Do current higher education policies rest on a mistake? In a fascinating session in the CEMS ‘Universities in Historical Context ’ series (24 November), Howard Hotson described how techniques he had devised for understanding early modern intellectual history unexpectedly proved useful in analysing the contemporary university crisis.

In recent years, Hotson has been attempting to use statistical data to map out the ‘intellectual geography’ of seventeenth-century Europe, and to show how the relatively open market in higher education caused by the fragmentation of political authority in the Holy Roman Empire turned the Rhineland region into the pedagogical laboratory of Protestant Europe.  This graph of matriculation data, for instance, suggests that the Thirty Years War saw a dramatic transfer of academic leadership from the German Reformed universities to the Dutch Republic.

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When the UK government started predicting that marketizing the English university system would drive up standards and drive down prices, Hotson decided to use these techniques to put these predictions to an empirical test. His point of departure was the enormously influential Times Higher Education World University Rankings, since the apparently ‘absolute’ domination of the these Rankings by private American universities underpins claims that privatizing and marketizing the UK university system will deliver better value for money. And yet, as his analysis in last May’s LRB showed, correcting for the relative size of population, GDP and higher education spending showed that this assumption was without empirical foundation: the almost totally public university system in the UK offers much better value for money than the mixed university system in the US.  Astonished by the international resonance of this simple argument, he subsequently applied his analysis to the other leading university systems as well, generating further graphs like this:

Analysis of the second influential league table, the Academic Ranking of World Universities or ‘Shanghai index’, likewise undermines the assumption that British universities are failing to maintain their position internationally.

It is gratifying to see the ease with which skills in early modern studies can be transferred to critiquing contemporary policy; but it is equally disturbing to discover that journalists, politicians, and university administrators, although highly versed in economic and management orthodoxy, apparently lack the ability to subject their own assumptions to straightforward analysis of this kind. The discussion following the paper ranged from the possible parallels between Ramist dichotomies and Power Point presentations to some urgently contemporary questions: do the humanities betray their own principles in succumbing to the wholly quantitative discourse of current higher education policy? or do they lose their case by failing to engage in more depth with quantitative analysis?

The Browne Review and the coalition’s policies have left universities on the defensive about what they do and why. A new CEMS series on ‘The Universities in Historical Context’ aims to set these debates in perspective. It was launched on 3 November by Laurence Brockliss, a leading historian of education who is working on the ninth and final volume of the History of the University of Oxford, encouragingly subtitled The First 800 Years. In a paper that ranged skilfully and illuminatingly between past and present, Professor Brockliss drew a distinction between the traditional rationales for universities on the Continent, where the predominant model is vocational, and the emphasis in the Anglophone world either on a moral justification for higher education or on skills transferrable between many different occupation. This difference could be traced back to the early modern period, when the English universities, failed to conform to either the northern, Protestant or southern, Catholic patterns. Where elsewhere the arts course formed a relatively brief gateway to the higher faculties of law, medicine, and theology, in Oxford and Cambridge the proportions were reversed. Lest we take too much pride in a long tradition of liberal education, Professor Brockliss pointed out that the length of the arts course to a large extent reflected the deficiencies of English schools in bringing students to the necessary level. The lack of a vocational emphasis reflected not a higher moral purpose but the fact that entry to the church and the legal and medical professions did not depend on academic qualifications. The other major difference from the Continent was the collegiate structure, which through the early equivalents of the tutorial system had the necessary flexibility to bridge the gap between school and university. When the traditional system came under attack in the nineteenth century, rationales like Newman’s The Idea of a University gave a new moral or theological dignity to what had originally been more pragmatic arrangements, and the newer universities tended to absorb that ethos. There was a lively and informed discussion of the fortunes of the idea of the university today, with a series of reforms on the Continent to some degree producing a convergence with the Anglophone model even as the British government moves towards a far more utilitarian model. The series will continue on November 24 with a paper by Howard Hotson on ‘Markets, choice, efficiency and educational revolution in early modern German and neoliberal English universities: a strange instance of policy “impact” for early modern research?’