The word Oxford has become synonymous with the idea of a university. The real puzzle, however, is why. What sort of knowledge is being transferred?
Cambridge, for example, is (nearly) as old and London's various colleges are (arguably) better at specific research. An explosion of higher education in the UK over the past few decades has witnessed a remarkable democratisation of learning, something that's especially notable in a land where this common good was once only open to the few. Nonetheless, in the current contest for prime minister, six of the seven candidates had studied at Oxford. When Boris Johnson (Balliol, Oxford) eventually wins he will take over from Theresa May, who studied at St Hugh's, Oxford. It takes less time to enumerate UK political leaders who didn't go there.
Since 1945 Oxford has spawned 11 British leaders - including the country's first woman leader (Margaret Thatcher) and longest serving Labor PM (Tony Blair).
Far more relevantly, and perhaps more surprisingly, during the same period the occupant of our own Lodge has also been an Oxford man for an extraordinary 26 years: Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull all studied there.
So why? What is it about Oxford that has given such people a leg up? What was it about being there in particular that propelled them to the top?
The university's tutorial system, perhaps? At Oxford the word "tutorial" doesn't refer to the hour-long seminars of more than 16 students that Aussie universities instituted. This weekly ritual is, instead, a detailed inquisition by a don of no more than three students. They will have prepared essays on their chosen subject and will be thrown out if they fail to complete the set readings. The oral nature of this tournament provides a crash course in how to speak effectively, particularly when a stylishly presented argument may be required in order to gloss over sudden hidden gaps in research (if too much time was spent at the Blue Boar, or some other nearby pub).
But hang on a minute. Cambridge has these supervisions as well, so why hasn't it produced a similar stream of leaders? Perhaps it's the huge size of the institution?
Well no. With just under 12,000 undergraduates Oxford has far fewer students than most Australian universities, so the university must have discovered some other way of producing political leaders. Is it its reputation? Undoubtedly having graduated - or even being rusticated; that is, sent down - from Oxford offers a head start in a job interview. Nevertheless, slipping one's foot in the door isn't enough to guarantee eventual success, so there must be some other factor at work.
Past performance is obviously no guarantee of future results and it's unlikely the university will continue to hold the political sphere in its current vice-like grip, but the real question is how it has managed to produce so many politicians. The key is to understand that Oxford is about more than simply imparting knowledge: its about leadership. These things don't happen simply by accident.
The tutorial system; the Oxford Union debating society; the college system: all sub-systems attracting exactly the sort of person who is likely to succeed politically. Bringing aspirants together at this critical period creates the hot-house atmosphere that allows the best to flourish. This rubbed-off on Fraser, Hawke, Turnbull and Abbott. All were likely candidates for political success to begin with. Spending time at Oxford added the final sheen, an ineffable something, enabling eventual triumph.
Our universities are undergoing another transformation. The explosion after reforms in the '90s shifted universities from imparting general knowledge to operating as businesses teaching skills. All offered, pretty much, the same product. After a year or so in the workforce it was pretty difficult to work out which uni anyone had been to. The institutions spent most of their time competing for the best students. They knew it was much easier to improve good raw material than it was to transform less able candidates.
Universities didn't really, in their heart of hearts, believe the product they were selling - teaching - was enough to make their institution unique. This is unsurprising, because (although a few had a couple of sandstone buildings) all universities were pretty much the same.
Eventually Bond, Melbourne and most recently, Victoria University recognised that they needed different offerings to insulate themselves against the inevitable, impending downturn that will eventually engulf this sector. The ANU has also begun differentiating itself, by insisting applicants must have maths and capping student numbers. Both of these measures fiddle with the inputs, rather than transform the output.
Improving teaching is an obvious way to enhance university performance. Unfortunately, the prospect of achieving further significant gains without radically revamping the entire structure seems unlikely. Perhaps universities are actually concentrating on the wrong thing. They're attempting to differentiate themselves as teaching institutions, when students actually want to buy something else.
What cements Oxford's position is the sort of graduates it turns out - not because they know more, but because of the other qualities they've acquired along the way. The university manages to transform the raw material it acquires not by imparting more knowledge, but by turning out people for whom the experience makes a real difference.
Eventually, an Australian university will similarly manage to generate a course incubating leaders. Create the right environment and success will follow.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer