Institutional History of Oxford; another chapter

Last week saw the publication of Laurence Brockliss’ The University of Oxford: A History (Oxford University Press)


This is not a review.  I’m not equipped to review this new book.  Rather this post is a few observations about the place of this new book, very welcome that it is.

While aware of the limitations of the genre, I remain a fan of institutional history.  Although not unique to higher education, universities must be the kind of organisation most studied through this medium. These histories come in different formats: there are glossy coffee table books; there are careful attempts to capture student and alumni voices; there are scholarly works; and there are polemics.  In each case, EH Carr’s advice about studying the historian comes into play. What bee does the institutional historian have in their bonnet? As Carr said:

When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog. (Carr, 1964, What is History, Harmondsworth, Penguin p 23)

With institutional histories, it can be easy to hear the buzzing. In some cases, the history of a university is described so as to demonstrate how it reached its present state of pre-eminence. These whiggish histories often involve struggles, great leaders and fine accomplishments. In other cases, the same broad approach is taken except that the pre-eminence happened at some point in the recent past, and everything has gone to pot since. As universities tend to be the sponsors of these histories, the former group are much more likely to get published!  Very famous universities (with well-off alumni) may get plenty of both.

Brockliss explains the context for his new history.  The comprehensive eight volume History of the University of Oxford will continue to stand as the authoritative work. Brockliss’ aim in covering the same period is to organise and explain the material – he pulls this into three parts – the Catholic University c1100-1534, the Anglican University 1534-1845 and the Imperial University 1845-1945 providing a broader context of HE matters in each case.  With the final part, the World University 1945-2015, he covers new ground, bringing the story of the university to the present day.  In this final part we see the university in our times; the political struggles but also the ups and downs of student life (this must be the first university history to include a picture of the one of the kebab vans around the city in action at 4am).

One of the reasons I like institutional history is the part they can play in shaping an Organisational Saga  – that concept of Burton Clark’s that he found in distinctive colleges. Oxford is distinctive but, as Brockliss explains, it changes.  He stresses this in his conclusion.  At this point some university historians really start buzzing, declaiming the QAA or the REF or the loss of collegiality.  Brockliss remains measured, assessing possible futures which the university might (or might not) explore.  Indeed, the last footnote in the book includes the university’s measured refusal to embrace MOOCs.

The good news is that Oxford University Press* has priced this 871 page book in a ‘mid-price’ range – £35 (but with a £10 alumni discount in their bookshop), clearly looking for a strong audience both among members of the university and beyond.  Institutional histories should be read: not to demonstrate that a university has, or had, reached a state of perfection, but that it is subject to change; change that will be continuing into the future.


*OUP have other excellent works on university history that they really should also try pricing competitively for a general readership




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