Congregation says its prayers

May 16, 1997

Anthony Kenny looks back at the changes Oxford University has undergone during the past 25 years and asks what the future holds under a Blair administration

This is a time of uncertainty for Oxford. The university is waiting for the report of a commission, chaired by Peter North, the vice chancellor, reviewing its governance. It is unlikely to appear until September, by which time it is hoped that Sir Ron Dearing will have produced his proposals on the funding of higher education. Meanwhile, everyone wonders whether a Labour government that has put education at the forefront of its programme will introduce radical changes. So Oxford is waiting for North, and North is waiting for Dearing, and everyone is waiting for Blunkett.

In the United States, in addition to the great international universities like Harvard, there are liberal arts colleges such as Swarthmore and Williams. The best of these are as renowned but their mission is quite different: teaching, not research, takes pride of place. In Britain we have nothing of this style; it would be splendid if some institutions near the bottom of the university league could be turned into first-rate liberal arts colleges. What we do have, in Oxford and Cambridge, are federal universities whose ideal is to combine the infrastructure of a world-class research university with the intensive teaching typical of the best liberal arts colleges.

Collegiate universities are subject to a tension between their two goals. In any university, resources must be allocated between the pursuit of research and the provision of teaching; but in a collegiate university it is not only resources, but power, which is distributed between a number of independent, and potentially conflicting bodies.

In Oxford the provision of research laboratories and libraries, and the overall supervision of study at graduate level, are the responsibilities of the central university authorities, under the direction of the vice chancellor. The admission and education of undergraduates, up to the point where they are examined for their degrees by the university, is the responsibility of 30-odd independent colleges, each with their own statutes, governing body, and revenues.

The weak points in a collegiate university are the tensions between the interests of the central university and the interests of the colleges, and between the collectivity of colleges and the individual colleges. Clashes between these interests have risked turning Oxford into a home of lost opportunities.

Twenty-five years ago, for example, Oxford's colleges were all single-sex. When co-education was introduced, Oxford's federal structure should have enabled it to offer a wide choice to its students, with perhaps 20 colleges admitting both sexes, five only men and five only women. In that way, the university could have combined the advantages of co-education with that of single-sex schooling. But each men's college feared it might lose out in competition with other colleges if it did not open its doors to women. In a rush to co-education, men's colleges flouted central university plans for an orderly change, and trampled on the interests of the women's colleges. Now only St Hilda's holds on, precariously, to its single-sex status; every other college has become co-educational and the opportunity to maximise choice has been lost.

Then there is the issue of college poverty. It is in the interests of the colleges collectively that no college should lack an adequate endowment. If any college were to go bankrupt, this would cast a cloud over the collegiate system as a whole. For many years a system of intercollegiate taxation transferred funds from better-endowed colleges to poorer ones. But the system never achieved its goal of giving financial independence to the poorer colleges. Instead of a single adequate endowment programme, there was a series of short-term schemes. Each failed because rich colleges have always been ready to veto the level of taxation necessary for it to succeed.

Such difficulties could be avoided if the colleges collectively were able to bind their members individually, as was proposed by the 1960s Franks commission. But Lord Franks's proposals were rejected.

It is difficult to establish precisely the relative wealth of university and colleges, since the colleges, as exempt charities, do not publish annual balance sheets. But if colleges have done better than the university in the recent past, this is unlikely to continue. College fees (Pounds 18.5 million this year) are under threat, and student maintenance grants may be abolished. This will lead to pressure for colleges to restore their historic scholarship funds to their original purpose, rather than continuing to make use of them for general purposes.

Old Labour wanted to abolish the charitable status of Oxford colleges, along with that of the public schools. Old Labour wanted to penalise Oxford University if the proportion of its entrants coming from state schools was less than the proportion of the population attending state schools. New Labour knows better. But it would be wrong to assume that new Labour will accept Oxford at its own valuation. True, Tony Blair is an Oxford graduate. But so is Margaret Thatcher.

The next few years are likely to see the most searching external inquiry into Oxford's affairs since the royal commissions of the 19th century. Oxford can only hope to preserve its independence and traditions if its house is in order. In particular, relations between the university and its colleges must be placed on a footing of cooperation rather than competition.

In recent months, however, there have been problems not between the university and its colleges but between the university's own governing bodies. The sovereign body is Congregation, an assembly of all MAs who have jobs in the collegiate university. The day-to-day business is conducted by the university's cabinet, the Hebdomadal Council, but many major decisions have to be presented by Council for approval by Congregation. Normally they are rubber stamped; but twice recently Congregation has overturned a decision of Council.

The first occasion concerned the university's new school of management, housed temporarily in the Radcliffe Infirmary. Benefactor Wafic Said came forward with an offer of Pounds 20 million for a new building for the school, to be sited on the University Club's playing fields in Mansfield Road, and to be controlled by a board of trustees nominated largely by himself. Some dons objected to the degree of control Mr Said's trust would have over the school. Many recalled that when the university acquired the sports ground from Merton 30 years ago, it was with a pledge that the land would remain green in perpetuity. When the motion to assign the site to the Said school came before Congregation it was defeated by 259 votes to 214.

Said was naturally wounded, but kept his offer open. The search is on for a satisfactory alternative site. Provisions that appear to allow his trustees to take decisions that should properly be in academic hands will continue to stick in the throat of members of Congregation. But Said's determination that his wishes be given a cast-iron legal form no doubt arises in part from his realisation, during the discussions about the Mansfield Road site, that the university authorities felt free to revise unilaterally an agreement of 30 years ago. Congregation's insistence that the university's word is its bond may perhaps enable future benefactors to place greater reliance on the university's own decision-making procedures and deter them from trying to take decisions out of the university's hands and place them in separate trusts.

Some who turned up to vote on the Mansfield Road issue were turned away. Council recently revised the qualifications for membership of Congregation, excluding many categories of retired dons. Some were outraged when they discovered this. A postal vote of Congregation forced Council to restore membership to most of those who had lost it.

On this issue, council was right and Congregation was wrong. It is a good thing for Oxford that Congregation should have a democratic veto; it prevents Council from losing touch with the people who are actually carrying out the university's mission. But there is not the same need for Council to keep in touch with the sentiments of those no longer bearing the heat and burden of the day.

Anthony Kenny is the warden of Rhodes House, Oxford. From 1978-89 he was master of Balliol College. His memoir, A Life in Oxford, is published this week by John Murray, Pounds 20.00.

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