Leader: Make or break reform

May 13, 2005

Academics in other institutions may regard next week's vote on governance reforms at Oxford University as an irrelevance, but the outcome will have significance beyond the dreaming spires. A perception at the top of government of near-paralysis at both Oxford and Cambridge rubbed off on ministers' view of higher education in general. The Lambert report was clear that changes were needed if the two universities were to maintain their eminence.

Over the past 15 years, Oxford has quietly carried out a number of reforms.

It has streamlined and devolved decision-making and, unlike Cambridge, owns its own intellectual property rights. But the last great reform - to unify college and university decision-making processes - remains. John Hood, the new vice-chancellor, insists in a letter to academic staff this week that his proposals do not mean Oxford is moving towards a "corporate" governance, but towards a model common and proven in research universities.

Next week's debate will include a call to delay the reforms and, under the banner of academic freedom, to reject proposed joint university-college reviews of academic performance. But academic freedom should not be confused with obstinate conservatism if adequate safeguards can be built into a better system. Greater co-ordination between the central university and the colleges will surely be essential in any unified governance structure. It remains to be seen if Dr Hood is trying to move too far too fast, but Oxford cannot afford to stand still if it is to make the most of new opportunities and overcome the problems that are already threatening the university's science departments.

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