Market forces threaten Oxford's college system

May 12, 2000

Oxford University could become like any other civic university, distinguished only by its expensive listed buildings and with college wardens as "academic concierges", a new book argues.

David Palfreyman, bursar and fellow of New College, Oxford, and Ted Tapper, professor of politics at the University of Sussex, warn that the benefits of the collegiate system could be lost under the pressures of centralisation and the research assessment exercise.

They argue in Oxford and the Decline of the Collegiate Tradition, to be published by Woburn Press in September, that college autonomy is one of the great strengths of Oxford and Cambridge universities but that it is under threat from the three Ms - marketisation, massification and managerialism.

While they concede that the quest for the kind of efficiency expected in the private sector could be helpful for the university, they stress that Oxford is about much more.

"Research is departmental and in some cases involves big sums of money and where does college teaching fit into that?" said Mr Palfreyman. "Oxford's strength is not only its research but also its teaching role."

The book asks whether the collegiate system is becoming "increasingly a mere slogan, an idea to which nearly all - including commissions of inquiry - remain formally committed but which in reality has no substantive shape or impact".

The authors based the book on interviews with about 50 people, who have particular knowledge of Oxford university, asking them for their views on the collegiate system.

It is not the first time that Mr Palfreyman has spoken out against taking power from the colleges. Only last December he warned that centralisation ran the risk of turning Oxford into a "big, boring, bland oil-tanker".

The book concludes that it should be possible to avoid this but it also forecasts a model of differential fees - including differential college fees - increasing fragmentation of the academic profession and a growing role for the market in funding higher education, combined with more accountability to the state. It states: "The dominion of the dons is indeed diminishing."

In the worst-case scenario, Mr Palfreyman warns: "There is the possibility that we may need to say: 'Will the last one out please give the keys to Disney' and they will take over the buildings while we operate from cyberspace."

Grand plans: pianos were delivered to the Royal Academy of Music's newest premises. The restored building at York Gate, London, was bought with a Heritage Lottery Fund grant. It has state-of-the-art rehearsal studios

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