Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE OXFORD UNIVERSITY BILL. ( From The Economist, 4 th March, 1876.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
Return to Title Page for The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
THE OXFORD UNIVERSITY BILL. ( From “ The Economist, ” 4 th March, 1876.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 9.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
THE OXFORD UNIVERSITY BILL.
Lord Salisbury’s speech last week on introducing the Oxford University Bill was, in many respects, a pleasant surprise to those who have been accustomed to hear his attacks on the educational reforms of the Liberal Government. The scorn with which he spoke of the University system of bestowing prizes without demanding new efforts proportionate to these prizes from those who gain them, was very refreshing when considered as proceeding from the most Conservative member of a Conservative Administration. But the truth is that Lord Salisbury, like all the abler English statesmen, has a profound scorn for idleness, and, indeed, for anything like that cultivated dawdling which so often does duty for work in polished academical circles. Whatever his Bill may do, it is evident enough that Lord Salisbury’s intention is to get an equivalent in University or College work for the greater number of the fellowships, and that he hopes to see but a few “idle” fellowships left, just to bridge over the gulf between University distinction and professional distinction in the world, for the few who, having gained all the honours which academical life can give, are yet more fitted to be useful in the work of the world than in the prosecution of abstract studies, or the task of imbuing others with the love of those studies. So far, Lord Salisbury’s speech was certainly more satisfactory than his Bill. We do not deny that, with a skilful choice of Commissioners, it is quite possible that the machinery of his Bill should, to some moderate extent, carry out the reforms for which he seemed to express a desire in his speech. But at the same time there does not seem to be any guarantee that these reforms will be carried out. What his Bill does, is to put it into the power of a certain body of men, not as yet named, with the concurrence, or, at least, without the violent opposition of the various Oxford Colleges, to insist on certain economies and redistributions of revenue, which would result in effecting Lord Salisbury’s object of giving the greater Collegiate and University rewards only to those who would accept great responsibilities and duties with those rewards. At the same time, the Bill leaves everything so much in blank, and goes such a very little way towards settling the principles of the proposed reforms, that, as far as we can see, the parliamentary battle on its value, if battle there be, should turn almost wholly on the names of the Commissioners proposed, as soon as these names come to be announced, and on the views which they may at any time have expressed with respect to University reform. If it should turn out, as it probably will, that the Commissioners to be named before the Bill passes through Committee have not made up their own minds as to what they want, and that some of them are very cautious in relation to all innovations, and that even the boldest of them are tender of historic and traditional claims, all that Parliament will really be called on to sanction in sanctioning the Bill, will be an admission that something ought to be done, and that that something should be determined by the discretion of eminent but timid persons. If Lord Salisbury himself could be one of those persons, we should to a certain extent be reassured as to the working of the Bill; for, Conservative as Lord Salisbury is, he has that zeal for honest work, and that contempt for anything like trifling, which would ensure at least a certain class of reforms, though these might not always be the most necessary. But, of course, Lord Salisbury himself cannot serve on the Commission which the Oxford University Bill proposes, and there is, we think, some reason to fear lest the Commissioners whom he may name will be more disposed to sympathise with the fears of the Collegiate Conservatives than he himself would be. At all events, it is always a delicate thing for Parliament to sanction a reform without laying down at least its chief principles itself. Now this Lord Salisbury’s Bill certainly does not do. It points out the kind of remodellings of trusts which may be desirable both in relation to the University and in relation to the Colleges, but, as regards the extent of these reforms, and their applicability to particular academical cases, the Bill is wholly silent, and leaves everything to the discretion of the Commissioners. Nor is this all. There can be no doubt that the chief revenues now misapplied are the revenues of the Colleges. The University is very poor,—much too poor for its duties,—and whatever is done in the way of redistribution will result in the gain of the trusts of the University, and, more or less, in a subtraction of endowments from Collegiate trusts. Now for the purpose of reforming the Colleges, the University Commissioners to be appointed will not be the legislating body. Any College, which does not concur with the University in a scheme satisfactory to the Commissioners for its own reform before the end of 1877, will be liable to legislative renovation by a body composed of the Commissioners, and of three elected representatives of the College. Of course this will give an immense force to the natural objections felt by the backward Colleges to the renovating process. Three representatives well versed in the affairs of the College will put a very tight curb over the progressive tendencies of a probably rather timid Commission. This provision, especially when we consider that the Commission itself will be named by a Tory Administration, looks to us a good deal like putting a strong drag on a carriage just as it is beginning to climb a hill. Whatever may be hoped from Lord Salisbury’s Bill, it certainly cannot reasonably be hoped that any very radical policy, securing a wholesome poverty for the Colleges, will result from it.
We say a “wholesome” poverty, because we are deeply convinced that the great wealth which has accrued to these Collegiate bodies in our Universities has been, and is, of the nature of a drawback to the true objects of academical life, instead of a stimulus to them. Just as in certain bad private schools, where almost every child gets a prize, the prize system certainly is a soporific instead of an incentive to exertion, so in Oxford and Cambridge, the unfortunate abundance of emoluments which secures for at least one in every small group of young men the advantages (or disadvantages) of a partially or completely gratuitous education, clearly does tend to depress rather than to stimulate the proper intellectual life of a University. No doubt a great many more men go through what is called a University training than would go through it if there were no such abundance of prizes to be gained. But then the true life of a University depends far less on the number of men who are included in its society than on the kind of life they lead, and the nature of the influences which they exert. A very small knot of men may, by the high character of their interests and the ardour of their discussions, exert a very considerable influence on the life of a nation, while a number vastly larger, even hundreds of times as large, who cannot carry this intensity into their pursuits, and this earnestness into their discussions, will exert comparatively little influence on the life of the same nation. We do not hesitate to say that Oriel College alone, at the time it contained the great group of eager-minded men, of whom Newman, Whately, and Arnold were, perhaps, the best known, exerted a greater and better influence on the mind of England—exercised, that is, more of the true functions of a University—than the whole University of Oxford exerts now. And the reason we take to be simply this—that that small knot of able and distinguished men succeeded in opening up deep problems in which the whole educated classes of England were more or less interested, and in putting a new zeal and disinterestedness into the discussion of those problems. At the present moment, Oxford exerts no such specific influence on the mind of the nation. It trains probably a much larger number of men who go in for honours, but these men are comparatively little interested in truth and much in mere intellectual success; and the influence they in their turn exert on their juniors is an influence which tries even intellectual subjects by a worldly standard—the standard of the competitive examination. And it can hardly be doubted that one great reason of this is that freer distribution of educational resources which resulted from University reform. No doubt under the old system the revenues were grossly jobbed. But then the result of that was that there was not so much left with which to tempt young men into pursuing intellectual studies from a non-intellectual motive, the motive merely of a desire to succeed in life.
We, of course, are not speaking as if there were anything wrong in the desire to succeed in life. On the contrary, in its legitimate sphere no desire can be more wholesome. All we wish to point out is that this desire is not the same as the desire for pure knowledge and truth as such, and that the mixed motives which result from pursuing intellectual studies for such an end are not what we look for from a University, and not of the sort which a University is best fitted to produce. We are disposed to think that men who want to succeed in life would do better, both for themselves and for the world in which they hope to shine, by plunging earlier into life, than by immersing themselves for three or four years in studies in which they have little interest on their own account, and which they pursue chiefly because they can earn money by them, and because they believe that they can afterwards use them as stepping-stones to worldly success. University life exercises its peculiar and happiest influence chiefly on those for whom literary and speculative questions have a very high charm of their own. And such men become fewer and are less distinguishable from the crowd, the more there are who pursue these same studies for a very different purpose, namely, for the emoluments which they may gain by them, and the professional advantages which these emoluments may bring. We are convinced that if the Colleges of our Universities had very much fewer money prizes to give, and were, therefore, chiefly attended by those who feel a disinterested desire for the learning which can be acquired in them, they would exercise a very much higher influence on the life of the nation. Certainly Oxford did more for England when a great part of her revenue was misappropriated than she does now. The result of dividing her property more fairly among the crowd of intellectual competitors has been, more or less, that these competitors have begun to postpone the intellectual to the worldly advantages of academical success, and that thereby the tone of scholastic thought has been lowered.
We do not doubt that by increasing the incomes of professorships, and providing adequate means for the few who are really capable of intellectual research, a great deal may be done to raise the tone of University society. But we should like to see more prospect than there appears to be of diminishing the excessive number of prizes attainable by very ordinary ability, the only effect of which is to launch into an academical career men whose chief object is to succeed in life, and who, therefore, destroy the characteristic tone of academical society, without attaining any greater ultimate success than they could easily reach by other and more appropriate means.