Academic self-governance is on the wane across the UK, Michael North reports. But Bernard Crick says that fears for democracy at Oxford are unjustified
Oxford and Cambridge universities are unique institutions in UK higher education. They are pure democracies - the dons can vote on every decision proposed by the vice-chancellor and his management team. "The rest of the sector does not know what it is missing," one Oxford insider says.
"We are massively privileged and different. Democracy gives Oxford people a sense of ownership and involvement."
But this autumn, the dons are to vote on changes to the way Oxford is run that will, critics say, spell the end of centuries of self-governance by the academics. Some see the drive to streamline Oxford's institutional structures as part of a global trend in which university managers are removing academics' autonomy and imposing business models on universities.
The push for change at Oxford is being driven by its vice-chancellor, John Hood, the first outsider to head the collegiate university in 900 years.
Hood, a New Zealander, had a career in business before he was chosen to modernise Auckland University. In the words of Auckland academic Peter Gluckman, Hood took the university "from a place where it had its head up its ivory-tower behind... straight into the real world". But Jane Kelsey, another Auckland academic, says his "highly corporate" governance style led to "underlying tensions" with academics.
In his first two years at Oxford, Hood has caused a few tensions. The Oxford insider, who did not wish to be named, says Hood has found it easy to manage Congregation, the dons' parliament, by determining what comes before it for consideration. "Hood has changed everything. Every aspect of the university is being challenged - admissions, libraries, the colleges.
Congregation is supposed to meet every week, but 99 per cent of meetings are cancelled because no one challenges the stuff. Ninety-nine per cent of business goes through on the nod."
But the recent white paper on governance change, written by a working party chaired by Hood, caused alarm among many academics. Congregation rejected the first draft and forced significant changes to be made.
The proposal seen as the main threat to democracy would split the 25-member University Council, which oversees the institution's running and is headed by the vice-chancellor, into two bodies - one dominated by external members and one an academic board to oversee academic and scholarly activity.
A group of dons who published alternative plans say Hood's proposal will give more power to the vice-chancellor and his team. They are arguing for the retention of a single council dominated by academics that answers to Congregation.
History lecturer Robin Briggs, a member of the group, says: "These changes would greatly enhance the executive power of the vice-chancellor and the senior management team while reducing the opportunities for elected representatives of Congregation to criticise and improve the policies of the university administration. What we seem likely to get instead is more line management and the imposition of management styles that will alienate and demoralise the academic staff. At present, people work very hard because they feel that the university is theirs, not a business run by managers, and they feel that academic values come first."
Hood has explained his reasoning behind the planned changes. "Universities are extraordinarily complex organisations. They are complex because of their disciplinary diversity, outreach across that disciplinary breadth and the way in which one must organise for teaching and research. They're complex for the many modes of funding that flow into them and the huge social responsibility that they must fulfil. So it's very important that collegial decision-making is well structured, clear and understood by all and is structured to allow decisions to take place in a timely way that doesn't impede the sensible development of the institution," he says.
An Oxford spokesman says that the vice-chancellor's plans have "wide support".
Gillian Evans, a Cambridge University historian with an eye on developments at Oxford, says if the reforms go ahead, Cambridge will be under pressure to follow suit.
Oxford dons may feel that they need only look at the rest of the sector to see the nightmare that would result if they lose their voice. In post-92 universities, where vice-chancellors are more akin to chief executives thanks to the 1992 Education Act (which instilled in new universities a common governance approach with more responsibilities vested in the vice-chancellor), academics have far less say in institutional decision-making.
Older universities have more academic representation on decision-making bodies such as councils and senates, but academics can still feel excluded.
At Liverpool University, Paul Booth, senior lecturer in history and a member of the senate, is challenging what he sees as an undemocratic decision made by the vice-chancellor, Drummond Bone.
During the lecturers' action over pay earlier this year, Bone, after consulting his pro vice-chancellors and deans of faculty, instituted "revised examination arrangements" to allow students to graduate without a full range of marks. Booth was outraged that the decision was made without consulting the senate and the council. He wrote to Bone stating that the decision would lead to students graduating with higher grades and would cause the university to lose credibility, and he petitioned the university's visitor, Baroness Amos of Brondesbury, to adjudicate. The senate is waiting for her decision.
Booth says: "Perhaps the most important lesson is that the examination arrangements for every single module in every degree were changed by the vice-chancellor in consultation with fewer than ten colleagues, without informing either senate or council."
Simon Larter, a postgraduate student who recently served as senate student representative at Roehampton University, says he has observed first-hand the sort of top-down management feared by Oxford dons.
In March, he was part of a working party drafting a student satisfaction survey. Days before the presentation to senate for approval, Paul O'Prey, the vice-chancellor, asked that the questionnaire be cut in half. Larter protested that the cut was "based on little more than the vice-chancellor's anxiety that students wouldn't complete it because it might be too long".
Nevertheless, "the cut happened anyway", Larter says.
He feels that senate is there only for the "high-speed ratification of management change" and says that a lack of detail in minutes makes it impossible to learn how decisions have been arrived at. "The presumption is that the working parties did the deliberating; but, as I know, working parties are not exempt from executive and/or vice-chancellor interference before proposals even make it to senate."
Larter adds that some staff are too scared of losing their jobs to challenge management decisions and that the defence by university managers to any objections "is that it would be too easy to slide into inertia and inaction if we spend too long deliberating. It is almost like saying: 'I'm going to do this anyway, so sod off'."
The complaint that decisions have been reached before they come before bodies representing academics' interests is common. Rinella Cere, media studies lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, says her institution gives "the appearance of a democracy". "Staff satisfaction surveys, communication champions, podcasting and webchat with managers are the order of the day in today's universities, and certainly consultation processes are in place over major decisions, but often it appears as if decisions have already been taken."
Richard Jackson, lecturer in international politics at Manchester University, sees this loss of democracy as part of a global trend in universities to move away from "the collegial public-institution model of management to a more closely monitored top-down business model". He says:
"It comes home to me when financial decisions have to be made; it seems that autonomy of decision-making keeps receding from the department - first to newly organised schools, then to ever further-away cost centres."
A senior lecturer at the University of Wales, Newport, says such management practices left staff feeling "jaded" and accepting management dictates with "a resigned compliance". He says: "A recent restructuring created an expanded tier of middle management, made membership of committees the core of their job and excluded from those same committees non-managerial staff who had previously provided their main impetus. Thus decisions about induction for new students, for example, are now made by people whose contracts specify minimal, if any, contact with students, and who play no role in providing induction for students. There is a disenfranchisement of the lecturing staff, especially when it comes to making 'coalface'
decisions about teaching and students."
But perhaps academics are being unrealistic in expecting a say in the running of their universities, suggests Dario Castiglione, a senior politics lecturer at Exeter University. "From a knowledge-delivery perspective British universities are broadly democratic; from an administrative and organisational perspective they are not - this is partly inevitable and perhaps should be realistically accepted by British academics."
Changes in university structures have left academics feeling bereft of a voice, he says. He points out that decisions about factors such as investment, staffing, personal development and support have been allocated to medium-level managers - that is, heads of schools who have been given more independence and some financial flexibility - while budgets have become so complex that it is almost impossible for academics to have a say.
"All this precludes the possibilities for many decisions taken in the universities to be democratically debated or controlled. Academics, who technically never had the power of taking these decisions democratically, have become increasingly detached from the whole process of decision-making."
Castiglione adds: "Universities have become different kinds of institutions with different priorities, operating in different contexts. This has produced a more top-down decision-making structure, while academics' own priorities have also changed and so, quite dramatically, have the time-pressures on their work. The combined effect has undermined democracy in universities."
Deian Hopkin, vice-chancellor and chief executive of London South Bank University, says the process of change in UK university culture - from a time when academics felt that they had significant control over the curriculum to a demand-led market in which universities are judged by things such as graduate destinations and quality benchmarks - has made constant consultation with staff difficult. "Providing a good-quality environment takes money, and it no longer comes from large capital grants,"
he says. "It has driven universities to look at revenues and income generation, and this requires a different approach to the academic provision and to its means of delivery. We have to behave differently from the past.
"I understand that people feel a loss of control. People who committed themselves to a certain way of life years ago have great difficulty in coming to terms with recent changes. But universities are very conscious of the grumbles. We have to ask ourselves: are we doing enough to make people think about and become involved in the process of change?"
Hopkin implies that there is no going back to the old days. "There's a difference between trying to make people feel engaged and restoring the notion that decision-making can be done only by collective means. It's something we have to keep on grappling with."
Roger Brown, vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University and a board member of the Higher Education Policy Institute, also accepts that UK academics have reason to feel aggrieved. He says universities are not just corporate enterprises and that it is vital to consult all stakeholders, including staff, about major plans. "It's clear that you have to consult quite widely, and that where a vice-chancellor loses the confidence of staff in a general way his days are numbered."
Brown adds: "I think it's ironic that in Oxbridge we have two world-class universities that are hugely successful in generating money, run on democratic lines."