Oxbridge's old dogs learn new tricks

January 11, 2002

Revamped systems of governance are the result of a rude awakening for two traditional rivals. Claire Sanders and Phil Baty report

Oxford University believes it has the edge on Cambridge University when it comes to governance. As the Capsa fiasco at Cambridge attracts headlines, Oxford has quietly undergone the most significant change in its governance in 35 years. It has been a year since the new streamlined and devolved system hit the spires, and vice-chancellor Colin Lucas is optimistic. "One of the main benefits of the new structure is rather intangible. I would describe it as a great release of energy, as power has devolved down and academics have focused their minds on what really needs changing," he said.

It is crucial for both universities to prove to the government that they are well governed if they are to fight for funding in the current climate. They face two threats. First, the Cabinet Office's Performance and Innovation Unit will report this year on the legal and regulatory framework for charities. Already there are reports that this could mean Oxbridge colleges lose their charitable status and tax exemptions amid criticisms that the colleges' accounting systems are unclear.

But a spokesman for the PIU said: "This is not an attempt to change the status of colleges and independent schools, but a far wider look at the 100-year-old laws governing charities."

Second, as the Higher Education Funding Council for England struggles to provide the cash for the outcome of the research assessment exercise, both universities have to ensure that their research is properly funded if they are to compete globally.


Oxford is keen to trumpet its new governance structure. The system, first outlined in the North report in 1997, has been implemented at a time of cuts in the university's core recurrent public funding. Oxford has a planned deficit of £1.6 million this year. Along with Cambridge, it is facing the loss of the college fee. This is a loss of £650,000 a year for each university until 2008. The loss is shared by the colleges and the university.

As power has devolved to five new academic divisions and their departments, so have budgets - and so have the decisions about what to cut. The university has ensured that the maximum loss borne by any division is no more than 2 per cent, but this still leaves many with hard choices. The university has brought in a new resource allocation method, unaffectionately called the RAM.

David Holmes, who started at Oxford as registrar in 1998, is the man credited with seeing through many of the reforms. "The RAM is a form of accounting that forces the new divisions and their departments to really assess the cost of a particular course or new centre," Mr Holmes said.

"Divisions have to pay an infrastructure charge to the centre, as well as a space charge. The budgets for staffing are also in their hands. So, clearly, the incentive is there for them to balance the books, in particular by bringing in research money that includes overheads," he added.

This is a key problem for Oxford. In his 2001 Oration, Dr Lucas said: "For any large research-intensive university, its own success has a perverse financial effect. Research councils do not pay adequate overheads, charitable funding pays none, and Hefce's QR (bulk of research funding) has not kept pace with costs." Charity funding accounts for 35 per cent of research income at Oxford.

Mike Sibly, head of planning and resource allocation, said: "Many academics are blaming the cuts on the new governance system and the RAM, saying that they must be more expensive to administer. That is absolutely not the case. The point is that divisions and departments are now having to make the decisions about where the cuts bite."

As the new systems came into place, divisional heads were explicitly told not to make redundancies. But the university introduced an early retirement scheme called Omis in 2001 to reduce staff costs.

Donald Hay, head of the social sciences division, said: "The new system has definitely brought better decision-making processes to the university. And through the RAM, there is now far greater transparency in our accounting procedures."

The Oxford Internet Institute falls in Mr Hay's division. It is cited throughout the university, along with the Princeton partnership and the £2 million bursary scheme, as an example of an initiative that went from idea to institute within a year. "That just could not have happened under the old system," Mr Hay said.

And he is clear that under the new system, those with the right knowledge make the right decisions. "My divisional board understands the Economic and Social Research Council inside out and knows which research applications will fly," he said.

His division can also get new courses - crucially income-producing ones - up and running far more quickly. "Now we can do it in three months, whereas before it would have taken a year," he said.

But where Mr Hay foresees real changes is over salaries. "To be blunt, we are not matching other university salaries," he said. "For our lawyers and economists especially, this is a severe problem. Not only that, they have far too many duties, and what I want to see is a change in duties."

Mr Hay aims to cut the teaching load of certain academics. But here, a crack appears in the system. "Any policy change that has a bearing on other members of the university has to come back through the university council. Changing duties would be one such change," Dr Lucas said.

Peter Newell, head of the life and environmental science division, is enthusiastic about the new system. "I was on the general board for nine years and it was too big and remote to take decisions," he said. His division is the only one to bring sciences and arts together, with departments ranging from biochemistry to cultural anthropology.

"My divisional board is very cohesive. I have insisted that each head of department actually goes and walks around all the other departments. We have to understand each other properly," he said. "This is something the general board just could not do."

He said that large departments must not be allowed to subdue small ones. "I use my authority to make sure that quick decisions don't crush the vulnerable," he said. But the "sizeable" drop in income handed down to the division, of about 6 per cent, means that all departments are facing cuts. "This has led some to associate hardship with the divisional structure, but that is not the case," he said.

But the new division has still been able to set up new projects. "We have just set up the Peter Medawar building for pathogen research," Professor Newell said. "This brings together a multidisciplinary consortium, allowing immunologists to work alongside those studying pathogen diversity. It is so exciting to discuss an initiative like this and just be able to go ahead and do it."

But he said that interacting with 39 colleges was still "not easy". "The Conference of Colleges may agree something, but it has no binding power on an individual college," he said. "So changes a department may want to make in teaching, perhaps a move to more specialist teaching, have to be negotiated fresh with each college concerned."

Alan Ryan is warden of New College and was chairman of the Conference of Colleges at the time of implementing the North report.

"As I was leading for the college side, I will have to go into exile if it doesn't work for the colleges," he said. "I believe the RAM and the new governance structure will enable departments to draw up five-year plans that can be shared with colleges. This makes the whole system more cohesive. The RAM forces departments to face financial reality and that is good."


Cambridge dons fear that their tradition of academic self-rule is under threat, as vice-chancellor Sir Alec Broers promises sweeping management reforms.

He is determined to restructure the university's 800-year-old system of governance, a determination strengthened late last year by the findings of independent reports into the implementation of the new accounting system, Capsa.

The report by former Warwick University registrar Michael Shattock into the fiasco says the university suffers from "a culture of amateurism", with "tortuous decision-making" through a network of academic-led committees. He says administrative staff are under-resourced, and have failed to gain the trust or respect of the academics who traditionally lead the university.

Sir Alec has been clear about his goals. In his annual speech to dons in October, he cited an 1891 attack on the university's systems. Former chancellor Arthur Balfour said the university suffered from an "abominable system of managing everything through syndicates and committees - ingenious contrivances for making the work of ten wise men as if it were inferior to the work of one fool".

Professor Shattock's report into the Capsa affair says the disaster is indicative of a failure of the whole system of governance. Sir Alec is frustrated that legislative acts by the council can be blocked by a ballot of the Regent House, which can be called with just ten members' signatures. This often causes months of delay. He is also concerned that the committee system can blur lines of responsibility.

Malcolm Grant, pro vice-chancellor at Cambridge, who is spearheading the reform, said Cambridge was heading for a welcome and revitalising breath of fresh air.

Professor Grant said: "We need to review all our committee structures. The work of the Standing Committee on Governance is now at an advanced stage. It will shortly be bringing forward far-reaching proposals for reform. If approved by the council and general board, a consultation paper will be published in February. It will review the functions of the vice-chancellor and pro vice-chancellors, the constitution and roles of the central governing bodies, their committees, and the chairs of the schools. It will also address the role and composition of the Regent House.

"We need a system that meets our own stringent internal criteria, that finds support within our own community, and which meets the requirements of Hefce, the government and other stakeholders, including research sponsors. There are a lot of people to satisfy and this is what we are now putting our energies into. We believe that much can be achieved without major structural changes, and we are already making rapid progress on this front."

But dons fear that reforms could go too far. Professor Shattock said the university had to "find a way to retain its all-important tradition of academic self-government while preventing it from lapsing into cosiness".

Last year, Anthony Edwards, a Cambridge don and an expert on the university's constitution, warned that Cambridge was being run by an "amalgam of administrative officers, teaching officers and heads of house that has steadily eroded the constitution". He said the decline of the constitution rested "on the illusion that democracy is a dispensable luxury". In a Senate House discussion last month, he warned against new moves that may further erode democracy.

In the same discussion, Stephen Cowley, a member of the university's in-house watchdog, the board of scrutiny, said Capsa was not a result of the governance structures per se, but of their poor implementation. He suggested that the government, keen to get the most efficient return from its public investment in elite universities, may be leading a behind-the-scenes push to modernise Cambridge at the expense of its democracy.

"Such forces should be resisted, particularly when our democratic structures, when correctly implemented, do not cause inefficiency and when they are an important buttress of accountability," he said.

Oxford's new system of governance

Under the new system, Congregation, which has more than 3,600 members, remains the body with final responsibility for legislative matters at the university (see table below).

But in practice, the principal policy-making body of the university is now the university council, which has taken over the work of the Hebdomadal Council and the general board.

There are three new executive pro vice-chancellorial posts coveringplanning and academic resources, academic matters, and academic services and university collections.

Day-to-day responsibility for planning and finance has been delegated to five new academic divisions, each containing a number of departments.

These divisions cover medical sciences, mathematics and physical sciences, life and environmental sciences, social sciences and humanities.

The university's lifelong learning programme remains under the department for continuing education.

The new system also has to interact with the colleges. The Conference of Colleges has made parallel changes to its own structure, creating a number of new committees that deal with university ones.

The colleges are also in the process of reforming their accounts to bring them more in line with university accounts.

How decisions are made at Cambridge

Cambridge is run ultimately by its community of about 3,000 scholars, the Regent House.

Regent House has control over the activities of the council, the principal executive and policy-making body.

The council, chaired by the vice-chancellor, is made up of 16 elected members drawn from all areas of the academic staff and three students.

Numerous academic-led standing committees report to the council. These include a finance committee, a committee on student affairs and, notoriously, a committee on committees.

A non-elected general board of the faculties advises on educational policy and has effective control of resources for its implementation.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments