Dons resist North legacy

December 4, 1998

Oxford dons are resisting moves to erode the traditional autonomy of the university's colleges through increased centralisation.

Oxford's Congregation debated proposals this week to reform and modernise the university's governance, following former vice-chancellor Peter North's commission of inquiry into the university.

North's planned reforms, although recognising the strengths of the collegiate system, were widely perceived by the colleges as being too centralist. His proposals for modernisation included a 25-member council as an overarching executive and policy-making body, underpinned by three deputy vice-chancellors, and a vice-chancellor who could be appointed from outside the university for the first time, and who would benefit from a longer tenure than the prescribed four years.

Modernisers believe the medieval democratic structures - in which the entire academic community, Congregation, is the ultimate governing authority - are too slow and inefficient to ensure institution-wide research excellence.

But some academics fear that the North report, combined with government plans to distribute Oxbridge college fees through the central administration, could erode local power and turn the colleges into mere halls of residence.

Vernon Bogdanor, a professor of government at Brasenose College, said that some of North's proposals were too centralist. "The North report appears to support the position of the colleges on the surface, but some of the proposals are very centralist. The powers of the colleges and Congregation may be weakened."

North's agenda has already been significantly softened by a working party on the future of the university's governance. The joint working party on governance report, debated in Congregation this week, has made "revisions" to North's plans, "taking account of the range of interests in the wider university, and most notably the interests of the colleges", said the report.

The working party did, however, endorse North's findings that the university's medieval democratic governance structure has "shortcomings", with inefficient processes, and "opaque" decision-making structures. The working party's reforms seek to "develop a sense of local responsibility".

The working party "is quite clear", said its report, "that Congregation (of the entire academic community) must remain the university's ultimate sovereign body".

Key to the working party's changes is the explicit recognition of the colleges' role in all new decision-making bodies, "with provision for the concerns of colleges to be fully considered at every level in the university's decision-making process".

The working party's report has already been submitted to the council and the general board. Full proposals are expected to be put to Congregation in the spring.

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