Analysis: Confusion, controversy, clashes over leadership

September 26, 2003

Harris Manchester College is facing financial and governance difficulties that may put its future in doubt. Claire Sanders investigates what went wrong

When Harris Manchester College became the newest college of Oxford University in 1996, the omens were mixed.

It had the backing of eminent figures in the university, including historians Lord Briggs of Lewes and Lord Bullock of Leafield. And it had a promise of £3 million from Lord Harris of Peckham, founder and chairman of retail giant Carpetright.

But there was also a certain amount of adverse publicity. There were serious concerns that the college's total projected endowment of £4 million was insufficient and that wealthy colleges would end up having to bail it out. Back in 1994, Harris Manchester was told that it could not apply to the College Contributions Fund, which distributes money between wealthy and poorer colleges, until its endowment reached £4 million.

But the rules were changed in 2000 and in 2001-02 the fund awarded Harris Manchester £300,000. In 2002-03, this was cut to £33,000.

But despite its difficulties, the college has advanced significantly.

Harris Manchester principal Ralph Waller told The THES : "When the college became a permanent private hall of the university in 1990, the only subjects taught were English, history, philosophy and theology. We now offer 26 degree courses to mature students. Over the past five years, we have widened the undergraduate degrees on offer to include fast-track medicine, economics and management, and the history of art."

The college takes mature students only, and all its places are offered to students who have been educated in state schools. Dr Waller has described the college as giving people a "second chance", and it has certainly enrolled some interesting students. In October 2002, Sandra Gregory, the convicted drug smuggler who spent five years in a Thai prison, started studying for a geography degree at the college.

The college is part of a consortium of seven Oxford colleges that aims to attract students from the further education sector. Its troubles present serious problems for Oxford's efforts to widen access.

Dr Waller has had to put a huge amount of energy into fundraising and has sought to take the college in a number of new directions.

But he has also clashed with members of staff and his style of leadership has raised questions - especially because in an Oxford college responsibility for governance and finance rests with the governing body. In the past, heads of colleges that have been in financial straits have advised governing body members to ensure their houses were in their partners' names.

In 1998, academic fellows on the governing body, including the vice-principal, called in the visitor, Sir Tony Wrigley, then master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. They sought rulings on the conduct of meetings; on the use of the casting vote; on membership of the governing body; on what constituted an inquorate meeting; and on decisions about the payment of stipends and emoluments made by the principal apparently without reference to the governing body.

In February 1999, the visitor made a number of rulings. On the question of inquorate meetings, Professor Wrigley ruled that no decision made by the governing body in the past was rendered invalid by the fact that the meeting had been inquorate. He added: "In my view, the college would be wise to make a provision that the governing body is inquorate if fewer than 50 per cent of its members attend and to make the same rule for committees, and so I advise."

On the issue of the casting vote, he noted that "the frequency with which a casting vote has been used in the college in recent months must be most unusual". He said: "In general, a casting vote should not be exercised when circumstances are such as to call in question the ability of the chairman to make an impartial judgement of the merits of the case."

On the issue of decisions about stipends and emoluments made by Dr Waller, Professor Wrigley was clear that this issue would be best dealt with by an arbitrator. "I am reluctant... to make a ruling since I am apprehensive that I may be less than fully informed about the details of the cases in question."

Professor Wrigley recommended four times for an arbitrator to be brought in.

While the visitor was deliberating, a number of academics became concerned at the reorganisation of committees carried out by the college. New people were also brought onto the governing body at this time, including Lord Harris' adviser, Tony Bull.

They felt that this should not happen while matters of such importance were with the visitor. The staff wrote to the vice-chancellor, saying: "In pressing ahead with changes to the governance of the college while issues are before the visitor, and by persisting in holding elections for college offices (which can only be viewed as political in the present circumstances) despite appeals for delay and circumspection, a dangerous fuse has been lit. The standing of the college is in real danger."

On May 19 1999, there was a special meeting of the governing body. It was proposed that the "body should seek arbitration or the help of an independent third party in some other role as mediator on unresolved issues." This was defeated. It was also proposed "that the governing body should review procedures for governance of the college in accordance with our statutory obligations and principles of good administration". This was also defeated.

The THES asked Dr Waller why the college had not called in an arbitrator.

He replied: "We considered the visitor's rulings and recommendations very carefully in 1999, and we received and implemented all of the visitor's rulings." Dr Waller said informal suggestions made by the visitor were carefully considered and the decisions taken by the governing body at that time were taken in the best interests of the college.

Dr Waller also said: "There has been no change in the governance of the college since the royal charter was awarded in 1996. We continue to be governed in accordance with the charter and statutes."

By September 1999, two of the academics concerned about governance had agreed to take voluntary redundancy. One was the vice-principal. One signed a gagging agreement. A third concerned academic resigned in 1999. A fourth academic, Rowena Archer, took voluntary redundancy this September. She is also bound by a gagging agreement.

Dr Archer left after a review of the college's provision by Derek Wood QC.

The review concludes that the college can no longer afford to teach history.

On the subject of the Wood review, Dr Waller said: "Over the past five years we have examined all the areas of expenditure in the college, and reduced our overheads on the domestic and administrative side as far as we can. It was partly in this context that the governing body commissioned the Wood report.

"The high cost of providing history teaching in the college, combined with the low number of applicants, has made the provision of this subject not financially viable."

At the time of the original governance dispute, the governing body bitterly opposed the views of the concerned academics. In a letter to the visitor, they wrote: "We utterly deplore what we regard as vexatious allegations and entirely support Dr Waller in his attempts to continue governance of the college by consent and majority."

But some in the university were concerned at what was happening at Harris Manchester. Kate Flint, chair of the English faculty board at Oxford between 1999 and 2001 and now professor of English at Rutgers University in the US, was involved in discussions with some of the members of Harris Manchester staff.

"I certainly formed the opinion that there were many aspects of the administration of the college that deviated considerably from the norm of other Oxford colleges. I expressed the view, privately at the time, that I thought it was high time that the university looked closely at the establishment, its way of conducting business and its financial organisation," she said this week.

By 2000, minutes of a governing body meeting show that the college now considered the governance dispute to be over and was seeking clarification of its relationship with Lord Harris.

The minutes reveal a complicated relationship: "The principal advised that there were three areas, now that the college's former factional difficulties are well behind us, that have a bearing on the willingness of Lord Harris to resume his financial support for the college."

The issues were:

* Finances: "there is a shared desire with ourselves for the college to be meeting its expenditure out of current income"

* The Norrington table, which ranks Oxford colleges: "a shared desire that we should not be at the bottom of the Norrington table"

* Name of the college: "the principal advised that the governing body had previously decided to change the name of the college, dropping in common reference and usage the 'Manchester' element. Implementation of this decision, which would also entail seeking the blessing of the university, had been delayed because, among other reasons, it might have provoked additional and probably unhelpful publicity at a difficult time."

The relationship was described as "blurred and unravelled".

Dr Waller told The THES : "Harris Manchester is grateful to Lord Harris and his family for their continuing support over the past ten years. During this time they have increased the college's endowment, funded new college kitchens and refurbished the Arlosh Hall to provide the college with excellent dining facilities; they have been the major funder of the research library, have helped us to complete a new quadrangle and funded a fellowship in economics. With Lord Harris' support, the college has been able to grow and develop, and opportunities to widen access for mature students have been created."

The original agreement was straightforward. In 1994, Lord Harris wrote to Dr Waller to tell him that the Harris family had agreed to sponsor the college for £3 million. "This amount will be paid in instalments of £500,000 per annum around the month of August each year over six years."

Lord Harris also wrote: "At the end of six years, and providing everything is well and running according to plan, we will consider the situation again so that the Harris family may continue with its support of Manchester College."

The University Gazette reported in 1994: "Council stipulated, as a condition which it would require if it were to support a petition for a charter, that the college should first have in hand an endowment of not less than £4 million".

The THES put a number of questions to the university about Harris Manchester. On the question of the shortfall in endowment, a university spokesman said: "The university's interest is in ensuring that colleges are able to provide appropriate levels of teaching and support for their students. There is no evidence that HMC is unable to do this."

Pressed on the fact that the college's endowment had not reached the level required back in 1994, the spokesman said that the Gazette notice was a "context". "College status cannot be awarded conditionally," the spokesman said.

Asked why vice-chancellor Sir Colin Lucas did not intervene to push the visitor's recommendation, the spokesman said: "The vice-chancellor has never sought to intervene in any internal college matter, and it is not for the university to do so. A visitor may make informal recommendations as an individual, in addition to any rulings made in their official role as visitor."

Although there are questions over Harris Manchester's endowment, Lord Harris insisted that the "books balance". The college does make a small annual surplus each year. The Wood report describes this as "slender, fragile and dependent on fundraising".

Lord Harris and Mr Bull both stressed that the new direction for the college was in medicine and the sciences. However, the medical students are second-degree students - rather than those who have missed out on a degree at all.

Dr Waller said: "Although one of the college's aims is to provide opportunities for those who have missed out on higher education earlier in life, the college has always also provided opportunities for those who wish to change career and have come to us for a second degree."

April 28 1994
In discussions with Manchester in Trinity Term 1993, Council stipulated, as a condition which it would require if it were to support a petition for a charter, that the college should first have in hand an endowment of not less than £4 million, a figure which Council thought appropriate for the endowment of a collegiate institution of this size. In recent discussions, however, it has emerged that, while the college has achieved to date an endowment of no more than £900,000 (albeit in addition to having raised funding of £3 million over the past five years for the improvement of its facilities and to increase its academic staff), the college has recently received a firm pledge of a benefaction of £3 million to be payable in equal annual instalments over six years, thus taking the college’s endowment almost to the requisite level. This offer is conditional, however, on a start being made forthwith on the (inevitably somewhat lengthy) procedures leading to chartered collegiate status. Council, which considers that Manchester College has made excellent progress as a centre for mature students in the University, takes the view that the college ought to be enabled to accept the benefaction, thus greatly strengthening its financial position to the advantage of the college and indirectly of the collegiate community as a whole. While Council is satisfied that such an endowment will be an appropriate foundation for a college of the size which Manchester envisages, at the same time, mindful of the reasoning behind the stipulation made earlier, Council proposes that it be a condition of the University’s support that the college should be made ineligible to seek support, whether in the form of grants or of loans, from the College Contributions Fund until such time as its endowment shall have reached the level previously specified (i.e. the equivalent of £4 million in 1992-93 prices).


MAIN PLAYERS IN THE HARRIS MANCHESTER SAGA

Lord Harris of Peckham
Lord Harris is one of the UK's wealthiest men and an admirer of Margaret Thatcher. He is dyslexic and has given millions to education, including to successful city technology colleges. His latest venture, the Academy at Peckham, opened this month. Lord Harris grew up close to where Damilola Taylor was murdered in Peckham and has funded a play centre in memory of the boy. He also donated £25 million to Guy's Hospital in London.

Ralph Waller
Dr Waller was appointed principal of Harris Manchester College in 1988. Within two years, he established the college as a private hall of Oxford University and it was incorporated as a full Oxford college in 1996.

Dr Waller is a methodist minister and academic theologian. As well as being the principal of Harris Manchester, he is also director of the Farmington Institute for Christian Studies, which is a voluntary organisation that works to improve religious education.

THE HISTORY OF HARRIS MANCHESTER

1786
Founded as Manchester Academy in Manchester by English Presbyterians. It was one of the last of a long line of dissenting academies established after the Restoration to provide higher education for nonconformists, who were denied degrees from Oxford and Cambridge by religious tests

1889
After a number of moves the academy settled in Oxford

1988
Ralph Waller appointed principal

1990
The college was established as a private hall of Oxford University

1994
Lord Harris agreed to sponsor the college for £3 million over six years on the condition the process to enable it to become a full chartered Oxford college was started. This was done on condition that the college had in hand an endowment of £4 million

1996
A royal charter made it a full Oxford college

1998
Academics on the governing body took governance issues to the college visitor

1999
The visitor made rulings and called for an arbitrator to be brought in. The college decided not to do this. By the end of 1999, three of the concerned academics had left the college.

2000
Rules changed and the college became eligible to apply to the College Contributions Fund

2001-02
Harris Manchester allocated £300,000 from the fund

2002-03
Harris Manchester allocated £33,000 from the fund

2003
Harris Manchester asked Derek Wood QC to review resources, particularly for history, PPE and related subjects. The college decided to scrap history.

   

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