Leader: Thumping tubs and other issues of governance

November 23, 2007

"Each tub on its own bottom" is the stout metaphor Harvard employs to proclaim its faculties' constitutional independence. The tubs did for former president Larry Summers. Their equivalents in Oxford seem to have done for the vice-chancellor John Hood, who last week announced that he would not seek an extension to his term in office when it runs out in 2009.

Dr Hood's modernising agenda was defeated by dons last December because a majority believed that to overhaul governance along the lines he proposed would fatally undermine the democracy Oxford enjoys. Ultimate sovereignty lies with academics, not the vice-chancellor or management. Dr Hood's critics claimed his reforms would ensure that it passed ineluctably from the former to the latter, destroying that which makes the university distinctive and great. His supporters countered that Oxford was pre- eminent despite its traditions, not because of them, and was less likely to remain so as the competition modernised and innovated.

Oxford rows are usually compelling - old rights swaddled in ritual, ancient passions and an earnestness that occasionally teeters on the brink of camp tend to make excellent drama. But if the theatre is discounted, what remains of interest to anyone outside the university?

Despite its parochial nature, the debate over Oxford's governance highlights an issue that is anything but: what say should academics have in the governance of their institutions?

At one end of the spectrum is Oxbridge, with its competing, proudly independent colleges and vast participatory democracy that has the power to decide on whether prime ministers and French philosophers should get honorary degrees or if business schools can be built. At the other end are the post-92s, which have vice-chancellors more akin to chief executives of corporations and academics who have little say in decision-making. In between are the remainder of the old universities, which have more academic representation in governance but bestow fewer rights than Oxbridge academics enjoy.

This mish-mash throws up an obvious question: which works best?

The Higher Education Funding Council for England - and presumably most vice-chancellors - believe that modern universities, being extraordinarily complex entities, do not need their decision-making complicated by too much academic democracy, especially of the Oxbridge kind. In an academic market powered by competition for students and the quest for non- government sources of income, is it feasible to debate many of the decisions that have to be taken with a wide audience? It is a fair point.

On the other hand, to deny scholars a voice they have traditionally regarded as an integral part of academic life is surely a step too far - and even counterproductive. Universities are not enterprises; they are, even the post-92s, far more collegial than commercial organisations and possess a distinctive mission. Their staff should, as principle and practice demand, be consulted about major decisions and their voices heard.

It is part of what makes a university a university. In any case, the evidence that a one-size-fits-all approach to governance works is far from proven. Is it pure coincidence that what are generally regarded as the top three universities in the world are blessed (or cursed?) with idiosyncratic governance?

This is not to say that Oxbridge and other institutions cannot benefit from management reform - indeed, incremental progress usually follows the defeat of over-ambitious plans. But the gnashing and wailing that follows initiatives such as those introduced by Professor Summers or Dr Hood should be accepted as healthy howls rather than dismissed as intransigence refusing to acknowledge progress.

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