It's not just navel-gazing, the future is at stake

August 5, 2005

Oxford's governance debate reflects questions about the UK sector as a whole, write Ted Tapper and David Palfreyman

To many within the wider academic community it must seem that the furore surrounding the proposed governance reforms at Oxford University is another bout of over-publicised navel-gazing. But in this August lull it is worth taking a moment to consider their wider significance.

First we must dispense with the usual argument that Oxford's travails evolve out of a number of issues that are of great importance to the academic community at large. Really?

Under the leadership of John Hood, the recently appointed vice-chancellor, a range of changes in governance, the appraisal of academics and the library system have been proposed. While the problems may be common, the contextual variables are so radically different as to make comparisons with other universities at best superficial.

It is difficult to think of another British university with library resources as large, diverse and fragmented as those at Oxford. Moreover, while there may be a measure of shared values underlying systems of university governance, Oxford's allegiance to "donnish dominion" as expressed through its Congregation is second to none - with perhaps Cambridge's Regent House as its only serious competitor.

The vice-chancellor is striving to preserve Oxford's status as a world-class university, which, although secure at present, is supposedly at risk due largely to a lack of funds relative to those universities (mainly the US Ivy League) with which it wishes to be compared.

Rather than rubbishing the drive for league-table glory, the more significant response is to ask what understanding of the British system of higher education is implied by the vice-chancellor's vision for Oxford? How are those institutions at the top of "the pyramid of prestige", to relate to the rest of the system in the age of mass higher education?

We would like to present three options as system models to guide our thinking. First, Britain should attempt to construct a model that encourages world-class universities to thrive within the context of a mass system. In effect, there would be a diverse system of higher education with a wide variety of layers and a complex range of institutional missions. The key issues would be the extent to which values were shared across the system and the degree of institutional cross-fertilisation. Protagonists of this model often look to the US as the way forward with its pluralist tradition composed of a complexity of public-private inputs.

Second, the British model should be mass in its scope but explicitly non-elitist. Although there could be different institutional layers within the system, they would serve contrasting functions and would not form a status hierarchy. The Scandinavian countries, with commitments to publicly funded "open-access" models and relatively high standards across the board, probably come closest to this.

A third model is to accept institutional hierarchy but to recognise that elite national universities are not necessarily also world-class universities. It can be argued that this is the direction in which British higher education is moving. Our so-called world-class universities steadily decline (due mainly to a lack of resources) and become part of a much broader national elite layer with the overall model fragmenting into a range of hierarchical segments. Within this model, differentiation is complex and is defined in terms of departments, faculties or even the presence of particular individuals rather than by broad institutional labels.

What is unsurprising about the Oxford debate is the almost complete lack of contention as to the apparent purpose of the proposed reforms - that Oxford should seek to sustain itself as a world-class university. What is surprising is that there has been so little discussion as to what this means and whether it is a goal worth pursuing at any cost.

For better or worse, two traditional Oxford qualities have been the commitment to high-quality undergraduate teaching and college autonomy. If in order to sustain its reputation as a world-class university (however defined) these qualities need to be compromised, is the goal worth pursuing? Can Oxford continue to be a liberal arts high-intensity teaching institution, like Dartmouth or Vassar, embedded within a world-class research university such as Yale or Harvard? To answer these questions requires some thought about the future of Oxford in relation to the general development of British higher education.

Ted Tapper and David Palfreyman, Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, New College, Oxford. The authors are working on a book about elite universities as a sequel to their Understanding Mass Higher Education: Comparative Perspectives on Access (RoutledgeFalmer, 2005).

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