'A few more Words on University Reform'

Posted by September Blue Monday, 18 June 2007

(Blackwood's, Dec. 1853)

It is of little avail now to question the legality of the expediency of the Royal Commission; whether we like it or not, it is now a great fact – like the repeal of the Corn Laws, or the cholera.
University reform was a hot subject in the middle of the century, after the Prime Minister (at that time John Russell) set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Oxford in 1850. Oxford and Cambridge operated quite differently to the newer British universities, and prospective reformers were drawing contrasts in particular with the Scottish universities, which tended to be more accessible, more secular, and have a much better record in more 'modern' subjects like medicine. The fuel for reform had been building up for a long time before the 1850s, though. The Edinburgh Review was criticizing Oxford and Cambridge in the early 18th century, and with reason. See this review (it's a JSTOR link) of a book on the history of university reform by one A. I. Tillyard for a good example of why:
[B]etween 1650 and 1800, as a result of public indifference and of an evil constitution, Oxford and Cambridge lost all their older prestige and became almost useless as organs of national education. To quote Mr. Tillyard:
A period of lethargy set in, during which Oxford fell to almost incredible depths. The old examination system had become obsolete, and nothing had been put in its place. Wenedorn, who traveled through England before 1788, gives an amusing account of what he saw. The Presiding Examiner, the Respondent or candidate for a degree, and the three Opponents came into the schools, and amid profound silence passed the statutory time in the study of a novel or other entertaining work. Oxford in fact gave its degrees without any examination to all who had paid their fees and kept the required number of terms. Cambridge was saved from falling quite so low by the influence of Sir Isaac Newton and his successors. It required a certain amount of mathematics before granting a degree.
Things had changed a little by the 1850s (Oxford introduced exams in 1800, for example), although not enough to avoid the eventual reforms. But back to the Blackwood's article, where the Royal Commission's report is meeting with some disfavour for not going far enough.
There are abuses on which the most careless undergraduate could have borne important testimony, and which every honest tutor will confess with pai, on which this Report evinces either the strangest insensibility, or the most perverse conservatism.

First, and most prominent, as regards the studies of the place, stands the crying evil, which might almost have claimed a Commission to itself – that the real work of the University is done by private tutors. How tenderly and delicately the Commissioners deal with this – which we are surely not singular in considering a gigantic anomaly – may be seen by those who have the patience to read page 89 of their production. Fondly placing in the foreground, in the ardent works of Mr Lowe – himself an able and successful private tutor – the "manifold advantages" of the system, they touch lightly on its defects, and faintly hint at partial remedies. Admitting that "the amount paid for private tuition by many individuals far exceeds that which is paid for college tuition" [...] they congratulate themselves upon the fact, that the practice is less general at Oxford than at Cambridge.
But still pretty pervasive, according to the author, who speaks of it as so widespread at Oxford that 'the veriest freshman [...] must laugh in the face of her Majesty's Commissioners." (And did anyone else think 'freshman' was a uniquely American term, by the way?)
But let us examine matters more closely, and we may discover some of the causes of this remarkable state of things. Our friend [the hypothetical student], whom we have matriculated, is, we will assume, of modest acquirements, and proposes (under the old system) to take up for his degree, Herodotus, Virgil, portions of Cicero, and four plays of Euripides. But the lectures which he has to attend (for he seldom has much choice of his own in the matter) are one in Livy, one in Horace, and one in Plato's Republic; in which latter college tutor No. 1 is supposed to be great, having edited some new readings. All very desirable subjects, no doubt, but not exactly what he requires at present. [...] Or, granted that he is fortunate enough to be in a Herodotus lecture; he gets through five chapters in an hour, thrice a week, in a class of seventeen, including one freshman who cannot construe a line together decently, and stutters into the bargain, and another from the sixth form at Eton, who rattles it all off in a tone perfectly inaudible to any one except himself, and, it is supposed, the tutor. Why, at this rate, it will take him about two academical years to get through the five books of the old historian in which he is to be examined! If he be a candidate for high honours, the case is just the same, or even worse; either there are no college lectures on the subject in which he needs special assistance, or they are attended by such an ill-assorted class, containing men of all grades of scholarship and no scholarship, that he either cuts them altogether or goes to them with disgust, and brings away from them little of more value than a leading-string abstracted with much patience and vigilance from his next neighbour's gown, or a series of bad pencil-caricatures of the tutor.
Class sizes of seventeen at Oxford are huge compared to the current system, where tutorials are made up of only a couple of students at a time. For those of us with bigger classes, though, the image of nineteenth-century students bored out of their minds and doodling cartoons of the tutor is close enough to home that my first reaction to this was "well, maybe if they hadn't been skipping lectures, they'd have more to say." Kids these days, etc.
It is hard to judge, from what college lectures are, of what they might be, if they were attended in a different spirit. [...] Once let the pupil think that his teacher cannot teach, and let the teacher know that he thinks so, and it is true – he cannot. On this point Mr Foulkes, himself a college tutor, speaks with equal sense and honesty. "Pupils," says he, "make light of their college lectures in comparison with those of their private tutor; and college tutors, finding their lectures ill got up or remembered, are apt to grow apathetic, and relax in their diligence." They were more than mortal if they did not. A dull audience, the Commissioners confess, may make even a professor dull; – to borrow an illustration from the Report (which has throughout a tendency to the poetical), a tutor with an inanimate class is "Pyrrhus" without "his Epirots" – an eagle with clipped wings.
Among other criticisms, academics don't work hard enough:
At all events, there will always be an abundance of ripe scholars and sensible men, to whom the social position, and the congenial work, even with the present modest emoluments of a college tutor, will be an object quite sufficient, even if, in this active age, we add a little to their work. An extra early hour in the morning – say from eight to nine – would be a wonderful incentive to the energies of many a freshman, who is now hugging himself every morning in bed with the comfortable reflection, that in his new sphere he is emancipated from the odious "first lessons" of Harrow or Eton. Another hour in the evenings devoted to Horace or Aristophanies – say three times a week – would hardly interfere with those pleasant dinner-parties, or social cup of coffee, to which the tutor naturally looks as the reward of his labours, and with which we are sure it would be rank ingratitude for any stranger to intermeddle, who has been welcomed, as all strangers are welcomed, to those classic hospitalities.
Teaching needs to be reorganised:
Let this plan only be tried; let some college, now considered inferior, select and pay a couple of first-rate tutors, and let them form their classes according to their own judgment, selecting those departments for which each feels himself best qualified, and really working them. We will not ask of them twelve, ten, or even six hours a-day: much less will give an among of genuine instruction sufficient for the limited numbers which any one of the smaller colleges can expect to supply as candidates for honours. [...] They will be fully competent to do all which private tutors now do, if it is distinctly understood both by undergraduates and their friends that they, and they alone, are to do it.
And finances could be better arranged:
From forty men [i.e., students] paying, as we have suggested, £20 per annum each, we have £800 to apply in this manner [of paying tutors]; to which the college may well add another £200, sinking, if it may be necessary, as it seldom would be, a fellowship for this purpose. In the larger colleges, where more tutors are required, the funds will increase in proportion. This will allow, even in small colleges, at least £300 per annum to a first-rate tutor, in addition to the fellowship which we may naturally suppose he will hold on his own or some other foundation. And this, we repeat, will be enough to secure good men, and men whose energies are young and fresh; for we cannot agree with the Commissioners in thinking that the succession, by which a college tutor quits his work for the "expected living," and thus makes way for his juniors, is in itself an evil; or that it is not far preferable to the system of married professors, who will stick to their chairs, if not to their work, long after the "solve senescentum" might be fairly applied.
The reference to marriage here is because celibacy was usually a prerequisite for a fellowship (although not for professors). Smile, TAs and junior staff everywhere: we could have it worse. As for the money, according to this spiffy currency converter, that's the equivalent of about £1400 for tuition per annum, leading to a total pot of about £55,000, to which the college would add another £13,500, and end up paying tutors around £20,500 per year on top of the fellowships they'd continue to hold.

1 Responses to 'A few more Words on University Reform'

  1. Autumn Song Says:
  2. I notice you don't comment on the idea of these students benefiting from an extra class 8-9am. Perhaps this speaks for itself though...