Democracy and the Teddy Hall affair

June 26, 1998

The departure of Sir Stephen Tumim from St Edmund Hall (THES, June 19) is being used to launch a number of half-truths and misrepresentations. The fact is that Oxford's and Cambridge's continued international pre-eminence is - to a large part - down to their distinctive collegiate system.

Let me deal with three key points: Oxford colleges are certainly self-perpetuating and proud of it. But they are more often accused of having too much democracy rather than being "oligarchical"; with decisions arrived at carefully, through consensus. It is fatuous to suggest that they are "impossible to govern", as they clearly have delivered, and continue to deliver, outstanding results.

Second, they have made, and continue to make, enormous efforts on "access" (here taken as the admissions breakdown between state and public school sectors), as has been documented in your pages. The colleges have recently abolished the special entrance examination; they interview, often twice, almost all United Kingdom entrants; students regularly visit state schools; and the university's summer school for state school pupils has doubled up to include 120 students this year. This is very far from "a shameful record", as the secretary of state has accepted.

Finally, comparing the Oxbridge collegiate system to relations between the IRA and Sinn Fein is offensive as well as otiose. The model is, in fact, more like that of the United States, with the university as federal government, colleges as independent states, and dons having two entirely compatible, though distinct, allegiances, to a "local" institution, and also to a department or faculty.

Colin Lucas, Vice-chancellor University of Oxford

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