Manifesto for a modern ancient

Can Oxford Be Improved?
July 27, 2007

If Oxford University's 40-odd colleges and four academic divisions were all just departments of a single enterprise, the frequent rancorous eruptions of Congregation would take place out of sight, the internal policy discussions of a responsible enterprise. Should the business school be located here or here? Should the Prime Minister be granted an honorary doctorate this year, next year or not at all? Should the university have a new kind of council? Those are three recent debates that have made headlines, causing leader writers to ponder the fate of this 1,000-year-old institution.

Where a company would shuffle a few memos about, Oxford - with its myriad autonomous selfhoods - deals with contentious matters by holding mass begowned debates in ancient domed assemblies. It is a much cheaper and in many ways more efficient (though not speedy) way to take decisions, but it tends to draw excessive public attention. The fact is that the colleges have a considerable degree of legal autonomy and rejoice in their differences, competing vigorously for students, benefactions, sporting and academic achievements amid continuous publicity. There is always a story in Oxford - and always someone to leak it. The 17,000 students are helped or hindered by 3,000 dons who participate in what must be the most open and democratic decision-making system ever evolved to do anything.

This father-and-son-penned booklet performs two valuable roles. First, it provides an evaluative and historical description of Oxford's extremely complicated governance system, its complexity partly resulting from the obligation to comply with ever-increasing interferences by Government into every aspect of student admission, teaching, research, finance, employment, audit and job evaluation. Second, it proposes a set of changes that could take the machinery of governance forward without jeopardising the many autonomies in which the university community takes pride and will never abandon unless forced by legislation.

After the recent vote against the proposals by John Hood, the vice-chancellor, for governance reform (which would have created a council of 15 with a majority of "externals" with the chancellor, Lord Patten, in the chair), there is new pressure to move forward: it is called Gordon Brown.

The Kenny plans would simplify the flows of money from university to colleges and back again, giving the former more control of academic appointments. They would also create a kind of senate of the colleges with the power to impose majority decisions on dissenting colleges, and thus speed the pace at which the whole university moves forward. I think this is very much what is likely now to be debated and agreed. Congregation would remain intact, one of the glories of British academic democracy - it provides stability and inclusiveness at virtually no cost and gives a sense of ownership to all the many stakeholders.

The chapters are divided between the authors. Philosopher (and father) Sir Anthony Kenny provides the nostalgia, the experienced rumination and the pitfalls to be avoided, drawing on half a century of running bits of Oxford; while management consultant (and son) Robert Kenny provides charts and the comparative analysis that underline the need for something to be done if Oxford is to remain among the world's top ten universities,

Anthony Smith was president of Magdalen College, Oxford from 1987 to 2005.

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

Author - Anthony Kenny and Robert Kenny
Publisher - Imprint Academic
Pages - 128
Price - £8.95
ISBN - 9781845400941

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