Like any loyal graduate of the University of Oxford, I was delighted to see that its current big fundraising drive has been so successful (“Oxford hits £2 billion in fundraising campaign”, 12 May). I was even more delighted to see that it intends to spend some of the money on “infrastructure”. Benefactions have a way of going to vanity projects – any head of house will tell you that it is never easy to get a donation to repair the guttering.
A section of Oxford’s guttering in desperate need of extra funding is its libraries. Any long-term user will notice that Oxford has for some years been reducing both the number and the level of expertise of its library staff. An establishment review of 2005 began by arguing that the integration of the libraries had resulted in too many “over-graded” academic librarians. It is now difficult for students and researchers to find a librarian with the relevant expert knowledge in a given field. Nevertheless, a series of highly paid management roles have been advertised and filled with professional “managers” who conspicuously do not spend time in the libraries. There are also fewer libraries, dramatically so in comparison with the University of Cambridge, because Oxford has had a policy for some years of amalgamating or “integrating” its separate libraries. This has happened in the face of repeated student and academic protest.
“Resource allocation” in Oxford includes an “infrastructure charge”. This is “the mechanism by which the academic departments fund the services provided centrally”, including the libraries. Alas, the would-be donor cannot read about this in detail because the online information can be seen only by someone with “internal access”. But it is to be hoped that the availability of all this newly gifted “infrastructure” money will prompt more transparency and a radical rethink of priorities in Oxford. Otherwise potential donors may begin to think again.
G. R. Evans