Can Oxford be Improved?:
A View from the Dreaming Spires and the Satanic Mills

Anthony Kenny + Robert Kenny

Imprint Academic 2007
A book review by Danny Yee © 2010
Can Oxford be Improved? offers a dual perspective on the University of Oxford, with one author an insider and the other an outsider. It presents an overview of how the university works and considers possible reforms.

Anthony Kenny begins with a largely autobiographical account of his career at Oxford, as a graduate student, a tutorial fellow, and Master at Balliol and then as Warden of Rhodes House and a delegate at Oxford University Press. This gives a feel for much of the university, and an additional "How Oxford Works" chapter fills in some gaps, describing the undergraduate admissions system and going into more detail about the relationship between colleges and the university.

(I found it interesting that Oxford is more decentralised than Cambridge: Anthony suggests it is "confederal" rather than federal — if the collegiate universities are compared with the United States, then in Oxford the South won the Civil War.)

He gives a brief history of the reforms, driven by various enquiries and commissions going back to the 1850 Royal Commission, which have brought Oxford to its current state: the creation of a Common University Fund and other changes in use of college funds, the introduction of science and women, simplification of the governance structure. This concludes with the rejection by congregation of a package of reforms, at the end of 2006 — which I assume was the motivation for the writing of Can Oxford be Improved?

The merits of the college system include local competition, a comfortable scale for social interaction, and autonomy for dons; its drawbacks include lack of time for tutorial fellows to do research, a flat pay scale, and slow collective decision making.

Anthony then hands over to his brother Robert, who comes from a business background (hence the "Satanic Mills" of the subtitle; Oxford's car factories don't feature). Robert begins with an analysis of the university's finances, where the university has by far the larger income, from research grants and teaching funding, but the colleges are much wealthier, with a collective endowment nearly four times that of the university. (He also attempts to value "off balance sheet" assets such as Oxford University Press and the historic buildings owned by the colleges.)

A broader economic analysis invokes some industrial organisation theory. Looking at the motivation of dons, individual colleges can be compared with other entities highly dependent on attracting and retaining skilled labour, which are often constituted as partnerships. Parallels to the broader college system are harder to find — Silicon Valley is rather a stretch! This also touches on coordination problems, agency costs (differing motivations of management and owners), competition between colleges, and a structural bias towards conservatism.

A look at common arguments against reform considers opposition to external council members and the appeal of government by congregation, but is mostly devoted to "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". The analysis here compares Oxford's performance to other British and international universities, by plotting the number of firsts and 2:1 degrees against various input metrics. (Curiously, this doesn't consider the possibility that performance here could depend on the standards for awarding degrees.) It is suggested that the value of separate college identities could survive reforms, with army regiments as an example.

Anthony continues with the recent history of reforms imposed from outside, covering Thatcher's attack on the universities, through various reform acts, the introduction of Research Assessment Exercises, micromanagement, and so forth, and Labour's emphasis on broadening access. Many of these changes have brought an increase in bureaucracy without much in the way of benefits.

Robert examines the possibility of a "declaration of independence" from the government. Giving up teaching subsidies would not necessarily be impossible, but the costs (or opportunities foregone elsewhere) make it an unattractive option. Interestingly, the university makes a small marginal gain from each UK/EU student, while colleges incur large marginal costs.

A joint conclusion suggests some fairly limited reforms: external representation on a governing council, a college senate with the ability to make decisions binding on colleges, some rebalancing of funding towards the university, and an increase in academic salaries.

Can Oxford be Improved? has scattered literary and classical references, such as:

"Oxford conservatives worry about barbarians at the gate. ... Would they be barbarians like Attila at Aquileia, with barely a stone left on stone? Or more like Theodoric in Ravenna, a revitalising force?"
This, other assumed knowledge, and the general tenor suggest a largely inward-directed argument, trying to make the case for reform to congregation — and perhaps humanities dons in particular — rather than an attempt to influence decision-makers in government or elsewhere. (Something of this can also be seen in the title, which could as easily be read to suggest an urban planning study of the city of Oxford.)

As an outsider on the periphery of the university — my sister is a fellow, my partner a post-doctoral researcher — I am not too concerned about the fate of reform proposals, but I found Can Oxford be Improved? a useful guide to how the institution works. Current events — a bitterly contested plan to raise the cap on student fees and a complete end to government funding for humanities teaching — have superseded some of its later parts, but the bulk of it remains relevant. The slow pace of change at Oxford may frustrate the Kennys, but it will keep their book from dating too fast.

December 2010

External links:
- buy from or
- information from the authors
Related reviews:
- books about Britain + British history
- books about education
%T Can Oxford be Improved?
%S A View from the Dreaming Spires and the Satanic Mills
%A Kenny, Anthony
%A Kenny, Robert
%I Imprint Academic
%D 2007
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN-13 9781845400941
%P 149pp