An Oxford First!

Professor Jonathan Clark

Friday 23rd September: This week’s World University Rankings put UK universities at the top of the list. But, as Jonathan Clark explains, all may not be as well as it seems. Professor Clark writes:

Oxford University has just come top of the World University Rankings, as conducted by the Times Higher Education Supplement, a first for any UK university; Cambridge is ranked fourth, Imperial College eighth. This should be a matter of celebration: the UK is certainly a superpower in university terms, and has many excellent institutions. But is everything as it seems? Is all well? What is the overall picture? What will happen next?

First, such rankings depend on differences, often tiny, in allegedly measurable ‘indicators’. This means that the administrators who run universities often seek to game the system. University policies are conventionally skewed to produce more of this, less of that, whatever the real needs of students or of academic subjects.

Second, the existence of such metrics tends to homogenise universities. In the business world new firms often try out new structures and new procedures. But universities now often become more and more alike, less and less homes to their own ways of doing things, sustained within their own devolved power structures, valuing and handing on their own intellectual traditions. Universities, and even Oxbridge colleges, increasingly present themselves with a similar rhetoric; worse, they increasingly believe their own PR.

Third, many good things about universities cannot be measured at all: the quality of teaching, the dedication of academics to students, the loyalty of students to their institution, the openness of the system to unconventional ideas and inconvenient people. Many ancient self-governing institutions in British society have been systematically downgraded: the old autonomy has been implicitly undermined by the goals, understandable in themselves, of transparency and accountability. Universities were the last to go; but even they have been subordinated. Nowhere has this trend gone further than in the USA, home to the world’s largest, most affluent and now most lookalike universities.

Fourth, politicians, who control large public grants, are given data that allow them much more easily to interfere in academic disciplines of which they necessarily know little. The latest idea, in Whitehall, is to seek to quantify teaching excellence, to penalize universities that score less well on such measures, and to assume powers over universities to enforce compliance.

Finally, universities also have less good features, and these do not show up on the metrics. Major complaints are seldom heard above the cacophony of self-praise that stems from the system of metric-driven university competition. Two stand out. One is the exponential growth in student debt, which in the US now exceeds all other forms of credit card debt. If interest rates return to long-term norms, the entire over-extended system may be at risk.

Another is the exponential growth in the number and cost of university administrators since c. 1990. At Oxford, this trend has been monitored and warned against by the distinguished economist Peter Oppenheimer of Christ Church: the diversion of resources, he argues, has reached a point where it impacts upon the university’s teaching function. But we await an adequate response from Wellington Square, and the trend has not prevented Oxford from being notionally promoted to the head of the pack.

The problem is international. With numbers, and wealth, goes power: everywhere control has passed from academics to unaccountable administrators, who do not always prove to be philosopher kings. This development and its effect on academic morale are commonplace topics of conversation in all universities; but morale cannot be quantified, and it figures nowhere in the metrics.

All is not well in the university world. But the people who normally speak for and assess the universities are their well-rewarded professional administrators. Are they marking their own homework?

*Jonathan Clark is Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at Kansas University and a former Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge and All Souls College Oxford. His recent publications include A World By Itself: A History of the British Isles (ed. 2010) and for Politeia he co-authored History in the making: The New Curriculum, Right or Wrong?.