Balliol head shifts to praise reforms

October 20, 2006

The battle to reform governance at Oxford University intensified this week as a college head and former critic of the reforms sent a ringing endorsement in a letter circulated to fellow heads.

Andrew Graham, master of Balliol College and a member of the university council, describes the revised reforms set out in a white paper this year as a "sophisticated and intelligent package". He acknowledges that he regarded the first set of proposals as "seriously misconceived".

The reforms will be debated and voted on in Congregation, the parliament of dons, in mid-November.

The letter will be seen as a big boost to John Hood, the vice-chancellor, who has been struggling to introduce reforms. In his annual oration this term, Dr Hood said the governance reforms would improve accountability and transparency and he explicitly linked them to better funding prospects.

In his letter, Dr Graham, who supports the proposals for a new council with a majority of external members and a separate academic board, rounds on opponents' conduct in the debate.

He says: "Almost all the critics discuss lay (external) members as if they were an alien force, thrust upon us by an unwelcome regulator and driven by motives that are somehow antipathetic to those of the university. Why should this be so? Every one of the lay members will be chosen by us."

Later in the letter, he says: "I understand the temptation to respond to what seems like external pressure by putting two fingers in the air."

But, he adds: "However, speaking as someone in the trenches trying to improve our finances, and thinking about the realpolitik of such a response (and there is a real danger that this is how our behaviour might be interpreted), I find it hard to see the merit of shooting ourselves in the foot."

Nick Bamforth, a law lecturer who was elected to Oxford's governing council by a significant majority last summer, has vowed to vote against the reforms.

In response to a new statute to enact the reforms, published by the university earlier this term, Mr Bamforth said: "It will see far too much unchecked power concentrated in the hands of the university executive. For this reason, I will be proposing that academics reject the entire statute."

Alan Ryan, warden of New College, said: "The key issue for many academics is the proposal to have a majority of external members on the new council. I expect that there will be amendments on that." But he added: "I doubt if a motion to reject the entire statute will be successful."

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