Oxbridge rows over modernisation

January 22, 1999

Modernising drives by Oxford and Cambridge universities have run into trouble.

Proposals for a new "streamlined and transparent" management structure at Oxford University have been broadly welcomed by dons, but faction fighting has erupted over four new "super faculties".

Introducing a congregation debate on the proposed reforms, Oxford University vice-chancellor Colin Lucas said that his joint working party on governance had accepted criticisms of the system raised by Peter North's commission of inquiry into the university.

"The working party believes that a system of governance which has long served the university does now in fact restrain local responsibility and accountability, that it lengthens decision making lines and encourages micro-management at the centre," said Professor Lucas.

The working party has therefore accepted the North recommendation to set up a 25-member council as a single executive body under the democratic congregation of all academics, which will remain the "sovereign body".

But the working party, he said, has "departed significantly" from North's plan to scrap the general board of the faculties, and to rationalise the 17 faculty boards into three large academic divisions, or "super faculties".

The working party recommends four faculties: biological and medical sciences; mathematical and physical sciences; humanities; and social sciences.

But there is no consensus. Roger Ainsworth, senior proctor of St Catherine's College, said that "everyone can find something wrong with their proposed partner". He said some science disciplines wanted further devolution, and some small arts disciplines were worried about "being stranded on a desert island".

Anthony Nicholls, of St Anthony's College, said that splitting social sciences and humanities would create "underfunding and financial rivalry".

Professor Lucas recognised the "inevitable" concerns over the divisions and stressed that the plans were subject to consultation.

At Cambridge University, defiant dons are preparing a series of attacks on the university's unelected administrative officers and will condemn a perceived erosion of the democratic power of the academic community.

The Wass report at Cambridge, implemented more than a decade ago, was supposed to have brought about the sort of constitutional reforms Oxford is now contemplating. Dons this week accused it of having largely failed.

David Dunville, a professor of English, was due to tell the senate this week that Cambridge's governing council of elected academics had become merely a "handmaiden" for unelected administrative officers. The council was losing the confidence of the academic community, he warned.

Professor Dunville's comments follow those of Antony Edwards, a constitutional expert at Cambridge, who drafted the "memorial" in the 1980s which led to the Wass report. Professor Edwards has warned that the university had "substituted unstatutory managerialism for the proper government of the university". He was out of the country during the debate this week.

In its annual report, debated in senate today and next week, the Cambridge council said it had "noted a number of constitutional questions raised by members of the Regent House" (the community of Cambridge academics). The council said it would review the issues.

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