The Bishop, the administrators and the university

We’ve been thinking about choice and markets  – the recent death of Rt Rev David Jenkins, former Bishop of Durham, brought back memories of a speech that he made on the night that the binary divide ended for university administrators.  

The obituaries covered his pastoral and theological work, but he was known for the political angle he brought to these.  This brought him a level of public awareness that few bishops can have had since.


The famous binary divide ran through higher education; splitting CDP from CVCP, NATFHE from AUT etc, and there were separate associations of professional services staff; the Conference of University Administrators (CUA) and the Association of Polytechnic Administrators (APA). There was a scrabble to resolve these when the divide ended, and by Easter 1993 the CUA and APA were ready to come together in a giant conference at Durham, becoming the Association of University Administrators (AUA).  To me, a newcomer in my first year as an administrator, the conference ran very well, with the highpoint being a gala dinner held in huge marquee sited on the racecourse.  The after-dinner speaker was the Bishop of Durham.  He gave a great speech.  It was great then, in 1993, but the themes that he developed that night are relevant today, as are the insights he offered for their solution.
He focused first on our very existence: thousands of university administrators.  He probed our conference programme, with all of the specialisation of functions that professional services staff undertake, and teased us.  We had a session on ‘Students as Customers’, a sign that all had ‘gone to pot’ he thought.  But he turned this onto a key question; our sessions were about how to run things, not what the university was for – ‘Can you keep a separation of powers about how to run things and what it is all run about’ (Jenkins, 1993: 5).

The core of his argument was based around the ideology of choice and markets.

…it is part of the zeitgeist that the most important priority is freedom of choice. There tends to be an operational concept of trying to give as many people what they call free choices as possible. That is to say, you have to satisfy the customers. It is very important to remember one thing about this, if anyone has read Aristotle (which mostly they haven’t) they will know that free choice is really of no significance at all. What is really significant is having the freedom to choose what is good.  The stupid notion that if everybody has more free choice, they will be better, is a very dangerous one indeed. How will they exercise their choices? How are they going to be educated so to do? It is the capacity to make good choices which matters. (Jenkins, 1993: 5-6)

He noted the problems with information – that it not value-free.  His concern about markets were sufficient for a whole book, but here he constrained himself to saying:

… you have to beware, I believe, of the spirit of the age, in the way in which there is at the moment, the most amazing unintelligent superstition about something called “the Market”. As a matter of fact “the market” doesn’t exist. That is a reification of a whole set of markets which are supposed to work together in a helpful manner. There is absolutely no reason to believe that there is any truth in this myth whatever. The “market” has no interest in the future, which we are steadily eating up by market consumption; the “market” has no interest in the public good, which is why the Government in pursuing the “market”, shows itself more and more incompetent on the subject; and the “market” has no interest in the sustaining of communities and the building up of trust which are essential to any communities which are doing anything about educating people in order to live in a worthwhile way which is likely to promote prosperity and caring for the future. (Jenkins, 1993: 6)     

My memory is that by this point the assembled mass of administrators were paying particular attention.  After all, we all knew that the Bishop had got into trouble for both his views on superstitions and his contradiction of Mrs Thatcher’s oft quoted notion that there was no such thing as society.  Surely Dr Jenkins was addressing this in his claim there was no such thing as the market.

He returned then to our administrative specialisations.

I think we may get some help here from the very word ‘universitas‘. The latin word was originally used to refer to the whole body of participants who were engaged in any particular activity, corporation or guild. As such, in the Middle Ages, it became applied to the universities of scholars, masters, teachers and students who were settling in a particular place for a particular pursuit.  Out of such bodies or the groups the universities developed as highly organised scholastic communities. The point is this – the original meaning of universitas, does not refer to a university being about everything or meeting every need. The original meaning refers to the involvement of everybody who is concerned with one special thing. That is to say, it is about collaboration, accountability, and mutuality. This is the essence of the universitas; not the fact that it contains every possible form of learning, delivering every possible sort of application. This insight is something to keep your eye on, and you should certainly be very wary of fragmentation or separation into individual pursuits.

This leads me to conclude that, if we are to develop true universities … what we need above all are various forms of togetherness. This means finding practical steps to bringing about equal partnership between academics, students and administrators.  … There has to be a common commitment, and a common organisation, for what I call professional stewardship and professional performance.   (Jenkins, 1993: 9-10)

Despite the problems of the then recession, and the increasing conception of the student  as customer (which he saw as the ‘ultimate betrayal, the ultimate heresy and the ultimate trivialisation’) his was an optimistic vision.  He commended us administrators for our ‘many skills, many ideas, much readiness to face challenges and seize opportunities’.

It was a perfectly judged speech.  It challenged us, over a thousand administrators in that tent, but gave us a positive role to play in the universitas.  In the last 23 years I have heard many speeches to AUA try to get that balance right.  I don’t like league tables very much, and I can’t judge whether it was the best speech about higher education that I’ve ever heard, but I’m sure that it was one of the best received.  We’ve applauded many speakers, but, at least in my corner of that vast marquee, we cheered the ending of this speech.  He finished it like this:

Therefore, as I more or less stand … in the shadow of a Cathedral which is commencing the celebrations of its 900th anniversary, I think we could take a slightly longer term view. I was sitting listening to a splendid service the other day and not having to preach, I could just attend and say my prayers, and some little voice said, from somewhere: “there may have been a Conservative Government for 14 years but what is that in 900?” So in the shadow of that Cathedral I dare to wish you God’s Speed in the immense challenges and struggle you face… (Jenkins, 1993: 10)


Jenkins D E, 1993, ‘Speech to Conference Delegates’ in Parrot V (ed) Durham 1993: Conference Proceedings, Manchester, Association of University Administrators
Jenkins D E, 2000, Market Whys and Human Wherefores, London, Continuum

2 thoughts on “The Bishop, the administrators and the university

  1. Pingback: The History of Higher Education – a collaborative venture | moremeansbetter

  2. Pingback: The History of Higher Education | AUA

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