Patrick Ainley 

Post-16 Educator (No 62)   www.post16educator.org.uk

Introduction: Social immobility

What is the point of different forms of indirect democracy if MPs do not represent the electorate anyway, viz. Clegg – fees? And if government and opposition are both headed by male Oxbridge humanities graduates – Cameron, Clegg, Miliband, Balls and Osborn? No wonder celebrity politics focus on trivialities since the popular view is ‘they are all the same’.

A spate of media programmes point to this situation worsening with the idea that a return to grammar schools will restart social mobility and is therefore progressive. It’s true that the official introduction of comprehensive schools in the UK from 1965-on was coincident with the ending of the period of limited upward mobility that occurred during the 30 years of post-war full employment. But that it was not the cause of it can be seen from a comparison with the USA’s comprehensive high schools feeding similarly limited mobility that ended at the same time.

Since then in both countries there has been only illusory social mobility as non-manual service employment has expanded at the expense of manual labour, benefiting mainly women who now pursue careers before having children in their 30s. These new opportunities have been presented as professionalising the proletariat but in reality many of these para-professional occupations are being rapidly proletarianised – teaching and lecturing a case in point.

Bringing back grammar schools would only cement this new social situation since the only mobility remaining for increasing numbers is downward. And the eugenic thinking behind thus ‘saving the bright working-class child’ from this fate is as evident now as it was in 1944, though without (as yet) any coherent ideology of ‘IQ’ to support it. However, what is defined as ‘bright’ is equally narrow performance in repeated tests of largely literary ability functioning from the earliest age as proxies for more or less expensively crammed cultural capital.

The majority are thus failed at every fence and, more importantly, made to feel that they are failures. This principle of academic selectivity has re-imposed itself ruthlessly, marginalising residual republican notions of entitlement, along with any other ‘effort as worthy as that dignified by the name of scholarly study within the noblest of colleges’, as Hardy’s Jude the Obscure saw it.

Now the market in universities competing on price for various specialist options becomes the model for schools and colleges. As the former follow further and higher education into a centralised system of ‘fair funding’, it can be anticipated that vouchers for a basic entitlement may be introduced so that parents who can afford it top up their voucher at independent schools as private providers are subsidised to bid into the state system. The academic predominance of ‘The Great Public Schools’ with their long-standing links to Oxbridge Colleges exemplified by Winchester and New College, Eton and Christ Church, is thus also reaffirmed.

‘Nosseled in the grossest kynd of sophistry’

Gillian Evans’ twin histories enable us to understand how this has happened. She has long been a thorn in the side of successive Cambridge Vice Chancellors’ aspirations to turn that institution – at which she holds a doctorate as well as one from Oxford – into a business park. She is dedicated therefore to ‘preserving the medieval democracy which has served it for more than eight centuries’ (p. 76).

The priestly vocation in which this originated was later joined by lawyers and doctors, though not without dispute, for instance over the dispensation of what would now be called dangerous drugs between apothecaries, physicians and the state – a battle that continues on all three fronts to this day. The question is whose knowledge and how is it to be defined. As in the public disputations that remained the Oxbridge method of examination until the mid-nineteenth century, ‘both sides of the question’ had to be presented in a manner that is tediously familiar in today’s journalistic ideal of ‘objectivity’.

Similarly, today’s students are expected to defer to authority but have their own point of view in a debate that is open but which you have to be an expert to enter. These paradoxes confuse the uninitiated and are only ‘assimilated’, as Bourdieu said, as a matter of ‘style’ by those who are already ‘converts’.

In the Medieval period such dangerous knowledge was guarded as Mysteries by Guilds whose disciplines demanded a Master work to demonstrate initiation into the craft with students taking a peregrinatio academica around Latin-speaking Christendom, just as journeymen stonemasons and other apprentices toured Europe’s cathedrals.


However, Evans begins her history of  ‘Modern Oxford’ by saying that it was ‘shaped by the generation born as Victorians who broke off their studies to go and fight in the First World War, survived the carnage and lived on through another World War to become the generation of aged dons…’ typified by the Inklings (Lewis, Tolkein et al). ‘Straddlers between Victorian and modern Oxford they may have been, but not includers of a wider social world, or of women’ (pp. 11-12). They coped with the grim conditions by withdrawing into a fantasy life, ‘writing stories and designing languages for elves’ (p. 14).

From the enthusiasm of John Betjeman’s Oxford for this Middle Earth of pseudo-medieval flummery and eccentricity – or ‘a particularly Oxford form of “celebrity”’ (p. 43), Evans turns to ‘our second Oxford “guide book” to the century’ (p. 48), Masterman’s 1952 To teach the Senators wisdom. This contains such jolly gems as ‘There has been no greater mistake made in Oxford than the abolition of compulsory chapel, except of course the admission of women and the abolition of compulsory Greek’ (quoted on p. 27).

Nevertheless, Evans sees Oxford’s mission embodied in the figure of Roy Jenkins – ‘an Oxford Chancellor without a privileged background, who had no trouble with “access”, went on to run the country, and came back to enjoy late summer of his life in Oxford’ (p. 77). Jenkins’ port-filled self-parody in those later years was a reinvention of character in the opposite direction to that taken by the Bullingdon Boys who now run the country but who have also disguised their earlier avatars. Yet both – and the long list of Oxford-educated Prime Ministers, such as Bliar, ‘a typical Oxford lawyer, completely superficial’ in the estimation of Peter, now Lord, Hennessey – show the University’s subservience to state and church which Evans’ subsequent chapters trace from its origins in the twelfth century.

In her Cambridge volume the Tudor monarchy drew upon that university at the time of the Reformation, following ‘The custom of looking to the universities for likely academics who could be used in the service of the Government [that] was now well established’ (p. 149). Thomas Cranmer, for instance, rewarded with Archbishopric for justifying Henry VIII’s divorce, was described by a contemporary biographer as ‘nosseled in the grossest kynd of sophistry’ at Cambridge (p. 148).

Playing off church against state, the academic Guardians asserted their special selection of the powerful through an extension of the unctuous laying on of hands by a priestly caste. The two English universities (as compared with five in medieval Scotland), also enforced a monopoly of defining what was recognised as valid knowledge first noted by the historian Edward Gibbon (p. 199). They ruthlessly snuffed out rivals like Lincoln and Northampton, or Durham University founded under the Protectorate; also other competing centres of legitimation, such as the Inns of Court and later Learned Societies, Royal or Lunar, Dissenting Academies and Mechanics Institutes.

Trahison des clercs

25 years ago Oxford students and academics petitioned and voted against Margaret Thatcher’s honorary Doctorate. Now the academic ideal that even the Gove-approved John Dryden regarded in his day as ‘crabbed and subtle’ (p. 210), has re-asserted its dominance. It is no wonder therefore that many Oxbridge students and staff are now so totally ‘up themselves’, as other students put it, as to place their self-interest above any residual dedication to public sector higher education.

That this trahison des clerks is true to form Evans shows in her judicious account that illustrates in critical episodes and individuals (More, Wolsey, Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell, Laud) the struggle of ‘an organised body of professional teachers to provide for its own perpetuation’, as Durkheim says of the Paris University Guild in his History of Pedagogy in France.

At least Cambridge, nurtured by the puritan ethic of East Anglian trade and property relations, was represented in Parliament by Oliver Cromwell. Thereafter, in the antinimonies of the national culture embodied by the Boatrace Universities, Royalist Oxford since the Restoration has endorsed the social ideal of the ruling class, while puritan Cambridge and a few Oxford colleges – such as eighteenth century Exeter, Merton and Wadham, as ‘Whigs’ amongst a ‘Tory’ majority – afforded a second eleven to be fielded as required, like New College’s influence on the1945 Labour government.

Nevertheless, even at eighteenth-century Oxford, a ‘more plebian and puritanical’, if not ‘middle class’ (p. 193) undergraduate intake necessitated provision that went beyond religion and aristocratic pursuits such as hunting. This turned halls into colleges and raised the age of admission from 15-16 to 18-19. ‘Oiks’ acted as servants to gentlemen students in superior caps. At Cambridge gradations between students were marked by separate dining arrangements. In contrast to Doctor Johnson, whose ‘Oxford career was brief because of shortage of family funds’ (p. 197), many a student was there ‘to say in later life that he has been to university’ (p. 199) or ‘comes here as a commercial speculation’ to increase his earning power (p. 306).

In the same period, Cambridge became ‘duller and more second-rate’ (p. 240) but, in what that volume describes as its ‘nineteenth century transformation’, Cambridge redefined the academic pursuit, following the Victorian Henry Sidgwick, as ‘one whose study is the chief interest of his life’ and who ‘alone can keep the machinery of teaching ever on a level with the advance of knowledge’ (p. 87 in the Cambridge volume). The University was thus well positioned to cater for the alliance of industrial capital and middle-class professions it helped to form against surviving landed aristocracy pursuing more character-building preparation for leadership at Oxford.

Cambridge was also more open to the development of science, putting ideas to ‘the test of Sense’ and moving ‘out of the gentleman’s study and the Royal Society’ (p. 285) to find a home in de-facto university research centres organized ‘through faculties and Departments and not by the Colleges’ – partly because it was too expensive for them. Science was therefore ‘fundamentally different from the tutorial system of the arts and humanities’ (p. 47), though making use of existing botanical gardens and museum collections. It followed the Humboldtian model of the professor leading his fellow scholar-researchers that was imported by the new universities of London and the industrial towns as they gradually wrested themselves free from Oxbridge tutelage. By contrast, in Newman’s revival of the tutorial system, ‘A student’s task was to read. His [college] tutor’s role was to direct his reading’ (p. 247).

The gap between Snow’s two cultures of art and science was thus preserved and extended within each institution as well as being reflected elsewhere, particularly through A-levels introduced in 1951 to prepare a minority for specialist study. Abandoning any attempt to overcome this divide, government has now withdrawn state funding for the arts and humanities leaving them as frivolous pursuits for those rich enough to afford them.


In the 1960s the Cambridge economics Professor Joan Robinson said, ‘The leading characteristic of the ideology which dominates our society today is its extreme confusion. To understand it means only to reveal its contradictions.’ Since then the academic fashion for postmodernism, first floated in ‘post-structural’ form at Cambridge – ever more open to foreign ideas even if silly ones, has made a virtue of this deconstruction without acknowledging the need for the reconstruction which Robinson implied. The resulting fragmented ‘discourse’ is the obverse of traditionally narrow and arbitrarily subdivided empirical subject specialisation. Neither academic form of knowledge allows for generalisation capable of questioning the purposes to which it is put or the society which uses it.


The University of Oxford, A new history by Gillian Evans, Tauris, 2010, pp.356, £35.00 (hbk), ISBN 978 1 84885 114 6.

The University of Cambridge, A new history by Gillian Evans, Tauris, 2010, pp.382, £35.00 (hbk), ISBN 978 1 84885 115 3.

(References are to the Oxford volume unless otherwise stated.)


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