Letter: Oxford's management malaise

December 8, 2000

John Kay ("So we agree not to agree", THES , November 24), turns a timely and usefully harsh and penetrating spotlight on the governance of Oxford University, illustrating that the institution's greatest strength - academic freedom and innovation flourishing within a federalist, organic, diverse and loose structure that leaves the academic lunatics quite rightly in charge of "the collegiate university" asylum - is also its potentially greatest weakness - an inability to be seen to grasp change as opportunity: a perception that Oxford is complacent, conservative and congealed.

The management reforms under way, which Kay dismissed as "of little consequence", do indeed run the risk of Oxford simply re-arranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic by rejigging in the name of managerial efficiency the organogram of committee hierarchy and decision-making (or lack thereof, as Kay would see it), while in practice doing nothing for the university's overall and long-term academic effectiveness. Replacing well-meaning gentlemen-amateur dons as part-time committee hacks, cycling from committee to committee, with "professional" former dons as full-time university politicos ensconced in a listed-building elegant bunker on St Giles, risks changing the labels but leaving untouched the "can't do" culture at the centre - which Kay says is the defining characteristic of Oxford's "management" - while endowing that centre with too much new power and control when real progress worth having within any decent university is necessarily most likely and best achieved at the periphery of the academic departments (and, in Oxford's case, its colleges).

Kay is right to question the "added value" of the university's committee hierarchy and the priests who serve it: but that is a legitimate challenge to any organisation's HQ and not just Oxford's.

As Ted Tapper and I explore in Oxford and the Decline of the Collegiate Tradition (2000), Oxford over the next decades will indeed slip into Kay's predicted mediocrity not only if inertia triumphs as Kay fears, but also if it carelessly throws out the collegial baby with the managerialist bath-water.

In our postscript, however, we are rather less pessimistic than Kay in that we predict that Oxford may yet find for itself a fresh and robust vision for the 21st century of "the collegiate university" as a unique and powerful blend of the liberal arts colleges emphasising and protecting quality and intensive tutorial teaching of 10,000 high-achieving undergraduates with the university departments caring for 5,000 graduates, and maintaining Oxford as a global research player (as exemplified by recent reports of Oxford's innovative public/private funding of its new £60m chemistry building and of proposed exciting collaboration with Princeton University in several science areas).

It is just too simplistic to analyse Oxford's management malaise as being the result of the blocking power of Congregation, as being the consequence of the alleged anachronism of academic demos. The problem is not constitutional but cultural, a paucity of talent and imagination in Oxford's committee hierarchy (and especially at the apex in the shape of the former council). Time will tell whether the recent governance reforms will inject much-needed energy and zest.

Sadly, progress is slow because the university "centre" does not yet have any rational, accurate and transparent management accounting model for even beginning to understand where its £250m of expenditure each year goes and where its financial black holes lurk, while the colleges are in limbo, lacking a coherent collective view on just what it means to emphasise, enhance and enjoy their role as the providers of tutorial teaching with a pleasingly human-scale academic entity and thereby justify their eleemosynary endowments.

And both are shamefully negligent in failing to tackle the key factor driving Oxford remorselessly towards middling mediocrity in terms of international competition and ranking: the pernicious problem of feeble academic pay, which reflects the dubious status of our universities as the last of the United Kingdom's nationalised industries (under-financed, over-regulated, crumbling infrastructure, excessive political interference, poor leadership, no control over pricing of the prime productI).

Oxford and its colleges, however, will get there, but not without tears before senior common room bedtime as the two parts of "the collegiate university" get slowly used to a bit of horse-trading over stretched resources and painfully hammer out a new synergistic shape for the ivory tower or dreaming spire of 2025 and beyond.

If this generation of Oxford's academic demos fails, we will indeed deserve the indictment of the next when volume nine of the History of the University of Oxford emerges in about 2030 with the title Managed into Mediocrity , 1990-2025 (Oxford-Pearson Publishing, euros 375)...

David Palfreyman
New College, Oxford

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