Chapter 19. Abuses of the Colleges: Oxford

{228} IF what has been said in former Chapters of this volume upon the relation of a University to its Colleges, be in the main correct, the difference between the two institutions, and the use of each, is very clear. A University embodies the principal of progress, and a College that of stability; the one is the sail, and the other the ballast; each is insufficient in itself for the pursuit, extension, and inculcation of knowledge; each is useful to the other. A University is the scene of enthusiasm, of pleasurable exertion, of brilliant display, of winning influence, of diffusive and potent sympathy; and a College is the scene of order, of obedience, of modest and persevering diligence, of conscientious fulfilment of duty, of mutual private services, and deep and lasting attachments. The University is for the world, and the College is for the nation. The University is for the Professor, and the College for the Tutor; the University is for the philosophical discourse, the eloquent sermon, or the well contested disputation; and the College for the catechetical lecture. The University is for theology, law, and medicine, for natural history, for physical science, and for the sciences generally and their promulgation; the College is for the formation of character, intellectual and moral, for the cultivation of the {229} mind, for the improvement of the individual, for the study of literature, for the classics, and those rudimental sciences which strengthen and sharpen the intellect. The University being the element of advance, will fail in making good its ground as it goes; the College, from its Conservative tendencies, will be sure to go back, because it does not go forward. It would seem as if a University seated and living in Colleges, would be a perfect institution, as possessing excellences of opposite kinds.

But such a union, such salutary balance and mutual complement of opposite advantages, is of difficult and rare attainment. At least the present day rather gives us instances of the two antagonistic evils, of naked Universities and naked Colleges, than of their alliance and its benefits. The great seats of learning on the Continent, to say nothing of those in Scotland, show us the need of Colleges to complete the University; the English, on the contrary, show us the need of a University to give life to an assemblage of Colleges. The evil of a University, standing by itself as in Germany, is often insisted on and may readily be apprehended; and therefore, leaving that part of the subject alone, I will say a few words on the state of things in England, where the action of the University is suspended, and the Colleges have supreme and sovereign authority.

At the Reformation, the State not only made itself the head of the Anglican Church, but resolved to suppress, or nearly so, its legal existence. It not only ignored the idea of a central authority in Christendom; but it went very far towards ignoring the existence of a Church in England itself. I believe I am right in saying that the Church of England, as such, scarcely has a legal status. Its Bishops indeed {230} are Peers of Parliament, its chapters have charters, its Rectors are corporations sole, its ministers are officers of the law, its fabrics have special rights, its courts have a civil position and functions, its Prayer-book is (as has been observed) an Act of Parliament; but, as far as I know, there is no corporation of the United Church of England and Ireland, though that title itself be a legal one. The Protestant Church, as such, holds no property, and exercises no functions. It is an aggregate of many thousand corporations professing one object, and moulded on a common rule. The nearest approach to corporate power lay in its Convocations, which were at least three in number, not one,—those of Canterbury, of York, and of Dublin; and these have been virtually long obsolete. The Protestant Church would be an imperium in imperio, considering the immense wealth, power, and influence of its constituent members, were it itself a corporation.

The same spirit which destroyed the legal incorporation of the religious principle, was the jealous enemy also of the incorporation of the intellectual; and the civil power could as little bear a University as it bore a Church. Accordingly, Oxford and Cambridge shared the fate of the Hierarchy; the component parts of those Universities were preserved, but they themselves were superseded; and there would be almost as great difficulties now in Protestant England, in restoring its Universities to their proper place, as in restoring its Church. It is true, that the Colleges themselves are important political bodies, independent of the civil power; but at the same time they are national bodies; they represent not the human mind, but sections of the political community; and the civil power is itself nothing else than an expression of national power in {231} one or other of its aspects; whereas a University is an intellectual power, as such, just as the Church is a religious power. Intellect, as well as Faith and Conscience, are authorities simply independent of State and Nation; State and Nation are but different aspects of one and the same power: and thus the State and Nation will endure chapters and colleges, as they bear city companies and municipalities, but not a Church, not a University. On the other hand, considering the especially popular character of the English constitution, and how congenial to it is the existence of organs of public opinion and of representative bodies, it is not wonderful that the Collegiate system has not merely remained in these later centuries, but has been cherished and advanced.

I am not denying this political value of the Colleges as counterpoises to the government of the day. The greatest weight has actually been given to their acts and decisions in this point of view. Oxford has been made the stage on which political questions have been tried, and political parties have carried on their contests. This was particularly instanced at the time of that famous Session of Parliament, in which Catholic Emancipation was granted. It is well known that the king then on the throne was averse to the measure; and it was felt that an adhesion to it on the part of the University would exert a material influence on his feelings; and the question to be determined was what opinion had the University upon it. In the summer of 1828, Sir Robert Peel is said to have consulted [Note 1] those who were most intimately in his confidence in Oxford, as to the effect which would be produced upon {232} its members by a ministerial project in favour of Catholics. His friends belonged to a section of the University, who lived very much in their own circle; and who, as resting both on academical distinction and connection with the great world, did not know, and did not represent, the sentiments of the Colleges. Accordingly, drifting with the current of London opinion themselves, which the necessities of the state and the convenience of the Government, and Parliamentary agitation, had for some time made more and more favourable to Emancipation, those considerable persons returned for answer, that the important act might be passed any day, and that men would go to bed and rise again, without being at all the wiser or more anxious for what had taken place. The Minister seems to have committed himself to this opinion; and, in consequence, confident of a successful issue of the experiment, he took a bold, and as it turned out, an unlucky step. Member for the University as he was, and elected on the very ground of his opposition to the Catholic claims, he resolved on resigning his seat, and presenting himself for re-election; with an avowed change of opinions. He did this, or at least his friends for him, under the conviction that his triumphant appeal to the votes of the academical constituency, on which he reckoned, would be the best evidence to his Master that the feeling of the country had undergone that revolution which had already, openly or secretly, taken place among statesmen. And hence the extraordinary vehemence of the contest which followed; the country party, which was represented by the Colleges, being confident of swaying the determination of the king and ejecting the Minister from office, if it managed to eject him from the representation. {233}

Political importance is of course the protection of those who possess it. They who can do so much for or against a Minister, can do as much for themselves; and in consequence, the Colleges of Oxford and Cambridge are perhaps the best protected interests in the whole country. They have endured the most formidable attacks, without succumbing. It was against the wall of Magdalen College, as it has been expressed, that James the Second ran his head. That College received the brunt of the monarch's attack, and in the strength of the nation repelled it. Twenty years ago, when Reform was afloat, when boroughs were disfranchised, corporations created, sees united, dioceses rearranged, chapters remodelled, church property redistributed, and every parsonage perplexed with parliamentary papers of inquiry and tables of returns, the Colleges alone escaped. A determined attack was made upon them by the Ministry of the day, and great apprehensions were excited in the minds of their members. However, calm, perhaps selfish, calculators at Oxford said: "Nothing can touch us; the Establishment will go, but not the Colleges:" and certainly after one or two sessions, after strong speeches in Parliament from Secretaries of State and experimentalists in Education, and after committees, gatherings, and manifestoes on the part of the members of Colleges, it was owned by friends of Government, that its attempt upon them was a mistake and a failure, and the sooner Government gave it up, the better for Government.

There is no political power in England like a College in the Universities; it is not a mere local body, as a corporation or London company; it has allies in every part of the country. When the mind is most impressible, when the affections are warmest, when associations are made for life, when the character is most ingenuous and {234} the sentiment of reverence is most powerful, the future landowner, or statesman, or lawyer, or clergyman comes up to a College in the Universities. There he forms friendships, there he spends his happiest days; and, whatever is his career there, brilliant or obscure, virtuous or vicious, in after years, when he looks back on the past, he finds himself bound by ties of gratitude and regret to the memories of his College life. He has received favours from the Fellows, he has dined with the Warden or Provost; he has unconsciously imbibed to the full the beauty and the music of the place. The routine of duties and observances, the preachings and the examinations and the lectures, the dresses and the ceremonies, the officials whom he feared, the buildings or gardens that he admired, rest upon his mind and his heart, and the shade of the past becomes a sort of shrine to which he makes continual silent offerings of attachment and devotion. It is a second home, not so tender, but more noble and majestic and authoritative. Through his life he more or less keeps up a connection with it and its successive sojourners. He has a brother or intimate friend on the foundation, or he is training up his son to be a member of it. When then he hears that a blow is levelled at the Colleges, and that they are in commotion,—that his own College, Head and Fellows, have met together, and put forward a declaration calling on its members to come up and rally round it and defend it, a chord is struck within him, more thrilling than any other; he burns with esprit de corps and generous indignation; and he is driven up to the scene of his early education, under the keenness of his feelings, to vote, to sign, to protest, to do just what he is told to do, from confidence in the truth of the representations made to him, and from sympathy with the appeal. He appears {235} on the scene of action ready for battle on the appointed day, and there he meets others like himself, brought up by the same summons; he gazes on old faces, revives old friendships, awakens old reminiscences, and goes back to the country with the renewed freshness of youth upon him. Thus, wherever you look, to the North or South of England, to the East or West, you find the interest of the Colleges dominant; they extend their roots all over the country, and can scarcely be overturned, certainly not suddenly overturned, without a revolution.

The consequences on the Colleges themselves are not satisfactory. They are withdrawn in an especial way from the action and the influence of public opinion, than which there is no greater stimulant to right action, as things are, nor a more effective security against dereliction of duty. The Colleges, left to themselves, in the course of last century became shamefully indolent and inactive. They were in no sense any longer places of education; they were for the most part mere clubs, and sinecures, and almshouses, where the inmates did little but enjoy themselves. They did next to nothing for the youth confided to them; suffered them to follow their own ways and enjoy their own liberty, and often in their own persons set them a very bad example of using it. Visitor they practically had none; and there was but one power which could have exerted authority over them, and most naturally and suitably too; I mean the University; but the University could do nothing. The University had no means of acting upon the Colleges; it was but a name or a privilege; it was not a body or a power. This seems to me the critical evil in the present state of the English Universities, not that the Colleges are strong, but that the University has no practical or real jurisdiction over them. Over the members of Colleges it has {236} jurisdiction, but even then, not as such, but because they are its own members also; over the Head of the College, over the Fellows, over the corporate body, over its property, over its officers, over its acts and regulations within its own precincts, the University has no practical jurisdiction at all. The Tutor indeed is a University office by the Statutes, but the College has made it its own.

In matter of fact the only mode of affecting the Colleges has been by the gradual stress of persevering efforts, by incessant agitation, and by improving the tone and enlightening the minds of their members,—by indirect means altogether. At the beginning of this century, when matters were at the worst at Oxford, some zealous persons attempted to bring the University to bear upon the Colleges. The degrees were at that time given upon no bonâ fide examination. The youth, who had passed his three or four years at the place, and wished to graduate, chose his examiners, and invited them to dinner, which the ceremony of examination preceded. Now a degree is a University, not a College distinction; and the admirable persons, to whom I have alluded, made an effort to restore to the University the power and the practice of ascertaining by a bona fide examination the proficiency of every one of its members, who was a candidate for it. Could there be a case in which the right of the University was more clear? It gave a privilege, and, one might surely think, had a right to lay down the conditions of giving it. Yet it found itself unable to exact of all its members, what was so imperatively its duty, and so natural. The Colleges had first to be persuaded to concede, what the University was so reasonable in requiring. What took place in detail, has never perhaps been published to the world: so much, however, is notorious, that for thirty years one College, by virtue of {237} ancient rights, was able to stand out against the University, and demanded and obtained degrees for its junior members without examination. A generation passed, before its Fellows, acted on by the example and sympathizing in the sentiments of the academical society around them, consented to do for themselves what the University had in vain attempted to do for them.

The University has thus gradually progressed ever since that time; not indeed towards the recovery of that power of jurisdiction, which properly belongs to it, but in separate and particular measures of improvement. One measure was attempted nearly thirty years ago, by an eminent person, still alive, and well known in Dublin, and was thwarted by parties who are long dead; so that it may be spoken of without pain to any one. There are at Oxford several Societies or Houses, which have practically the rank and rights of Colleges, though they have not the legal status, or the property. Some of these at that date supported themselves by taking as members those, who, either would not be received, or had actually been sent away, by the Colleges. The existence then of these Societies mainly depended on the sufferance within the University of incompetent, idle, or riotous young men. As they had no endowments, they asked high terms for admission, which of course they could not fail in obtaining from those, who needed to be in some Society or other, with a view to academical advantages, and who could not secure a place in any other body. Evidently, nothing would have been more fatal to such establishments than any successful effort to purify the University of unworthy members. Now, in the gradual advance of reforms, it was attempted by the able person I speak of to introduce an examination of all members on their matriculation. But the independence {238} and the interests of both endowed and not endowed Houses, were at once touched by such a proposition; and a vigorous opposition was set on foot, in particular by the Head of one Society, which abounded in gownsmen of the unsatisfactory character I have been describing. Of course he might as well have shut up his Hall at once, and taken lodgings in High Street, as consent to a measure which would have simply cut off the supply from which it was filled. The private interest prevailed over the public; had the question fairly come before the members of the Colleges generally, it might perhaps have been carried in the affirmative; but it had to be decided first in the board of Heads of Houses, and they were typical specimens of those very Collegiate vices of which I have been speaking. An oligarchy indeed of twenty-four men, perpetual, sovereign, absolutely sheltered from public opinion, and purely irresponsible in their proceedings; standing aloof from the Academical body itself, and intensely scornful towards its judgments, too well entrenched to be susceptible of fear and too majestic to be swayed by flattery or ridicule, they were a prodigy in the England of the nineteenth century.

Omnis enim per se Divűm natura necesse 'st
Immortali ćvo summâ cum pace fruatur,
Semota ab nostris rebus, sejunctaque longe:
Nam privata dolore omni, privata periclis,
Ipsa suis pollens opibus, nil indiga nostri,
Nec bene promeritis capitur, nec tangitur ir.

These authorities naturally were unwilling to handle a question, which concerned so nearly some of themselves; and to this day, though separate Colleges properly insist on the necessary qualifications, in the case of those who are to be admitted to their Lectures, the University itself is not allowed to exercise its reasonable right of examining {239} its members before it matriculates them. It may here be added, that this time-honoured usurpation and abuse, the old Hebdomadal Board, which every thoughtful person felt could not much longer continue, has, amid the jubilations and thanksgivings of all parties, and with scarcely a sigh or murmur from any quarter whatever, expired ignominiously under the Act passed in the last Session of Parliament, 18 Vict.

As to that Act, however, its history is but a fresh illustration of the foregoing remarks. It did not dare to touch the real seat of existing evils, by restoring or giving jurisdiction to the University over the Colleges, much as it professed to effect in the way of radical reform. And in the passage of the Bill through the House of Commons, unless I am mistaken, Ministers found it impossible to get beyond that part of it which related to University alterations. As soon as it went on to legislate for the Colleges, the opposition was too strong for them, and the whole subject was postponed by Parliament, and made over for the consideration of a small Commission, with so many checks and limitations upon its proceedings, that there is reason for fearing that, whatever comes of them, the University will not be less enslaved by the Collegiate interest than it is at present [Note 2].

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1. Since this was written, Sir. R. Peel's narrative has been given to the world, and seems to contain nothing inconsistent with it.
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2. Since this was written, there have been far larger changes in the polity and system of this University.
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