The Universities in Historical Context: Laurence Brockliss

November 8, 2011

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?’

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