Not just the brightest and best

I have a problem with the brightest and best argument about international higher education participation. It’s easy to argue that higher education is an important part of some people’s journey to elite roles; Presidents, Nobel Prize winners, CEOs of global companies etc. We use that argument to defend student funding or student immigration polices, but I don’t think it helps…

The Government want to ensure we do our best to attract the best and the brightest internationally, which is why we recently published our international education strategy. I want to ensure we do not just attract global talent from the EU..

Chris Skidmore Hansard 29 April 2019

With the prospect of longer post-study periods for international students or the level of EU fees, the debate has retreated back to this notion. We want the best to come here. No doubt this is important; we need the brightest people here (and not somewhere else) but we also need to focus on a much wider group of people. No doubt there is much soft power in educating a world leader, perhaps vital in diplomatic engagement, but what about the soft power of thousands of students doing graduate level jobs in countries across the world?

Imagine the soft power that puts a British-educated graduate in the procurement team of major companies across the world, or in the human resources or accounting departments? What if we train the event managers or hotel managers, the building surveyors or product designers? We’ve made training teachers from overseas complex, but we still enhance the skills of those to teach our global language. Not only do we have the soft power of all those graduates and their skills, they bring our approaches, our standards, and, our values (hopefully we’re proud of all of those).

Why are we seemingly dismissive of these graduate roles? It’s a familiar problem; we’ve decided on a Golgafrinchan* approach to who should benefit from higher education. Clearly the leaders (the thinkers) should get it, and, similarly, clearly the workers (the doers) shouldn’t (in this crass example) . But what about the people in the middle – those people the Golgafrinchans put on an Ark and sent into space?

Screen shot from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

As someone in ‘middle management’ who might be put on that ark, I feel this keenly. We need to have an inclusive argument for educating people, people who might not be world leaders, or who might get an education at one of the universities that’s not one of the ‘Four out of the top 10 universities’ in the world. More Means Better for international students too.

*As described by Douglas Adams

The VC who tried to ban elevenses

Which rules should govern students’ lives has often been a live issue. Student disciplinary codes are a balancing act between the rules necessary in a community living close by each other, especially to maintain academic integrity, and the rights of students as people, now mostly seen as adults.

When thinking about this, we often concentrate on the major changes that came in the late 1960s and early 1970s, following a change in the age of majority, part of a major change in social attitudes, and after a period of intensive student political action. However, there was an earlier period of change, just after World War One. This is exemplified by the actions of Dr Lewis Farrar, Rector of Exeter College (1913-1928) and Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford (1920-1923).

Farrar was in many ways a bridge between the ancient university and the modern. Elected to a fellowship at Exeter, the only requirement of which was that he did not marry, he headed off to Germany to undertake study. When it was his turn, Farrar set out to be an activist Vice Chancellor, he saw his role as going further than just chairing meetings. That made him unpopular in a number of areas, but particularly in the area of regulating student lives where he became known as a ‘banner’ for all the things he tried to ban.

Farrar describes one such incident. After the First World war, Oxford accepted a cohort of male students whose entry had been postponed by service. These men had returned with the ‘habit of taking coffee or chocolate or other café stuff … about eleven in the morning’ (Farrar, p295). He was dismayed that this habit was taken up by ‘our lazy and self-indulgent boys and girls’ with the result that:

… cafés began to do a roaring trade between 11 and 12 in the morning, undergraduates of both sexes sitting there together indulging themselves with pleasant conversation and unnecessary and unmanly food. … This … which was a new disease, was rampant, and was exciting much public talk and censure, as another nail in the coffin of our industry.

Farrar p 295-6

The University was well used to exercising their powers to control bars, which students were strictly forbidden from entering. Farrar drew up a plan with the two Proctors (one more willing than the other) to ban students from cafés in the morning. But he reckoned without the women’s colleges, whose heads petitioned against this as ‘their poor girls … could not stand the strain of going from nine to one without sustenance’. He relented, students were not banned from elevenses, but he later regretted this:

… I missed a chance of abolishing a demoralising habit which I hear now on good authority is injuring Oxford. I wish I had been more ruthless and not so susceptible to the feminine appeal.

Farrar p 296

Farrar happily recounts some of the other issues he dealt with: limiting political meetings; refusing permission for a new Oxford Playhouse; worrying about Bolshevik publications; remonstrating with Indian students etc.

Although Farrar had been against the admission of women to degrees in 1896, after the war he agreed it ‘was right for the University to open its doors; which we did cordially and hospitably’ (p281). It was Farrar who presided over the first admission of women to degrees at Oxford.

Farrar was clearly unpopular. He received extensive critical press, was parodied in public and, in the most extraordinary event, he received poisoned chocolates. It turned out what had had been first thought to be powdered glass covering the chocolates was harmless tooth powder, but this all got into the press.

The upshot was, in what Farrar believed was an unprecedented step, he was summoned by Lord Curzon, the Chancellor. Curzon had received a petition asking that Farrar not be appointed to the usual third year of his term of office. This threat was not carried out, but Farrar saw this as a ‘deadly attack on the office of the Vice-Chancellor’ (p317) who might be unable to ‘follow any constructive policy at all’ if the Chancellor could dismiss him. The University would ‘become a mere chaos of colleges’.

It’s possible to see Farrar as a bridge between the ancient and modern University of Oxford, but it’s hard to read his autobiography as anything but extraordinary. It’s been used extensively as source in histories of the university, but it might be worth a proper appraisal of his term of office, as the VC who tried to ban elevenses but also who saw the need for leadership of the university, bringing together the various threads of administration.

Reference: Farrar, L R, 1934, An Oxonian Looks Back, London, Martin Hopkinson Ltd