Dons revolt against Oxford’s new ‘university-run’ college

Plans for Park College seen as a power grab by central management

February 26, 2019
Oxford college

Academics have criticised plans for the University of Oxford’s new graduate college, which they say is a push from central management to diminish the collegiate system.

Earlier this month, the university announced that the college, which has been given the temporary name Parks College, would have an initial intake of 50 graduate students in 2020, growing to 200 by 2022.

However, critics have pointed out it will not be an official “college” and hence not an autonomous legal entity, but will in fact be a department of the university. This means that the university would make the new college’s domestic legislation, not its members.

Oxford, like the University of Cambridge and Durham University, operates a collegiate system that is fiercely protected, and past attempts to centralise functions at Oxford have proved unpopular.

The planned location, the Radcliffe Science Library, part of the Bodleian Libraries, is another point of contention. According to Oxford, the college and the science library will be integrated and users of both “may make optimal use of [the site] at different times of the day on different days of the week”.

Peter Edwards, professor of inorganic chemistry at Oxford, said he and colleagues were “surprised” to learn that “a laboratory necessary for training the next generation of synthesis scientists is now earmarked for a college dining hall, functioning as a science area interdisciplinary hub mainly at lunchtime and in the late afternoon or early evening”.

An article in Oxford Magazine says that one interpretation “is that the creation of the new college is a part of a drive by the centre to take over the collegiate system according to its own model of direct administrative control”. When the central administration operates “to subvert the collegiate structure of the university and diminish the university’s prized Bodleian Library, something is going seriously awry”, it says.

Also writing in Oxford Magazine, Peter Oppenheimer, an economist and fellow of Christ Church, Oxford, points out that staff working at what would in effect be a university “society” would be employees of the central university. This facilitates “increased uniformity and centralisation in the operation, and the culture, of the university. Academic autonomy is narrowed...The more ‘societies’ proliferate, the greater the threat,” he writes.

Parks College would become the third such society at Oxford, alongside St Cross College and Kellogg College.

One academic told Times Higher Education that they were “concerned about the patronising and self-important attitudes of the superfluous senior administrators, notably pro vice-chancellors, who nowadays think they run the place”.

According to Gill Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge, the new entity will need the congregation’s approval but “first it needs to be a great deal clearer what it is actually going to be. The hurry to rush it into existence…surely requires great clarity about the nature of the entity into which they are to come?”

An Oxford spokesman said the college “will promote cross-disciplinary interaction, offering workshops, seminars, reading groups and lectures to stimulate new thinking”, as well as integrating “the redevelopment of the Radcliffe Science Library, offering a fresh, 21st century service which includes access to scientific information of all kinds and support from specialist science library staff who will be an integral part of the college’s research culture”.

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Reader's comments (2)

The Radcliffe Science Library is part of the Bodleian Libraries, not the Bodleian Library. See
“concerned about the patronising and self-important attitudes of the superfluous senior administrators, notably pro vice-chancellors, who nowadays think they run the place”. Welcome to the reality of us academics outside the Oxbridge bubble...(but good on them and I hope they prevail and manage to stem the managerial tide).