OXFORD, England — Out of the dark night a bell starts tolling. It is 9:05 p.m. — perhaps not so odd, a clock that is slow. But it tolls on and on, beyond nine strikes, not stopping at 21, on and on, to 101, then silence.
|Pounding: U.K. Prime Minster David Cameron, an alumnus of Oxford University, has continued the tendency of governments toward educational cutbacks, threatening the future excellence of Britain’s top academic institutions. BLOOMBERG|
The bell is Great Tom at Christ Church, Oxford, where the authorities remember that Oxford is one degree, 15 minutes and 24 seconds west of the prime Greenwich meridian. Before the coming of the railways, which demanded a common national time, towns kept their local times, and it did not become 9 p.m. at Oxford until 9:05.02 p.m. at Greenwich. So at 9:05 p.m. every night Great Tom sounds the curfew, summoning the students, one ring for each of them, back to college and to their beds.
It is an Oxford conceit of course, because these days even Christ Church observes U.K. time and it’s been a long time since the college had only 101 students (647 today), and even longer since anyone observed a 9 p.m. curfew.
Oxford is the oldest and most distinguished university in the English-speaking world, whatever Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and more recent upstarts may think. Some alumni — including this writer — assert that Oxford University, along with the British Museum and perhaps the BBC World Service, is one of the few international treasures still thriving in the U.K.
Oxford, flourishing as a place of studies from as early as the 12th century, is a special place of surprises and secrets. At Magdalen College tower at dawn on May Day, college choristers sing and Morris dancers with bells on their legs bash their wooden sticks together and thump their clogs to give a more vigorous welcome to the day. The dancers process down the High Street to the Radcliffe Camera to rouse the spirits there too, with camp followers covered in leaves and masquerading as trees to celebrate their concern for the environment.
The city is blessed with green. Magdalen has a park where sensitive deer graze. Right on the High Street is the 380-year-old Botanic Garden, which backs onto Christ Church meadow, an unkempt lung of green with broad gravel pathways offering brisk walks away from the hassle-hustle of the urban jungle.
You can walk in peace in the middle of a great city and hear sweet spring morning birdsong or go to the river to watch the prowess of the rowing eights, preparing for the bumping races held in January and May-June. The river is the Thames, in gentler mood than when it reaches the great wen of London, but in Oxford they call it the Isis, possibly an abbreviation of Tamesis, the Celtic name for the river. The meadow was threatened by the local council which wanted to drive a relief road through it, a scheme finally defeated because there were too many Oxford alumni in the British government.
Exeter College has a special spot normally open to the public in daylight, though you have to brave entering the college, cross a quadrangle, and go down a narrow corridor to enter the fellows’ garden, which gives a superb private view over the Camera, St. Mary’s Church and Brasenose and All Soul’s colleges, a place to sit quietly and contemplate.
The city and the university of Oxford — or town and gown — exist cheek by jowl, previously in rowdy disharmony that sometimes erupted into riots or massacres. These days the covered market, founded in 1774, has gone upmarket. You can still enjoy a cuppa and home-baked pie served by an elderly woman with an Oxford accent, which has more of a buzzsaw burr than the renowned “Oxford English” accent.
The fresh produce stalls offer exotic fare with figs and dates from the Middle East along with traditional English apples, tomatoes and greens, and there has been a noticeable intrusion of clothing and arty goods. But right in the middle of Oxford, city and university go about their business, and shopping streets of Cornmarket, High Street and Broad Street cut busy swathes between the colleges.
The 38 colleges and six private halls make Oxford University special. When an undergraduate goes up to Oxford — and it is always “up,” from whatever the geographical origin, as if to heaven, never down, and being “sent down” is the ultimate disgrace — he or she becomes a member of a college. Graduate students are chosen by the university and then become members of a college.
The colleges have their own character shaped over centuries by their benefactors, fellows and deans, masters, presidents, principals, provosts, rectors, wardens or regent (as college heads are variously known). Christ Church has close associations with Eton and the aristocracy, New College with Winchester College and intellectuals, Jesus with Wales, and The Queen’s College with the north of England. Somerville was famous for blue stockings, including Margaret Thatcher, and only admitted men in the 1990s.
Christ Church is called “The House” because its Latin name is “Aedes Christi”, the House of Christ. Its chapel is the cathedral of Oxford. It has supplied 13 out of the 25 Oxford-educated British prime ministers — out of a total of 53. All Soul’s today only has fellows and to win a seven-year prize fellowship you have to pass 12 hours of examinations reputedly the most difficult in the world. The single word essay test (“chaos”, “corruption”, “innocence”, “miracles”) was dropped in 2010, but here are sample general questions: Why does the U.N. tolerate so many bad regimes? Is the desire for posthumous fame irrational? It has been said that architecture is frozen music: Does this make any sense?
Where Oxford (along with Cambridge) differs from other universities is that the most important aspect of undergraduate life is not lectures or library sessions studying set texts but the weekly one-on-one tutorial where the student reads an essay, which the tutor then comments on. A contemporary of mine had her effort literally ripped apart: Her tutor grabbed her work and took it to his lavatory next door, where she heard the sound of paper being torn, followed by flushing. Discussions of philosophy essays sometimes never go beyond the first paragraph, as the tutor tries to clarify the student’s thoughts.
This is intense, high-powered personal education, at least if the tutor can communicate. My economics tutor was a gangly man who advised the British government on nationalized industries, but his head seemed somewhere in the clouds of his own ivory tower, unable to come down to earth to explain basic concepts simply. I learned more from attending graduate seminars at Nuffield College, listening to visiting bankers, cabinet ministers, diplomats and officials explain what really went on in the corridors of power, and realized that even the best texts were static and did not reflect the devious and grubby politics of the real world.
When you step into a college, you are entering a different world where learning and culture are sacred. Will Hutton, former editor of The Observer, who has just become principal of Hertford College, describes Oxford University as a “mini-civilization” and the colleges as “micro-civilizations within the mini-civilization”.
It is a good thought. The university is blessed with a great library, the Bodleian, with 11 million volumes, and museums and galleries, such as the Ashmolean and Pitt-Rivers with the most complete remains of the extinct dodo. Colleges also have libraries, some of them sumptuous rooms of learning. The upper library at Queen’s is one of the most beautiful rooms in England, with creaking floors that echo with centuries of scholarship and dispute. Christ Church, Magdalen, New College have choirs producing heavenly music, while Queen’s choir sang on the “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” film.
This university is not some musty old place of cobwebs, dodos and ancient irrelevant arguments about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. Oxford gave the world the mathematical symbols for greater than, less than and infinity. In the grim wartime 1940s, Howard Florey and his colleagues produced penicillin in medically usable doses as the first antibiotic, a great example of team research.
The research goes on. Will Hutton waxes eloquently: “There is fantastic scholarship and learning, which has really knocked my socks off, lovely people at the summit of their subjects.
“There are two universities here. There is a cluster of ancient colleges, the Bodleian Library, All Soul’s, New College, all next door, across the road Balliol, Brasenose, Exeter, Trinity, across the High Street, University, Queen’s. If we go outside, that’s the “Brideshead Revisited” Quad, where Evelyn Waugh lived. I can show you where Sebastian Flyte was sick. This is where John Donne wrote some of his finest love poetry, where Jonathan Swift lived.
“But just north of here, in the science and medical area, research is going on which will change the world. There are few genuine technologies that have actually changed — the world, the Internet, the railway, the steam engine, the printing press — 29 of them since 9,000 B.C. Innovation theorists say that there will be 20 of them in the 21st century.
“Two of them can come from Oxford and the medical university, one in genomics, one in immunology. Cambridge can produce two more and Imperial College (London) another, so that four or five of the transforming technologies of the 21st century will some from (universities) here. Some of the stuff — on the genome, immunology, the brain, the architecture of cancer, stem cells, the world’s largest telescope, the world’s smallest camera — is unbelievable.”
If you get a chance to sit at high table (with the fellows) for dinner you may hear the frivolous. The acting head of a distinguished college with a 600-year-old oak-paneled dining hall whispered, “If I had my way I’d rip out all this gloomy wood and paint the hall in bright colors.” Another fellow, previously an amateur player with a leading English football team, offered the secret of defending against great players like Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi: “watch their knees, not their feet.”
More likely your head will begin to swim, not from the fine wines, but from the heady conversations and lively ideas. A glimpse at recent research reveals that Oxford scientists last year developed a new method of delivering complex drugs directly to the brain, necessary for treating Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and motor neuron disease. Others discovered the world’s oldest fossils, suggesting that there was life on earth 3.4 billion years ago. Other scientists discovered that meat produced using tissue engineering techniques generates up to 96 percent fewer greenhouse gases than conventionally produced meat. Meanwhile, the department of minerals developed a new way of splitting layered materials like graphite into sheets one atom thick, which could lead to new electronic and energy storage techniques. Others are researching practical applications of nanotechnology and nanomedicine; moral issues of climate change; how to protect privacy in the Internet age while preserving broadest public access to information; prospects of geo-engineering; paradoxes of population; the business of leadership; sleeping sickness; a host of philosophical, classical, historical and literary subjects, pushing back the bounds of human knowledge and understanding.
Oxford’s other attractive attribute is that it is increasingly international, especially at graduate and postgraduate level. Of Oxford University’s 21,535 students at the end of 2010, 24 percent (5,197) were international (i.e. non-EU) and another 12.8 percent (2,747) were from EU countries outside the UK. Students currently at Oxford come from 140 countries. As vice-chancellor professor Andrew Hamilton says, “Oxford is truly a university of the world, for the world.”
Hamilton faces lots of challenges, not least from the budget-slashing British government run by the Oxford-educated David Cameron and his Cambridge-educated coalition partner Nick Clegg. Instead of encouraging Oxford’s undoubted excellence, British governments have moved from penny-pinching to slashing university funding. Britain’s budget for higher education, 1.2 percent of gross domestic product compared with the 1.5 percent average for all industrialized countries, is to be cut from ￡7.1 billion to ￡4.2 billion by 2014.
Equally damaging is government treatment of education as a commodity. Competition, greater productivity, squeezing value for money are buzzwords, as if the government puts in a pound coin and expects a pound, or preferably a kilo, of instant marketable research in return.
Oxford, thanks to its cutting edge in many areas, is doing relatively well in funding for science, but there are well-founded fears that the humanities will suffer because of a government preoccupation with the market and demands for immediate economic payback. In practical terms, path-breaking scientific research cannot be ordered out of a slot machine or in response to government mantras and time scales. Hamilton quotes Albert Einstein that “If we knew what it was we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research, would it?” It took more than a decade from Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin before Florey and his Oxford team were able to create a clinical product that saved tens of millions of lives.
Sometimes there is no obvious connection between research and practical use. Who would have thought that Bertrand Russell’s philosophical investigations into logic and language would have led to the artificial languages of modern computer science? Or that a scientist’s abstract theorizing 30 years ago would lead to ultra-fast DNA sequencing, which is about to be marketed as a powerful health diagnostic tool.
More important, the accounting method is a betrayal of the very idea of a university as a creator of civilizing values. John Henry Newman wrote 150 years ago: “A university is a place … whither students come from every quarter for every kind of knowledge … a place for the communication and circulation of thought … where inquiry is pushed forward … discoveries verified and perfected and … error exposed by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge.”
Professor Keith Gull, principal of St Edmund Hall, puts the other side of the coin pithily: “If you think knowledge is expensive, try ignorance.”
The grim bottom line is that Oxford University has a shortfall of ￡80 million a year for teaching and a similar one for research allowing for the full costs, including maintaining the infrastructure. With the introduction of higher fees this year, the teaching shortfall will still be about ￡77 million. There will be pain all round.
Undergraduates will be burdened with loans. Hamilton and every college head I spoke to pledged to give bursaries and awards so that students from low-income families will actually be better off at Oxford than at provincial universities. Optimists point out that students will not have to pay up front but will take loans to be repaid by higher income tax. If I may cite my own experience, from a family too poor to pay income tax, I would never have contemplated a university education that left me accumulated debts. Debt was anathema to us. Today’s generation may be different.
Colleges struggle to make ends meet. The costs of educating an undergraduate under Oxford’s peerless tutorial system are about ￡16,000, more in science and medicine, or almost double what the government pays. Professor Paul Madden, provost of Queen’s, notes, “Our total turnover is about ￡8 million, of which about ￡4 million is derived from means other than fees or charges to students, so roughly half our costs are met by income on the endowment or by conferences or by direct giving by old members. Raising roughly half your turnover from something other than what you would think is your job, is pretty common.”
Together, the Oxford colleges have endowments of ￡2.7 billion and the university has another ￡629 million. This makes Oxford the richest university in Europe, but it is a far cry from the tens of billions of dollars of the top U.S. universities, much less than vice chancellor Hamilton was handling in his previous job as provost of Yale University.
Oxford is unanimously committed to its superb tutorial system of education, “THE best in the world, without a question,” says Madden. Were this taken into account in university league tables “dominated by North American model perceptions about what higher education should be”, then Oxford would soar to the top of the world. As it is, it is between first and eighth, depending on the prejudices of the rankers.
Crisis would not be too strong a word for Oxford’s financial situation. The university has collected more than ￡1 billion in a fund-raising exercise to raise at least ￡1.25 billion, an unprecedented effort. Colleges are drumming up support from alumni, but collegiate efforts are small change compared with the immense funding to universities in the U.S. and up-and-coming China. Hamilton points out that for all the private money going to Harvard, that university gets 80 percent of its research funds from government; Oxford gets only 40 percent from government. China is pouring $280 million a year each into Peking and Tsinghua universities.
There is no mistaking Oxford’s fury at the cuts. One don rages: “In the classic expression, Cameron and his crowd know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.”
Congregation, the body of all teaching staff, last year passed, by 283 to 5, a vote of no-confidence in David Willetts, the universities’ minister, himself a graduate of Christ Church with a first-class degree and nicknamed “Two Brains” because of his supposed intelligence. A more sensitive or sensible government would ask whether savage cuts across the board to all 115 universities makes any sense, and whether it would be better to encourage proven centers of excellence rather than cut crudely.
Oxford really needs — and would be a worthy beneficiary of — a mega-benefactor, a Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, George Soros, Mohamed El-Erian, concerned about the way the world is spinning out of control, who seeks to encourage a holistic approach and broad scholarship that recognizes that there is something to life and civilization beyond markets and making money.
Kevin Rafferty read philosophy, politics and economics at The Queen’sOxford