The best universities in the world
Should we celebrate that Cambridge and Oxford have been ranked third and fourth in the THE world universities league (an entirely unofficial one…despite the publicity it gets) – and that there are 17 UK universities in the top one hundred. Or should we lament that Cambridge and Oxford have slipped from joint second with Yale, and that last year we had 19 'unis' in the top 100? Or should we not give a damn?
My first instinct is to celebrate. The fact that Oxbridge can come out so strongly when it has the fraction of the endowment of Harvard (no. 1) and Yale (no. 2) is a tribute to the brilliance of its staff, their phenomenal hard work (“we live in a culture of competitive martyrdom”, as a senior colleague remarked to me recently), traditions of excellence that go back centuries and an administration that is more or less at one with the academics.
In fact you might say that it is the democratic structure of the oldest UK universities that has enhanced and protected their achievements – rather than held them back, as many voices in government and industry would argue. An apparently cumbersome, devolved, democratic, tardy system of governance is often the best support of great institutions, stacked full of people who are too clever by half.
If any other area of UK life was rated this high (primary school maths, for example) we’d all be cheering. The universities and the BBC surely must be what the country should be most proud of – and I feel luckier than I can say that I have spent most of my working life in Cambridge.
Yet it is hard not to feel anxious about the slippage downwards, and what it might portend.
If you work in Cambridge, I can assure you that you don’t feel particularly valued by the powers in Whitehall. Labour education ministers take side swipes at you when they need to cheer up their back-benchers. You are repeatedly accused of wanting to admit only the social elite (those whose faces fit) rather than commit yourself to a wide access policy (have the people who say that actually been to see what we do?). And if you do Classics (a subject that is flourishing across more than half the globe…I’m writing this from Berkeley, remember), it often sounds as if your best hope is that you will be kindly pensioned off.
And all the time you are working your butt off, at the expense of family, friends and any sort of normal life. Competitive martyrdom may be productive, but it is not fun – nor humane.
Put simply, universities need more money. Yes, we are doing are bit to raise millions, if not billions. But it takes a long time to change the culture in that respect. We’re a long way from the kind of “Class of 73” giving that supports the US university system.
Meanwhile excellent scholars, teachers, communicators and intellectuals leave the British system for the US and elsewhere because they feel undervalued, overworked and – unless they win externally funded long-term research leave, which takes them out of the system they should be supporting – squeezed for adequate time to do the research work that they are best qualified to do.
It’s a bad financial week to be saying this. But, yes we should give a damn.