We have to ask ourselves what we should do, though the answer will depend on whether we are defending Salford, Essex or Oxbridge. I shall concentrate on Oxbridge, not only because I have more experience of that, but also because its image shows the greatest contradictions. For most of its existence Salford had no image at all. It was the place down the road. More recently, it has acquired a reputation of business-like hard-headedness, of which more below. Essex, which produces excellent research on a number of subjects, is irrevocably caught in a time-warp of rioting students. But Oxford and Cambridge?

Oxford and Cambridge, as anyone working in them knows, are tourist attractions. Visitors regard colleges much like stately homes. They admire the architecture, the paintings, the furniture. But the real curiosity is about the daily lives of the inmates: who sits at high table, is chapel compulsory, when do you wear a gown, does the Queen ever come? We are a remote and romantic world, which touches everyday existence at few points. The best-known work by a don at my former college, Christ Church, is not the Essay Concerning Human Understanding but Alice in Wonderland. Side by side with this deferential admiration there is a strong anti-intellectual populism, as some of my post-bag reveals. Dons and undergraduates alike are parasites who have never done an honest day’s work in their lives, but are maintained in their luxury by hard-working taxpayers. This populism is exploited, not only by tabloid newspapers and tabloid MPs, but also by at least half of the quality press. In the present context the populism is right-wing: most dons are assumed to be active agents of the KGB; the only fact known about Oxford is the ‘King and Country’ debate of 1933, the only fact known about Cambridge is that it produced large numbers of homosexual spies. In a different context the populism could as easily come from the Left, where there is, after all, plenty of anti-intellectual animus and certainly plenty of anti-Oxbridge animus. We’d be CIA agents, not KGB agents, but the general tone would be much the same.

This anti-intellectualism is probably a constant factor in British life, stimulated into sudden outbursts by particular events, but otherwise not fluctuating very much in its level. Since one’s chances of converting the hard core with a few well-aimed shafts of reason are rather low, it is best to concentrate on the floating voter. For the fact is that we have to convince rather a lot of people that we are worth spending money on, and the first step towards that is to ask ourselves why we are worth spending money on. Again I want to concentrate on what I know about at first hand, universities, though much of what I say applies to other sectors of education too.

We have to show that we are socially useful. We also have to show that the less government interference there is in our activities, the more effectively we can serve society. This last proposition is not self-evidently valid and is rejected by a great many of our paymasters. Populist anti-intellectualism extends to fear and resentment of research. That penicillin or pocket calculators or meteorological satellites would not exist unless someone had done the basic theoretical research on which they are based is a notion alien to that constituency. Research either consists of mad professors waiting to blow up the world or looking for more animals to torture, or of clueless sociologists asking old ladies their preferred method of crossing the road. Here, too, there is nothing to be done. But there is another line of attack, rather more dangerous because more plausible, and because more plausible more attractive to the present government. It goes like this: by all means research, but make sure it yields results. If the results are what industry or commerce or public authorities want, they will pay for it and you won’t need handouts. If not, you had better stop playing about with it. Put briefly, this is the way-can’t-you-be-like Salford argument.

No doubt there are ways of making us be like Salford. If I had been Vice-Chancellor of Salford, faced with the choice of leasing out my university or going broke, I should have acted exactly as he did, though probably with less success. All universities do to a lesser extent what Salford does: i.e. undertake research on contract and teach for vocational qualifications. I am told that Oxford generates between a fifth and a quarter of its research money in this way. But they can only sell on the basis that they – or someone else – does the fundamental research: the sort that private industry’s shareholders and bankers are understandably reluctant to take an equity in. They know this very well at Salford, though they may not, in their present shell-shocked state, want to say it out loud. They know it equally well in industry and nothing illustrates this better than the success story of Silicon Fen, the high-technology complex round Cambridge. Explaining its secret recently, one of the whizz-kids, Hermann Hauser, listed three conditions that are essential for take-off. One is a good network of personal relations. A second is that these relations must cut across the industry-university divide. But the most important was ‘a top-notch university – a second-rate one won’t do: you need access to state-of-the-art research’ (Sunday Times Magazine, 27 January). In other words, if the university of Newton, Russell and Whitehead had not been there, there would have been no spin-off. This is what is threatened by current cut-backs, and this explains the turn-out of scientists and medics at Congregation and the 70-30 majority against Mrs Thatcher’s degree. But it is not the only source of anxiety and not the only purpose of universities that is threatened.

Society needs its science parks and silicon valleys, its surveyors and veterinary surgeons. It also needs its ivory towers. Somewhere where thoughts can be thought and books written without the worry about where next year’s support grant is coming from. Somewhere where new, critical, unpopular, even dangerous ideas can be tried out. Somewhere where speculation can flourish even if it does not have any obviously quantifiable ‘added value’. Somewhere for Wilhelm von Hum-boldt’s ideal of Einsamkeit und Freiheit – solitude and freedom. That is a lot to ask and those who get it are highly privileged. It means that a handful of people, chosen by some not tremendously exact criterion of intellectual merit, are allowed to live in some comfort and – in the case of Oxford and Cambridge – exceptionally beautiful surroundings as Crown pensioners to pursue their hobbies. (The hobbies include teaching, contrary to the widely-held belief that that is the one thing dons want to get out of.) They can do this only if they do not have to look over their shoulder all the time, in case something they say or think loses them points in the competition for renewal or promotion. Ivory towers therefore risk an element of waste. It would be surprising if our profession were unique in having no dead-beats. But the dead-beats are protected along with the geniuses by the tenure system. They are the insurance premium for freedom of thought. In so far as there is a malaise in academia today, in so far as there is a suspicion of politicians and parties in general, and of the politicians in this government in particular, it is because of the fear that solitude and freedom are under attack. It is not the demand that we should be useful that we resent, but the insistence that politicians alone define that usefulness, and the use of fiscal stringency to make us come to heel. No government in living memory has established such detailed supervision over what we teach and where, who researches on what and where. That is true of the ‘New Blood’ posts; it is true of research grants, which are subject to the Secretary of State’s veto if over £25,000; it will, according to newspaper reports, apply to schools as well, through special earmarking of the block grants to local education authorities.

Those who founded the University College of Buckingham in the 1970s as a countervailing force to state control have been conspicuous by their silence in the face of this creeping nationalisation. Anyone wondering whether education and science are exceptional victims of the detailed scrutiny need only look at changes in the administration of grants to the arts, or the Secretary of State’s proposed discretionary powers in the Local Government Bill now going through Parliament. Indeed, one illustration of how seriously the Government takes the need to control our thoughts on policy questions is the curious matter of the spending figures which appeared in friendly newspapers (the Times, Daily Telegraph and Daily Express) a day or two after the Congregation debate, as well as in speeches during the debate itself. They were carefully tailored to suggest that Government spending on education had actually increased, although presented in a form that differed from that available in any published source. Their brief career ended on 6 February, when the Under-Secretary of State, Mr Peter Brooke, agreed in a Written Answer that, even when expressed in real terms, these figures are not comparable from year to year.

What one does about all this is a different question. The universities have in the past been lazy about defending themselves, relying on friends in high places. Now fewer high places are occupied by friends, and those that remain are tarnished by past associations. Still, there are some who advocate a softly-softly approach. There are others who advocate a defeatist prudence, fearing that only disaster can come from collision with as immovable an object as our Prime Minister. As one of my colleagues put it, ‘you throw a tigress a hunk of meat, you don’t stick a pin up her arse.’ This is a superficially attractive strategy. Its weakness is that there is no evidence the tigress is satisfied with one hunk. Indeed, she has had her hunk in the form of a much-disputed and much-resented FRS. It does not seem to have turned her into a herbivore.

Having been politicised against our wills, we have no choice but to act politically, for all the risks that that entails. We are in much the same position as the Frenchman during the revolutionary turmoils who protested, on his way to the guillotine, that he had never interested himself in politics. That, he was told, was why he was about to be executed. There are two political conclusions that I draw from the debate in Congregation and from many casual conversations, telephone calls and my fairly voluminous post-bag. The first is that the response from anyone even remotely involved in education, especially outside Oxford, was overwhelmingly positive. It may even – though this was not our intention – have done the image of Oxford some good in those quarters. One lady from Peterborough wrote: ‘Universities, particularly Oxford and Cambridge, are sometimes accused of leading a cloistered existence, shut away from the realities of the outside world. This action by the academic staff of Oxford University shows that this is not the case.’ A couple from Malvern wrote: ‘We have two 18-year-old children studying for A-level examinations in a comprehensive school. Your vote was a vote for them.’

There lies the strength of our case. Its weakness is that it looks self-interested. If we were merely asking for more for ourselves, as the down-market editorialists implied (‘Greedy grow the dons’), if we were simply another lobby in ‘the long welfare handout queue’ (Digby Anderson in the Times, 6 February), we should deserve nothing. There is only one purpose for which we want more money: so that we can work better, harder and for longer hours. Having your project cancelled is, after all, a great way of getting more leisure.

The second conclusion is that there is undoubtedly a large Thatcher constituency in the land that is hostile to all but strictly vocational and practical education. That this constituency is Thatcherite rather than Conservative is evident from my letters. The Prime Minister is compared favourably, not only with Wilson and Callaghan, but with Heath and Macmillan. She comes second only to Churchill and Queen Elizabeth I. Her supporters condemn, as she does, the whole of the post-1945 regime. It is the constituency, more than any other, that was deeply offended by our vote. However, the constituency is not as big as the noise it makes would imply. The most recent MORI poll (Sunday Times, 10 February) indicates that only 34 per cent of electors are satisfied with the way Mrs Thatcher is running the country, while 51 per cent think she is out of touch with ordinary people. Mrs Thatcher’s camp is organised, disciplined and determined. That, not overwhelming support, is its mainstay. The non-Thatcher camp (and it would be misleading to call it anything else) is heterogeneous, divided and direction-less, although on many issues and in many places – including such non-radical institutions as Christ Church and All Souls – it is in the majority. It would be extravagant to claim for the vote in Congregation any great national significance, for all the publicity it received. What it does indicate, yet again, is the re-alignment Mrs Thatcher has brought about in political loyalties. It expresses her success. But it also defines the limits of that success and the composition of the army that could launch a counter-attack.