Dons warily vote to reform

November 17, 2006

Oxford dons queued in their hundreds in the rain this week to vote on one of the biggest changes in the university's 900-year history.

In a packed Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford's Congregation - its parliament of dons - came one step closer to handing over control of the university to outsiders. But, crucially, they stopped short of endorsing fully the reforms proposed by vice-chancellor John Hood.

Instead, they voted for a compromise amendment put forward by supporters of Dr Hood, which will allow Congregation to re-impose a majority of internal members on the new streamlined university council in five years time.

In a civilised but tense debate in which opponents of the governance reforms drew loud applause, it was a letter from the Higher Education Funding Council for England that stole the show.

The letter, sent by Hefce chief executive David Eastwood to Alan Ryan, warden of New College and a vocal opponent of the reforms, was also copied to the university council. It made it abundantly clear that Hefce was pushing strongly for reform.

The letter says: "In our view, it is difficult to see how the standards for good governance can be met by any higher education institution without that body having an external majority on its executive governing body."

The Hefce letter says it would have made a "strong recommendation (albeit one that we cannot mandate)" that the university change its governance structure, but the council refrained from doing so because the proposals were already on the table.

In the face of the letter and rumours that Chancellor Gordon Brown is pushing for reform and has developed a strong relationship with Dr Hood, academics wavered. Instead of following the advice of Oxford rebels and throwing out the compromise amendment, the academics voted by 652 to 507 to in favour of it.

Supporters of the reforms said they were delighted.

Andrew Dilnot, principal of St Hugh's and a member of the university council, described the amendment as a compromise that would allow "peace to break out".

Dismissing suggestions that it was a defeat for Dr Hood, who will now be forced to amend his proposals, David Wormsley, a member of the governance working party, said: "This is a body blow for opponents of the reforms who urged Congregation to vote down the amendment."

Opponents of the reforms kept a low profile after the vote and disappeared into the rain.

The amended legislation is expected to go before Congregation on November 28, when academics will have a chance to vote on it once again.

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