Mythical university origins

There are plenty of myths about universities. Paul Greatrix captures some contemporary myths in this blog. But these are small beer compared to the semi-official myths that our oldest universities cultivated about their own origins.

The advantages to claims of longevity come from both pride and the status conferred by seniority. Many universities today trace their origins back to organisations that were founded long before they were recognised as universities. In some cases there is an established linkage; classes in a mechanics institute became the basis of a technical college which one day became a university. That’s not proper myth making. For that you need the audacity of our oldest universities, during the age of proper myth making.

The period that saw the development of these myths was perfectly happy with the notion that England was part of a sceptred isle, a precious stone set in the silver sea. Divinely appointed monarchs were descended from king David, the country was founded by noble stock, the Church the true inheritors of Christianity. The king’s universities, the bastion of the Church and educator of the latest noble stock, sprung from the same heroic background. These were extraordinary times, the monarchy, church and country were all under extraordinary pressure, and appeals to ancient heroes excusable, if unlikely to be true.

There was already a well established myth about king Alfred and the University of Oxford. University College happily acknowledged the king as its founder, helping to advance its claim to be the oldest college. The claims had been made in print, but William Camden’s 1603 edition of Asser’s Life of king Alfred included a new paragraph.

In the year of our Lord 886, the second year of the arrival of St Grimbald in England, the University of Oxford was begun … John, monk of the church of St David, giving lectures in logic, music and arithmetic; and John, the monk, colleague of St Grimbald, a man of great parts and a universal scholar, teaching geometry and astronomy before the most glorious and invincible King Alfred.

The story of king Alfred was plausible, involving St Grimbald, an adviser to the king and abbot of the new minster in Winchester. Unfortunately it had not appeared in any of the earlier transcripts of the oldest surviving manuscript. Neither had this from a later edition, revising the story further:

In the same year there arose a foul and deadly discord at Oxford, between Grimbald, with those learned men whom he had brought with him, and the old scholars whom he had found there, who, on his arrival, refused altogether to embrace the laws, modes, and forms of praelection instituted by the same Grimbald.. The substance of the dispute was this: the old scholars contended, that literature had flourished at Oxford before the coming of Grimbald, … They also proved and showed, by the undoubted testimony of ancient annals, that the orders and institutions of that place had been sanctioned by certain pious and learned men, as for instance by Saint Gildas, Melkinus, Nennius, Kentigern, and others, who had all grown old there in literature, and happily administered everything there in peace and concord; and also, that Saint Germanus had come to Oxford, and stopped there half a year, at the time when he went through Britain to preach against the Pelagian heresy; he wonderfully approved of the customs and institutions above-mentioned.

St Grimbald has lost his role as founder, now he is reformer. In this version there were already scholars in Oxford, and they were part of a tradition going back to St Germanus. Germanus had been a bishop who visited Britain after the retreat of the Roman legions in the 420s. Why would Oxford need to claim that a passing bishop found Oxford university in operation in the fifth century?

Here is the opening part of a history of the University of Cambridge from Edmund Carter from 1753:

I shall now proceed to give my readers an account of that famous UNIVERSITY, which is equalled by none in Europe, except it be by her Sister Oxford; and, even of her, she has the seniority by 265 years
Her first original is said to be about AD 536, when one Cantabers a Spaniard, was a governor under Arthur, king of the South Britains…
he procured Philosophers from Athens (where in his youth he had been a student) and placed them therin, by whose great care and dilgence, it was shortly after much noted for learned men

Carter proceeds to explain that he is ‘warrented by the authority of pure history’ to assert the priority of Cambridge over all foreign universities. As further evidence, he cites that Paris was founded in the reign of Charlemagne (it wasn’t) by disciples of Bede, and he has a letter from Alcuinus that says that Bede got his doctors degree from Cambridge in 692.

Even universities that no longer existed got in on this. Geoffrey of Monmouth was a source for many of the myths, and he mentions a king Bladud (the father of Lear). Embellished much later, in its final version Bladud returns from study in Athens, with four philosophers, and founds a university at Stamford, which flourished until it was suppressed by Saint Augustine of Canterbury.

So, time to set the matter beyond all doubt. In 1772 John Peshall publishes a History of the University of Oxford, focused on the period ‘to the death of William the Conquerer’, Peshall, who mentions the Bladud and Stamford story, provides this story of the first founding of Oxford.

Circ AM 2855, and 1180 before Christ, Gerion and 12 more learned Greeks accompanied the Conqueror Brutus, into this isle; – others, soon after, delighted with a relation of the country came and seated themselves with them, at a place, the most agreeable and convenient, at that time, for study, called in their native or mother tongue, Greeklade, &c – a word made upon the occasion.

Further details follow, including that the scholars wore a form of toga and a hat that developed into the mortar board.

Before the Roman Time this had been called the Literata, the learned city.  The most celebrated Athens, Inclytum Oxonium – the Theatre and Emporium of all Sciences, – the Seat of Muses, – the Fountain of Learning; with other such like honourable terms.  But in the Roman Times … this city was miserably burnt, and the university sunk and perished with it.

In this way, Oxford trumps Cambridge. You may say that you were founded in the time of king Arthur, we were founded by Trojans. We’re so old, the Romans burnt us down.

Although it’s hard to countenance these stories now, it would be have been harder for the universities to absent themselves from the national shared consciousness at the time, a time of profound crisis. Although these stories lost their credibility quickly, they reinforce our tendency to make our universities seem as old as possible. So, in Nottingham, if only we could find a plausible link to an heroic mythical figure…

Data on university staff earning over £100k

The TaxPayers Alliance went after some headlines with a press release about the number of university staff who earn over £100k. They got them, but there was something curious going on. It was clear that the media couldn’t agree how many staff were earning over this figure. The press release made clear that two universities, yes those two universities, were not included. But neither were seven other of the biggest universities. The presentation of the partial data is misleading, the TPA didn’t get their report published online quickly, to allow for quick checking of that, so the headlines have now passed without much rebuttal.

Pay is without doubt a crucial issue for UK higher education. In England, OfS have put in place a number of measures in their Accounts Direction to draw attention to this, including requiring a justification for the VC’s pay and a multiple of that pay against the median wage. Back in 2017 when Lord Adonis was raising this, I noted that the financial miracles that were promised by trimming senior pay were far fetched, but it’s still important, and subject to potential industrial action. But here I want to focus on some interesting data questions that arise from the TPA report.

Basic Pay or Total Remuneration?

A question raised many times when first looking into the TaxPayers Alliance is whether they included clinical staff. Medical school staff often work for both the university and the NHS. It’s well understood that doctors are among the highest paid public sector workers, and therefore a proportion of the total remuneration of a medical school staff member comes from a very different pay scale. It’s also the case that research leaders in medical sciences are recruited on a competitive basis, and their university salary may well be higher too.

The old Accounts Direction, from HEFCE, required universities to publish the total remuneration for staff paid over £100,000 in bands. Universities with medical schools had more staff in those bands, not exclusively because of the clinicians, but it was a major factor. Here is Oxford’s salary bands 16/17 from its Financial Statements. The Medical Sciences Division is huge at Oxford, perhaps a surprise to know the university from the city centre as its main sites are co-located with hospitals in Headington.

It’s worth noting that there are three non-clinical staff paid far more than anyone else – total remuneration could also include royalty payments or other forms of income sharing, through spin-off companies etc.

The new OfS Accounts Direction makes a radical change to this.  It asks for basic salary.

Providers should calculate the basic salary prior to any adjustment for salary sacrifice. 
For these reporting purposes, basic salary should exclude bonus payments, market supplements, allowances, and clinical excellence awards and other such payments. 
For academics and other staff whose salary is partly funded by another body (such as the NHS, or the research councils through grants and scholarships), the basic salary is the portion paid by or charged to the provider

This makes a considerable difference to the scales.  Here is Oxford’s 17/18 Financial Statement.  Note that they have recalculated 16/17, which shows a drop from 485 to 184 people (there’s a new issue for Oxford, a further change to accounting practice now means that they are including OUP which gives them a new set of high earners).

This is such a significant change that it renders any time series that draws on the financial statements highly problematic.  Which may be one reason why the TPA sent its own FOI request for the data.  Although they referenced the OfS Accounting Direction, they asked for total remuneration and for 18/19 data.  Recalculating that data, and asking for it while universities were still completing year-end processes probably explains many of the refusals.  TPA also complain that universities refused data because it would reveal identities – something avoided in their financial statements. TPA say:

that the information requested constituted personal data. This was in spite of the information requested not requiring individual identification.

However, a full copy of the FOI request shows that TPA asked for names and job titles of staff earning over £150k.

TPA’s data is partial – of the 15 universities with the highest expenditure only 6 are included (in black below), but the report does not draw attention to the wider absence (only to 2) and continues to offer averages for the Russell Group where a only a minority of members’ data is present.  Whatever their political point, their data is seriously partial.

We should see the conclusion of the Government’s Major Review of Post-18 Education and Funding this year.  This will not focus on staff pay, but the mood music that universities are awash with cash, and full of over-paid administrators, is not accidental.  We can at least ask that it uses decent data.