Cambridge faces vote on governance reforms

March 6, 2008

University of Cambridge academics are voting this week on controversial plans to double the number of outsiders on the institution's governing body.

Critics say the proposal to have four external members on Cambridge's council rather than two will erode the ancient university's tradition of academic self-governance.

If the changes are approved, grassroots academics will no longer elect a majority of the members of council. Currently, dons elect 12 out of 22 members, but the proposed changes would leave them electing 12 out of 24, with the vice-chancellor holding the casting vote.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has been pushing the University of Oxford and Cambridge to reform governance. Oxford's academics voted last year against allowing the university to be run by a governing council with a majority of external members.

While the Cambridge plans are less radical than Oxford's failed reforms, academics fear the move would lead to more significant changes in future.

Ross Anderson, a member of the governing council and a professor of security engineering, said a failure to stick up for the principle of academic self-governance could mean that in future, "colleges as well as the university itself will have to fill their governing bodies with worthies".

He said there was a danger that academics could "wake up and find that the council consists of Lord Portillo, Lord Blair and Lord Hague".

The professor wrote to John Denham, the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, to ask if Hefce would cut funds to the university if it failed to appoint more external governors. Mr Denham responded that the Government did not "proscribe (sic) which model any institution should adopt" and that Cambridge would "be free to decide for itself how to resolve the issues".

Some academics have complained that senior officers have been instructing people to support the reforms. Times Higher Education has seen an e-mail forwarded to the head of the physics department, which says: "The vice-chancellor ... would be very grateful if you encouraged colleagues to vote as advised."

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