John Kay is misleading: Oxford does have a problem but it's not the one he thinks it isby Alan Ryan / January 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
John kay has occupied a good deal of space in the national press, and even more in Prospect last month, complaining that his failure to create the business school he wanted in Oxford was all the fault of the university’s sclerotic management practices, and evidence of its slow descent into mediocrity-illustrated by its third place in various league tables, behind Cambridge and then Imperial College. If Kay is right, the truth is clear-Oxford is gently going down the drain, encumbered by slow-moving committees, excessive academic democracy, and an unwillingness to seize commercial opportunities.
It’s not quite like that. Finger-pointing is improper, and any energetic person has their gripes about any organisation’s slow-footedness; but Kay’s wounds are largely self-inflicted. He never acknowledges in his complaints that if you turn up with a promise of ?20m, but need another ?20m to trigger it, you impose on your hosts the task of finding that other ?20m. Since Oxford hadn’t got it, it was right to be cautious. And if you are told by your benefactor to build a big building in the middle of a crowded city, you need to be careful where you put it. Kay did not want caution, and threw an extended tantrum. For a man who preaches the doctrine of the “ethical corporation,” he set quite high standards of ill- tempered managerial behaviour.
His talk of the university’s lack of decision-making procedures, and of the absence of a proper resource allocation system boils down to the complaint that he didn’t get his own way, and wasn’t allowed to spend money that other people rightly regarded as theirs. It’s no wonder that after two years of his monopolising much of the university’s time and attention he was finally allowed to stalk off.
Kay says he has not come across anyone who is openly against the Said Business School. If this is true, he can count me as the first. The whole enterprise has wasted an appalling amount of time, money and energy. I have no hostility to business schools as such. The Said Business School might be a useful, intellectually serious and agreeable place if set up as a free-standing enterprise like the London Business School. The attempt to insert it into a university with a proto-business school already established at Templeton College was a mistake, as Kay implicitly admits throughout his essay. It will doubtless work out in the end, but that’s not to say it wasn’t a daft idea in the first place. It is debatable whether management studies has a place in an undergraduate liberal arts education: like other vocational degrees, such as law and medicine, it may be best taken after a more general degree. Look at Princeton, which has had the sense to avoid law, medicine and business schools, and collects Nobel prizes like petrol tokens. What is not debatable is that riding into town on a white elephant is no kindness to hard-up universities.
What, then, is this talk of mediocrity? The innumerate mind is currently struck by the fact that Oxford comes below Imperial College in assorted league tables. But the statistics are more complicated.
League tables give universities credit for the size of their (mostly research) income divided by the number of their students-but leave out the 35 per cent of Oxbridge budgets that flow through the colleges rather than the universities. Imperial College has lately merged with several medical schools and so has a large research income but only half the students of Oxford, Cambridge or UCL. Of these, a quarter are medical students, whose education costs a vast amount of money, and none are humanities students, who attract very little funding. Imperial College’s income per head is impressive, but it shows only that science costs money and history doesn’t. Is it a well-run outfit? Judging by the Rector’s willingness to offer advice to Oxford, you would think so. Judging by the weakness of its overhead recovery rate-see its annual accounts-and the news that the college was about to sack 120 staff from its medical schools, you might have your doubts. The more realistic view is that Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and UCL are ahead of everyone else and virtually indistinguishable from one another in research excellence-but you wouldn’t go to Imperial to read French literature.
Still, Kay might be self-destructive, league tables duplicitous, and Oxford still be mediocre. Or if not mediocre, at least in a mess. In fact, Oxford is in a bit of a mess. It isn’t mediocre, but it is under strain, and it’s not obvious that it can go on doing everything it tries to do while doing all of it well. Its problems are essentially those of other large, broadly-based universities which provide excellent liberal-arts undergraduate education while keeping up high-grade research in the sciences-such as King’s and University Colleges, London. The mess has been developing for 70 years, and is now coming to whatever efflorescence it is that messes come to. It is a consequence of the conflict between CP Snow’s famous two cultures, and the Oxford version is messier only because the humanities culture is embodied in one set of arrangements, colleges, and the scientific culture is embodied in another, the university departments of science.
Oxford was, until the 1950s, a university in which there was little science. A third of the-rather few-graduate students by that time were scientists, but only one in six undergraduates. The only substantial science discipline was chemistry. The 19th-century rule of “Oxford for arts and Cambridge for sciences” had remained valid for the first half of the 20th. Science lecturers were badly integrated into colleges-quite a lot of colleges had no science fellows at all before 1950, and a lot of science lecturers had no college attachments and were thus second-class citizens.
Nowadays, things are different. For undergraduates Oxford is less solidly an “arts” university-57 per cent arts and social science, 43 per cent scientists at undergraduate level. (Cambridge is 53/47 the other way about.) The science departments are stiff with fellows of the Royal Society. More importantly, the university’s budget is wholly dominated by science research costs. Two years ago, the research bill for the biomedical sciences was just under ?180m, out of a total university budget-excluding colleges-of some ?300m. (The research bill for history was ?750,000.) The body count is equally significant. About 1,300 academic-teaching-staff work for Oxford; almost twice as many contract research and technical staff work for the science departments. This has come about in the past two decades.
When people write about Oxford, they think of colleges; but colleges are where the battle rages between the demands of liberal arts education for undergraduates and the demands of research. Colleges attract the loyalty of students and of humanities teachers, who teach as they always have. They attract less loyalty from science lecturers, to many of whom tutorial instruction is an alien form of teaching. For many scientists, teaching of any sort is anyway less interesting than research on the one hand, and the commercial exploitation of that research on the other. There are many scientists who are terrific tutorial teachers, but there are also many science professors who resent every minute a college takes of their faculty’s time.
Cambridge tackled the problem 80 years ago by letting the university take control of academic life. Oxford bolted all developments into the collegiate structure of the old, arts university. This had its advantages, not least that all university teachers in Oxford have college posts, and vice versa, and most Oxford faculty are paid up to ?10,000 a year more than their Cambridge counterparts. But since the colleges pay the extra money, faculty are not wholly under the control of their heads of department. What is happening now is that Oxford is trying to be two institutions at once-a collection of liberal arts colleges on the one hand and a conventional unitary university on the other. Department heads in the sciences want to spend what they see as their money as they choose, to dictate to their staff as other professors do, and to make Oxford science as much like Birmingham science or Manchester science as they can.
Will it be a disaster if they succeed? Hardly-if the worst that happens to Oxford is that it becomes more like Cambridge, the world won’t come to an end. Will it be a pity? It will. The best undergraduate science education in the US is not provided in the research universities, but in the liberal arts colleges. Neglecting undergraduate education in science except where it immediately bolts on to faculty research is standard behaviour in good research departments, but it is a bad investment in the future. The unambitious course for Oxford is to settle for being like Cambridge; the ambitious course is to be as good as anyone at research, while teaching science as part of liberal education-which is what it should be for the 70 per cent of science graduates who go off into management, banking, law and business rather than scientific research. Kay’s business school is just a sideshow in the battle between the two cultures.