Quad wrangles

June 19, 1998

The departure of Stephen Tumim (right) from St Edmund's Hall has provoked its students to stage a sit-in. But is he the victim of an archaic college system that the government should scrap? Sian Griffiths reports

This lunch-time around a hundred undergraduates will troop into the front quadrangle of St Edmund's Hall, off Oxford's busy High Street, plonk themselves down on the grass around the college's ancient wishing well and sit there for an hour.

It is a quiet protest from students at a college better known for its rowing and rugby than its political militancy - but Teddy Hall's students have finally found themselves a cause. Earlier this week 125 of the college's 350 students ("a record number," said the students' president John Houghton, proudly), unanimously backed a vote of no-confidence in the 50 or so dons who run their small college.

The students have thrown their weight behind Teddy Hall's "vocal and flamboyant" ex-principal, Sir Stephen Tumim, who made his name speaking out about Britain's overflowing jails as former chief inspector of prisons. Sir Stephen's clash with the fellows of the college he led resulted, late last week, in his resignation from the post of principal, two years into a five year contract, and his acceptance of a six figure pay-off. The students are furious that Sir Stephen was forced out following a vote of the college's dons and have condemned the move as a PR disaster, one likely to reinforce Teddy Hall's insular and archaic image.

Sir Stephen is the latest in a line of distinguished public figures who have taken up the headships of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, only to leave fairly sharpish. In 1993 the former head of the BBC World Service, John Tusa, gave up the presidency of Wolfson College, Cambridge, after less than a year, citing differences of opinion with college fellows. In his resignation letter, Tusa, like Tumim extremely popular with his college's students, said that Wolfson "had a deep fear of a real involvement with the outside world". This week, asked whether he knew other heads of houses unhappy with their lot, Tusa, now managing director of the Barbican Centre, London, laughed and said "lots".

Between 1991 and 1993 a dozen Oxford colleges changed their heads and the latest upheaval will do little to encourage the great and the good to apply for the once-coveted job of head of house. One insider said this week:

"What has happened to Stephen Tumim is only an extreme example of what's happening to lots of heads of houses - only most people do not argue the toss or fight their corner. This is a system at fault." Another commented:

"What enrages me is the arrogance of Oxbridge dons, the way they have managed to bypass all attempts to improve corporate governance in either the public or the private sectors".

The view from within the quadrangles is that Tumim and Tusa were outsiders who failed to understand either the role of a head of college or the "pure" and "direct" democracy that Oxbridge college governance is said to exemplify. Oxbridge colleges are charitable institutions, governed by the heads and fellows, who manage the finances and select undergraduates. Their relationship with the wider university, of which nearly all college fellows are also members, is an arms-length one, marked by a tangle of ancient and bureaucratic rules and a multiplicity of committees. "The master of a college is more a figurehead than a manager," said one don last week. "Colleges are democratic institutions, the master's vote counts for no more than anyone else's."

The view from elsewhere, however, is very different - and much more savage. Critics say that the fact that college heads have no power is just one symptom of how both universities are entangled in an ancient and unwieldy system of governance in urgent need of a radical overhaul.

Following the Tumim debacle there are discussions about setting up a pressure group to persuade the government to establish a Royal Commission that would force both Oxford and Cambridge to reform their collegiate structure, to make the kind of changes they seem incapable of making themselves. (The report of former vice-chancellor Sir Peter North, Oxford's latest internal attempt at change, is dismissed for skating over the relations between university and colleges.) One of the campaigners, who does not wish to be named but who describes Oxford colleges as "self-perpetuating oligarchies", says: "The relationship between the colleges and the university is not dissimilar to that between Sinn Fein and the IRA. You cannot decouple them. It is an impossible governing regime."

One of Britain's best-known academics, historian David Cannadine, is involved in the discussions. He comments: "My view for a long time has been that something needs to be done about the structure of Oxford and Cambridge. The Tumim episode just confirms it."

Cannadine, director of the Institute of Historical Research in London, argues that "historically Oxbridge has only ever been reformed by Royal Commission. There is no central body internally which can take decisions which can be binding on everyone else. The only way to force change is to change the structure - from the outside. And it is time it is done again."

John Tusa, another of those involved, agrees: "There have been too many nonsenses like the Tumim business, frankly, and they do point to structural workings that need to be looked at."

The number one target for reform, says Cannadine, is the "incredibly complex relationship between a self-governing college and the university and the way dons are members of both". So Oxford and Cambridge have become impossible to manage. Tusa wants to see the roles and responsibilities of college councils clearly defined and the exact role and powers of the head of house spelt out equally clearly.

But also high on the list for change are more general concerns likely to touch a chord among the wider public: Oxbridge's shameful failure to recruit more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, for instance - about half of Oxbridge's intake of undergraduates are drawn from fee-paying schools. Then there is the controversial question of the gender balance of professors at both universities. In Oxford 7 per cent of professors are women; in Cambridge 5.9 per cent. And there is the matter of why Oxford and Cambridge receive more generous state funding than other universities - again on account of their collegiate structure and the responsibility colleges hold for teaching undergraduates in the costly one-to-one tutorial system.

A former Oxford research fellow, Paul Johnson, highlighted another concern. He pointed out that if the university is to carry on competing in an international arena with the likes of Harvard and Yale, it cannot rest on its laurels. "It needs modernising. Everyone talks about the financial cost of the tutorial system but what is just as important is the burden it places on the fellows. At Oxford an academic does 12 hours of undergraduate teaching a week compared with six or seven hours at another university. Add to that the three layers of committee meetings - college, university and faculty - that many dons have to attend and what you are left with is no time for research."

One radical option is to end Oxbridge's collegiate status - to scrap the colleges, though John Tusa thinks this is going too far. Less radical is the suggestion that a third of the voting fellows at each college should be lay members, recruited from outside the universities. They would provide a sort of "reality check" and bring in much needed financial and marketing acumen.

As David Cannadine says, the last time Oxford and Cambridge was reformed was in 1923 when Parliament passed the Oxford and Cambridge Act - statutory legislation under which they have been governed ever since. The 1920s were a long time ago.

NOT QUITE ONE OF THEM; THE FACES THAT DIDN'T FIT

Stephen Tumim took up the post of principal at St Edmund's Hall two years ago on a five-year contract. Lively and outspoken, he was a hit with the students, mingling easily at their events and anxious to boost the numbers of state-educated undergraduates at Teddy Hall, which has historically performed badly in Oxford's league table of examination performance.

But Tumim's relationship with the college's bursar, a former policeman, Geoffrey Bourne-Taylor, deteriorated after the principal fell out with Nancy Giles, a college fundraiser. Giles, an American, was close to Bourne-Taylor. She finally left in October having refused to work with Tumim. The result was that Tumim was then accused of bad person-management.

The atmosphere in college became very unpleasant. The dons held meetings in camera and hostile minutes circulated widely. It was said that Tumim did not read policy papers and did not pick up university politics quickly enough.

Finally, a majority of the dons supported a motion asking the principal to step down.

The only public statement Tumim has made since taking the decision to resign states: "Differences in opinion have emerged over the interpretation of the role of principal, which have proved impossible to reconcile."

In October 1993 John Tusa walked out after only nine months as president of Wolfson College, Cambridge, telling fellows: "I realised I had better things to do with my time". In his resignation letter, leaked to the press, he cited disagreements between himself and John Cathie, a former senior tutor, who was suspended by Tusa and left the college in July 1993. Tusa says Cathie breached a college statute.

This week he told The THES: "I was standing up to preserve the authority of college council. But instead of the council backing me it decided that I was not the person who should appraise the issue. That seemed to me a pointless way of behaving."

Tusa wrote at the time: "I found the attitude of too many of the council to resolving the matter dilatory, hesitant and more concerned to address the minutiae of procedure than the urgent matters of principle and behaviour involved."

Wolfson, a college for postgraduates and mature undergraduates, issueda statement saying that the rift "reflects a difference in culture and expectations between (Tusa's) own experience and that of the college".

WHAT'S WRONG WITH COLLEGE GOVERNANCE?

* Colleges have charitable status - yet they are under no obligation to publish their accounts. Was paying Stephen Tumim a six-figure sum to leave a proper use of charitable monies?

* Fellows administer the money from which their salaries are drawn. Is this a conflict of interest?

* Colleges appoint fellows primarily to teach college students - yet these fellows have university-wide responsibilities that often conflict with their college duties.

* College fellows have little knowledge of financial affairs, yet they vote on such specialised issues as how to manage share portfolios or how to conduct multi-million pound fundraising campaigns.

* The role of college principals in Oxbridge seems unclear - are they figureheads or managers?

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