Defeated v-c will be called to Commons

December 22, 2006

Education committee will focus on governance of elite, write Jessica Shepherd and Jamie Munk

The way Oxford, Cambridge and the UK's other top universities are run will be a key element of the Education and Skills Select Committee's review of higher education next year, The Times Higher can reveal.

Barry Sheerman, chairman of the committee, said he would call John Hood, vice-chancellor of Oxford University, to give evidence to the committee early next year. Dr Hood this week lost his epic battle to push through controversial reforms that would have ended Oxford's 800-year-old tradition of academic self-governance.

In a postal vote, 1,540 members of Congregation - the dons' parliament - voted against the reforms. Some 997 voted in favour.

The result was described by Robin Briggs, a senior research fellow at All Souls College, as an "embarrassment" for Dr Hood, who told reporters he would "continue to work unstintingly as the servant" of the university.

The vice-chancellor had proposed to reform the University Council, the executive body of the institution. He planned to replace its 25 members, four of whom are outsiders, with seven external and seven internal members, plus the chancellor as chairman.

The defeat appears to have stalled a process of modernisation at Oxford, closely watched by observers at Cambridge, that was urged as early as 2003 by the Treasury-backed Lambert review of university-business links.

Sir Richard Lambert found that while Oxford and Cambridge had taken steps to modernise the way they ran themselves "both have more to do". The review said: "The future success of the two universities will best be achieved by change that is initiated and led from within."

Mr Sheerman, who hopes to meet Dr Hood early next year, said: "We will certainly be taking evidence from Oxford to see what the implications of this might be for higher education. Many people believe that it is time for Oxford to be modernised."

The Treasury declined to comment. But a source close to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which also urged Oxford to reform, said: "Politically, the repercussions of this result could be serious.

Gordon Brown has always been concerned about the governance of Oxford and Cambridge."

Bill Rammell, Higher Education Minister, made it clear he expected to see attempts at further modernisation. "I welcome John Hood's continued commitment to change and good governance and we remain committed to supporting high standards of corporate governance in the whole higher education sector," he said.

After the result was announced, Dr Hood said: "I believed (these proposals) would serve the best interests of the university. However, members of Congregation have taken a different view. That view deserves to be respected."

Susan Cooper, a member of the University Council who campaigned against the reforms, said: "This is not a vote against change, but a vote against the wrong kind of change."

Alan Ryan, warden of New College, said he hoped change could happen, but only by "working with the grain of the institution".

"The big issue is the same as at Cambridge, University College London and Imperial College London: getting the right financial management to stop finding yourself absolutely broke," he said.

Andrew Dilnot, pro vice-chancellor of Oxford and a supporter of the reforms, said: "There is a pretty reasonable spirit around the university that says we have to move forward. Nobody is walking around depressed or triumphant. This is not going to delay the modernisation process."


  • "We all need a chance to reflect on the arguments run and the rejection of the proposals." John Hood, vice-chancellor
  • "The attention needs to turn to the committees of Council working properly, such as strengthening the finance committee." Susan Cooper, professor of physics
  • "A number of positive ideas about democratic university government have come out of this debate and I hope we can work together to promote them."
  • Nicholas Bamforth, law lecturer
  • "Nobody thinks that... we should leave governance as it is." Andrew Dilnot, pro vice-chancellor.

November 2002 : In his Pre-Budget Report, Chancellor Gordon Brown announces the Lambert review, which will include an examination of Oxbridge governance

January 2003 : Cambridge academics reject proposals for management reforms of their university as Mr Brown hints that more resources will come only in exchange for such reforms

March 2003 : Further attempts by Cambridge to put management reforms back on track end in deadlock

July 2003 : Preliminary findings of the Lambert review echo the Chancellor's calls for Oxbridge governance reforms

November 2003 : Cambridge academics vote in favour of allowing two external members on the university's council

December 2003 : Final report of Lambert review urges Oxford and Cambridge to do more to modernise the way they are run

July 2004 : Quality Assurance Agency audit report says Oxford has improved the way that itis managed

October 2004 : John Hood appointed vice-chancellor of Oxford

Autumn 2004 : Oxford sets up a working party to discuss governance changes

February 2005 : The first Oxford green paper on governance is issued

Sept 2005 : A revised version of the green paper on governance is published after widespread consultation

June 2006 : A white paper on governance is issued proposing that the governing council be dominated by external members

November 2006 : Congregation of dons debates plans, which are rejected by 730 votes to 456

December 2006 : Hood's reforms are firmly rejected by 1,540 votes to 997 in a postal ballot


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