Sunday, 5 December 2010

History shows the English state has always meddled with universities

In the medieval period there did not exist what we today would refer to as the modern nation state.  There was a relative lack of centralised political and administrative control.  Hence it was possible, according to Notker Hammerstein, for universities ‘to elude and frequently to avoid...government ordinances.’

Yet though the universities possessed a great deal of autonomy over their internal and external affairs this never meant total freedom from state interference.  Just because the state did not interfere at any one point in time does not mean that it couldn’t if it chose to do so.

The post-Reformation Tudor and Stuart periods witnessed a dramatic increase in state interference in higher education, primarily as part of the state’s wider social policy.  This interference was usually driven by what the purpose or function of the university was deemed to be at the time; the state then exploited that purpose or function to serve its own policies.  Whilst this could be seen as a narrow and insufficient representation of the history of universities in general, the themes it contains do reappear regularly throughout history.

Hugh Kearney tells us that on the eve of the English Reformation the universities of Oxford and Cambridge ‘provided the means for educating a clerical intelligentsia.’  Despite the religious upheavals of the sixteenth century those ancient universities retained their role of training clergymen, only now it was for the Church of England and not the Catholic Church.  Well into the seventeenth century this remained the universities’ primary function and Francis Bacon described them in 1605 as effectively ‘professional institutions.’  Richard Tyler has found that 41.3 per cent of Cambridge students took orders between 1590 and 1640.  The universities, of course, were not just seminaries.  In the decades following the English Reformation, sons of the gentry began to go up to Oxford or Cambridge in increasing numbers, meaning that by the 1630s there were not only many more undergraduates than there had been in medieval times but over half were laymen.  Nevertheless, the universities’ primary practical function was still to train the clergy, and it is for that reason that the Tudor court had become much more closely involved in university affairs.

The Elizabethan settlement of 1559, amongst other things, gave the Crown absolute authority over both of the universities.  The universities’ colleges were self-governing institutions and in that respect they remained autonomous.  However, the state could, and did, interfere on a number of levels to achieve its aim of enforcing religious orthodoxy.

As the universities were the training grounds for future clergymen it seemed appropriate for the Crown to ensure that they were being led and taught by the correct people, in the desired fashion.  Religious sectarianism was a significant threat to social order.  This was all too apparent in light of unrest on the continent, such as the Anabaptist uprisings in Münster over 1534-5.  Kett’s sectarian rebellion in Norfolk in 1549 was a catalyst for a greater clampdown on religious dissent.  In this historical context it is not hard to understand state interference in higher education as defending social order and religious orthodoxy and not as an attack on the universities’ autonomy.

John Whitgift, 1530-1604
The munificent donation of Regius chairs in 1540 had come with the condition that political and religious conformity was adhered to; Trinity College, Cambridge, and its sister college Christ Church, Oxford (both established in 1546), were also noteworthy royal endowments.  The effects of royal patronage are clearly evident in the career of John Whitgift, who became Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity at Cambridge in 1563.  His strict denunciations of religious dissent and harsh treatment of Puritanical belief earned him praise and enthusiastic support from the Crown and he was soon appointed Master of Pembroke Hall and then Trinity College, a very prestigious position.  In 1570 he introduced new university statutes that imposed a curriculum heavily favouring court authority and religious orthodoxy and his subsequent esteem was so high with Queen Elizabeth that he became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1583.  Although the occasional royal university appointment did not drastically alter the autonomous running of the universities, over time the government could manipulate the university’s direction.  In the second half of the sixteenth century this was most certainly in the direction of religious orthodoxy as, according to state papers, the Crown put pressure on dissenters ‘from every direction.’  A Crown candidate replaced a well-known Puritan at St John’s, Cambridge, in 1596, and the Queen interceded no less than four times between January and May 1597 alone in proposing preferred individuals for college fellowships.

William Laud, 1573-1645
Royal interference only increased under the Stuarts, and both James I and Charles I would often stay in Woodstock in order to be closer to Oxford.  Crown patronage – in return for obedience – also continued in the first half of the seventeenth century.  However, it was not until the rise of William Laud, appointed Chancellor of Oxford in 1629, and subsequently Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633, that state interference increased to sixteenth century levels.  Like in Elizabethan times the targets were religious non-conformists and the objective was to instate social and religious order.  Laud put a renewed emphasis on the universities’ role in clerical training and he attempted to enforce submission to Arminian theology and an absolute monarchy.  About Oxford he wrote in 1634: ‘This work I hope God will so bless as that it may much improve the honour and good government of that place, a thing very necessary in this life both for Church and Commonwealth; since so many young gentlemen and others of all ranks and conditions have their breeding for the public in that seminary.’  Of the larger Oxford colleges only Queen’s and Exeter avoided Laud’s interference in academic appointments during the 1630s and similar acts were carried out in Cambridge.  Similar kinds of state patronage even continued under Oliver Cromwell’s rule in the 1650s, as the Lord Protector made his chaplain, John Owen, Dean of Christ Church, and his physician, Jonathan Goddard, Warden of Merton.

Paul Gerbod has claimed that during this period, governments often assumed the part of a ‘teacher-state’, impressing on universities a ‘uniform educational system in line with their political or philosophical aims.’  This view is questionable.  Other than on rare occasions when university curricula were directly tampered with, such as under Whitgift in the 1570s and Archbishop Laud in the 1630s, the state did not assume direct control of university teaching.  On a day-to-day administrative and intellectual basis the universities remained autonomous.  Real power, after all, lay not in the federal university body but in the individual colleges, which were largely materially and intellectually independent.

It was in the indirect influence of royal patronage and endowments that state interference was most felt.  There is an appropriate distinction to be made here, if perhaps merely theoretical, and it does corroborate Gordon Graham’s declaration that regardless of any notion of autonomy, the universities were not free from state interference.  For Graham is not saying that the universities have always been at the behest of the state, like some sort of public institution.  His statement accepts that university autonomy, ‘whatever [it] may mean’, does exist and has existed.  What Graham does acknowledge is that in spite of any such autonomy the universities have never been totally free from the possibility of state interference.

In the past the state has tended to interfere in university affairs in order to achieve a political or social objective.  The state’s capacity to do this has always been constrained by the university’s own capacity – in other words, its institutional and educational role within society.  During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the universities were still acting primarily as theological training schools for the Church of England, the parameters existed for the government to use the universities as part of its wider policy of maintaining social order and religious orthodoxy during those turbulent years.  The state’s grip on religious dissent tightened after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 as a series of measures (informally referred to as the ‘Clarendon Code’ due to their not altogether precise association with the Earl of Clarendon, the king’s chief minister) were enacted in order to strengthen the authority of the Church of England.

After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 England entered an age of relative religious and political stability.  It was no longer imperative for the state to attempt to influence university affairs in the way it had done since the English Reformation.  Moreover, the rise of the lay intellectual within the universities and the simultaneous decline in influence of the clergy as England entered a more secular age meant that the universities were not as useful a means of social control as they had previously been.
Harold Perkin has claimed that ‘between 1850 and 1930 there took place in England a revolution in higher education...nothing less than the transformation of the university from a marginal institution, an optional finishing school for young gentlemen, into the central power house of modern industrial society.’
In combination with professionalisation, universities became ‘the normal route to high status and income.’  After 1945 the British postwar settlement, which included the construction of the welfare state, embraced grand aims for greater equality of opportunity and fairness in society.  If universities could function as agents of social mobility then they could usefully be incorporated within government policy to achieve the above aims.  Universities, so the thinking went, should become more open to all members of society, regardless of age, race or gender.  What followed were vast increases in state funding from the University Grants Committee (UGC) under the chairmanship of Sir Keith Murray from 1953-63.  In 1956 the UGC capital programme was £3.8 million; by 1963 it was £30 million, with the promise of even more to come.  During this period seven new universities were added along with the severance of Dundee from St Andrews and Newcastle from Durham.  Student numbers had similarly mushroomed.  The higher education policies of the 1960s Labour governments under Harold Wilson, most notably the creation of the Open University in 1969 (which aimed to provide distance-learning to anyone who desired it) and the binary system of universities and polytechnics, the latter to offer more applied, vocational learning to a meet the growing demand for higher (or further) education.

Here, then, is evidence of changing contexts and changing functions.  The postwar context was one in which British governments proclaimed a far more welfarist and interventionist set of social policy objectives than before.  Functionally, universities were now viewed as agents of social mobility, and therefore appropriate policy tools for achieving policy objectives.  Like in my case study, the British government had not set out directly to threaten university autonomy and, so much as they could, the universities retained a great deal of independence.  This occurred despite a new, twentieth-century version of state patronage – the significantly higher state funding for higher education, which after the Second World War represented over half of the universities’ income.  When a lack of funding began to impose limits to university autonomy in the 1970s this was due to exogenous economic shocks that the government had to weather via severe public expenditure cuts – it was not part of any deliberate strategy to interfere in university affairs. 

The universities have always assumed nominal autonomy in their internal affairs.  However, whenever the state has needed to utilize the universities as a political device it has been able to do so through a combination of two policy instruments: patronage and funding.  No matter how much universities in Britain have protested their autonomy, whether in the early modern period or since the Second World War, state interference has been inevitable.  Paul Gerbod makes the following conclusion:
No political system, no matter how democratic, could really accept the total autonomy of the universities.  Though they did retain a certain independence because of traditions often going back to the Middle Ages – that is to an age when universities were organically linked to the Western Christian Church – the universities were compelled to accept under duress more or less severe restrictions on their material and intellectual independence.
The crucial point to be made is that the universities have accepted ‘restrictions on their material and intellectual independence’ – they have not suffered total loss of material and intellectual independence.  Where autonomy has been curbed it has been restrictive, not destructive, of academic independence.  It has been part of pragmatic state policies.  The parameters for this interaction have changed as society has changed because universities have always been, and always will be, reflections of the society they inhabit.  Their functions follow society’s needs (whether clerical in the Tudor and Stuart era, or more technical and professional in our contemporary era – or, indeed, as agents of social mobility).

The state has always attempted to interfere in higher education in England and it shall continue to do so, as long as the universities and their role in society are conducive to meeting the policy objectives of the day.

1 comment:

  1. Only these days it's not the English state is it? There is no English state.

    It's the UK meddling with English universities.

    Perhaps if we had an English parliament putting the people of England first things would be very different.

    Role on the state of England.

    Oh look - a comment!