Down, don, down

John Sutherland

  • Decline of Donnish Dominion by A.H. Halsey
    Oxford, 344 pp, £40.00, March 1992, ISBN 0 19 827376 2
  • Millikan’s School: A History of the California Institute of Technology by Judith Goodstein
    Norton, 317 pp, £17.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 393 03017 2

More did mean worse – although not quite in the way Kingsley Amis feared. He and his Black Paper colleagues misjudged what would happen to ‘standards’ after the expansionist Robbins Report. The British university product – the education of undergraduates and scholarly research – has never been better than it now is, nor its international reputation higher. In 1990, a poll of European participants in Erasmus gave top place in seven out of 11 mainstream academic subjects to a British university, Erasmus being a transfer credit scheme by which undergraduates can earn a home degree by study abroad. The brightest young European minds will be drawn magnetically to Britain. British universities continue to be major exporters to traditional Anglophone markets, sustaining an imperial authority long after Empire has vanished. Expatriate Britons and natives who have profitably studied in Britain will be found at leading departments everywhere in North America and Australasia.

British universities still enjoy a uniquely high degree of what Halsey calls ‘commensality’: that is, academic people sharing the same table and talking to each other across departmental and rank lines. This is partly a function of small size and collegiate tradition: and it’s a hard trick to pull off while at the same time maintaining subject excellence and openness to outside ideas. And yet British universities rival America in their ability to digest alien intellectual influences. Halsey cites the recruitment of refugees from Fascist and Stalinist persecution. More recently, the Derrida brouhaha at Cambridge was evidence of a laudable flexibility rather than of Blimpism (which is how some of the press tended to see it). At the end of the day, Derrida was honoured in the British university. As Pierre Bourdieu points out in Homo Academicus (a work which, oddly, Halsey does not cite), there is less honour for the prophet of Deconstruction in his own country. Bourdieu recalls ‘the astonishment of a certain young American visitor, at the beginning of the Seventies, to whom I had to explain that all his intellectual heroes, like Althusser, Barthes, Deleuze, Derrida and Foucault, not to mention the minor prophets of the moment, held marginal positions in the university system which often disqualified them from officially directing research. In several cases, they had not themselves written a thesis, at least not in canonical form, and were therefore not allowed to direct one.’ Bureaucratic small-mindedness stifles Continental European university life. It is mercifully absent in Britain.

British staff-student ratios remain enviably low, at around one to 12. Pastoral and tutorial traditions are under pressure, but generally intact. British universities waste much less of their educational raw material (young human beings) than their competitors do. Casualty rates are below 10 per cent in most departments. British undergraduates learn more in three years than do their foreign counterparts in four or more. And – for all their complaints – British students still have an unrivalled level of financial support for tuition fees and living expenses. The majority of British students graduate without excessive financial burdens. In their Darwinian faith that any successful system will have losers, even the most selective American universities expect to flunk up to a third of their undergraduates. Customer dissatisfaction runs high – particularly at private universities, where fees are around $18,000 a year. Few young Americans nowadays work their way through college, and many graduate (or fail to graduate) with crippling debts to pay off. Reviled as all Ministers of Education since Keith Joseph have been, they are right to assert that British higher education continues to be excellent, efficient, humane and a credit to the country.

And yet, as Halsey demonstrates, the working conditions and morale of British universities are much worse than they were before Robbins. Over a third of teachers have seriously thought of leaving the profession. There are few financial inducements to stay. Academics earn less in real terms and have significantly less professional status than they can remember having. In the ‘golden age’, as Noel Annan called it, of the Fifties and Sixties, academic salaries were around two and a half times the national average wage. By 1989 the ratio had shrunk to one and a half. The academic salary range (for all but medical faculty) runs from £13,000 to around £40,000, with most of the profession bottlenecked in the low twenties. The deterioration this represents is sharper if one indexes it to the two staple commodities that academics need – books and a roof over their heads. When I began teaching in the early Sixties, my salary was £1,000 and the newly-published Penguin Lady Chatterley’s Lover cost 3s 6d. New Penguin novels now cost £5 – a nearly thirtyfold increase. By that index, starting academic salaries should be £28,000 (which they are in the best American colleges). The first property I bought was a New Town Edinburgh flat – probably the finest house I shall ever own. It cost twice my 1967 salary, and would now go for around £120,000. In the Nineties young lawyers, doctors and stockbrokers can afford such accommodation – but not young academics two years into their careers.

In other ways, the working conditions of the British academic (‘dons’, as the Oxfordian Halsey calls them) have deteriorated. They are obliged to teach more. Student loads are roughly a third higher than they were before Robbins. Tenure has been abolished and with it a covenant of trust. Junior appointments have been frozen for years and entry to the profession narrowed to a trickle of ‘new blood’ (less new than it would have been in the Fifties since incomers are now expected to have doctorates). Promotion is harder to come by for a mid-career cohort which is graying and which – in the absence of financial reward – values titular aggrandizement all the more. In the Sixties, in what now looks like a disastrous move, the Association of University Teachers negotiated lecturer as the career grade: this means that the bulk of academics must expect to leave the profession after a lifetime’s work in exactly the same rank that they entered. Less than one in ten British academics are professors. It would improve both morale and bargaining position if British universities made promoted posts what they are in America – plateaux which every competent professional will reach, not pinnacles accessible to the precious few.

Halsey borrows a term from Max Weber to describe the degraded, post-Robbins condition of British dons. They have been ‘proletarianised’. Partly this has been a simple effect of expansion. A threshold was passed in the late Sixties, when Who’s Who no longer automatically included university professors. But there are other more complex reasons for the don’s decline. Robbins was motivated by a belief that the wealth of the nation was intimately connected with the growth and well-being of its universities. The doubling of the undergraduate population, and the creation of seven new universities, were not merely an extension of educational privilege to the previously disenfranchised (although that was part of it): more graduates meant more GNP. The Wilson Government which inherited Robbins (originally a One-Nation Tory initiative) identified itself strongly with the optimistic view that higher education was the locomotive of economic growth. Thatcherism took an opposite view. It saw no correlation between the production of sociology graduates at Essex and cars at Cowley. In 1981, there began to be applied the Thatcherite-Joseph doctrine of ‘strength through starvation’. Cut and freeze were applied with the righteous fervour of a Victorian schoolmaster laying on the cane for the good of his victim. Oxford’s refusal to award Mrs Thatcher an honorary degree in 1984 hardened attitudes into mutual petulance. Ever since, ‘reforms’ have been imposed by the Government with a severity amounting to contempt, and accepted by the universities with a resentment verging on insubordination. There have been none of the goodies for dons that have gone to Thatcherism’s more loyal clients, such as policemen and prison warders.

Decline of Donnish Dominion records the increasingly unhappy relationship of British universities and their Whitehall paymasters over the last quarter of a century. It is bolstered by a daunting mass of quantitative data, gathered in surveys of the profession in 1964, 1976 and 1989. Halsey’s book should be read by every British academic curious about how we got where we are. It could also save the Government the expense of another Green Paper – although it is unlikely that they will find Halsey’s analysis congenial. Anyone reading him must be sceptical about the current round of reforms, based as they are on blind faith in the virtues of homogenisation and command decision. As a first step, the distinction between higher and further education has been removed by assimilating universities and polytechnics (CATs having been long ago assimilated). A level playing-field has been created. A university is a university is a university. Global assessment exercises with standardised ranking take the process a step further. But this homogenisation is merely preliminary to a new binarism. Now the field has been made level, the 85 so-called universities have been instructed to play against each other in a spirit less sporting than gladiatorial. What will emerge from the April 1993 audit is a small first division and a huge second division. First division victors will receive selective funding and the privilege of conducting advanced research, while the rump institutions will evolve into fee-supported teaching factories. (Ideally, in time, the fees will be offloaded from the public purse to student loans and scholarships.) Eventually these factory campuses will merge to take advantage of economies of scale. Goodbye commensality, pastoral and tutorial intimacies, and the good college life. Hello transcripts, GPAs and throughput rates.

This exercise has been undertaken not primarily for the good of the universities, but for the convenience of the Exchequer, which will save money by pinpointing research investment while satisfying the country’s need for expanded learning opportunity. Not surprisingly, those of Britain’s 70,000 academics who anticipate exclusion from the new Ivy League (Oxford, Cambridge and about ten others) are displeased by the prospect.

What the Government is dimly aiming at is the California model of higher education. A broad network of 107 community colleges supplies further education to the population of the State, while feeding the 20 degree-awarding (but non-residential) Cal-State institutions and the top-division University of California – whose nine campuses are the equal of the State’s premier private colleges (Stanford, USC, Caltech) or better. Educational credit is fully transferable in California. In British terms, this would mean that a student might, for example, do an Open University foundation course for a year while based at home, go on to Aberystwyth for a second year, take two years off for non-academic work, then, after a final year, graduate from Balliol College, Oxford – or the other way round.

The California system is worthier of imitation than most. But to make it work in a British context certain preconditions will have to be met. Higher education, as Halsey points out, has the status of a secular religion in America, nowhere more so than on the West Coast. Some 40 per cent of age-qualified Californians participate. The British Government (under a leader who has done very well for himself thank you without a degree) will have to sell higher education to a traditionally apathetic British public. And they will have to sell the product cheap. In California you can get a semester-long course in advanced computer programming from your local community college for little more than the cost of a good seat at a Dodgers game. You can study Chinese at Cal-State LA for the same low rate with the long-term aim of assembling a degree in South-East Asian studies over the next fifteen years. Californians are willing to subsidise higher education with high rates of State income and sales tax because they are convinced that their children, and their community, benefit directly. British taxpayers perceive no such link.

Even if the Government succeeds in enthusing the electorate as to the virtues of universal higher education there will be some extraordinary internal stresses for the already battered academic profession. To make transferability work, the tutorial system and single-honours degree will have to be replaced by full modularisation. Only those within the system know the fanatical opposition this will provoke. Some academics would rather resign than give up the tutorial and the humane residential ethos that goes with it. And demoralisation will plumb undreamed-of depths when a sizable number of ‘dons’, nominally teaching in ‘universities’, discover that they are actually labourers in the British equivalent of open-admission community colleges, expected to do thirty classroom hours, forty weeks a year. These stresses could, of course, be absorbed if the universities and the Department of Education and Science were pulling in good faith together. But there is no evidence that the new shape of British higher education has come out of thoughtful collaboration between the interested parties. It is something forced on the universities, whether they like it or not. At best, a battle royal will ensue. At worst, an educational bloodbath.

If the mandarins at the DES are looking west for inspiration, they could well ponder the California Institute of Technology. Caltech has prospered over its hundred years of existence by following a number of heterodox principles. In a national educational system which has gone for all-out growth and city-sized ‘multiversities’, Caltech has remained obstinately small. Today it is larger than it has ever been with just three hundred faculty, eight hundred undergraduates and a thousand graduate students. The staff-student ratio is obscenely favourable, even by pre-Robbins Oxbridge standards. Caltech still lives by Robert A. Millikan’s rule that you cannot expect good research from a professor who teaches more than four hours a week. When George Ellery Hale founded the institution in Pasadena, one of his motives was the high concentration of retired millionaires in the area, and Caltech continues its profitable friendship with the super-rich: its centennial campaign aims to raise $350 million (more per capita than Stanford’s record-setting $2 billion). Caltech conducts the most expensive research with the best researchers money can buy. Chronicle of Higher Education surveys consistently show Caltech professors as the best-paid in America, particularly at the most intellectually productive Associate and Assistant grades. For its size, Caltech’s research achievements are unmatched (21 Nobel laureates top the list). But unlike other high-performance colleges, it has never felt the need to cover all bases – even in mainline science. Ever since Hale formed the institute around the project to build his 100-inch telescope on Mount Wilson, Caltech has concentrated on doing a few things supremely well, without ever specifying what, in the long term, those few things need be. It does not have departments but large amorphous ‘divisions’, an organisation which encourages collaboration and reduces subject-territorialism. And for all its unfettered specialism in research, undergraduates are trained as broad-based ‘scientists’ – not as biologists, physicists, or whatever. Moreover these young scientists, unlike their British counterparts at Cambridge or Imperial College, will have spent over a fifth of their classroom time on Humanities and Social Science subjects.

At any time a Caltech undergraduate may be taking up to five courses in widely different subject areas – all designed to make him (or increasingly her) a better all-round scientist. It looks like powerful ammunition for British advocates of modularisation, but there are some caveats. The intimate size of the Caltech community, and the camaraderie among scientists of all ranks and ages, make for what is effectively a tutorial ethos. Classes are small; there is commensality; even freshmen have no problem getting access to their professors. To see modularisation working at full bore you must go down the road to UCLA, where freshman and sophomore classes hundreds-strong are lectured to in vast auditoria or by closed-circuit television. All classroom discussion and grading is done by Teaching Assistants (typically, graduate students).

Judith Goodstein narrates the history of Caltech with much lively anecdote and a courageous attention to the blemishes on its record (the anti-semitism which tarnished Millikan’s golden reign in the Twenties and Thirties, for instance). One concludes that even in America, Caltech is inimitable. But that, too, is something the DES might ponder. For such institutions to evolve, two things are needful: money and autonomy. These are precisely what British universities will have to live without in the foreseeable future.