Oxford college in survival fight

September 26, 2003

Oxford's newest college has become mired in financial controversy with a question mark hanging over the size of its endowment and even its name.

Serious questions have been raised about the college's financial viability and the principal stands accused of ongoing management failings.

A THES investigation has revealed that Harris Manchester, a college that takes mature students from state schools, faces long-standing financial and governance problems. There is serious confusion over the college's relationship with its principal benefactor, carpet millionaire Lord Harris of Peckham. Minutes of a governing body meeting describe the relationship as "blurred and unravelled".

A key funding committee of the university, the College Contributions Fund, has questioned the long-term financial viability of the college. It has reduced its grant from £300,000 last year to £33,000 in 2002-03. It said that Harris Manchester's viability as an independent college was in doubt unless it made fundamental changes to its structure and endowment.

Harris Manchester is the only Oxford college that caters exclusively for mature students - unlike Cambridge, which has four - and is seen as a key part of the drive to widen access at the university.

The college faces two ongoing problems. First, it would appear that it is in breach of the conditions under which it became a college of the university. Second, in 1999 the college ignored a strong recommendation from the visitor - an outside person brought in when serious matters of governance are raised - to bring in an arbitrator, particularly to settle concerns about payments made by the principal, Ralph Waller, apparently without reference to the governing body. The visitor made it clear to the college that the recommendation was supported by Oxford vice-chancellor Sir Colin Lucas.

In 1994, the university announced that Manchester College, which had a long tradition of training Unitarians for the ministry, could begin the lengthy process of becoming a formal college of the university. Its distinctive mission was to teach mature students.

It had to have an endowment of £4 million. At that time, the college had an endowment of just £900,000, but it had secured a pledge from Lord Harris that he would give the college £3 million to be paid in installments of £500,000 over six years. On the condition that this money would be paid and that the college would have an endowment of £4 million, Harris Manchester became a full Oxford college in 1996.

That condition has not been met. Although Lord Harris insisted that he had given the £3 million as promised, the endowment is nowhere near £4 million. Lord Harris said that there was definitely £1.97 million in the trust fund. Dr Waller said that this was not the correct figure for the endowment, but would not disclose the official total.

Lord Harris said: "They have had their £3 million: It has not been £500,000 a year. But it has been given in different chunks - we did the library, we did the kitchens..." He said that he saw no need to give more. "People haven't got an endless pit."

According to Lord Harris, there was a clear understanding initially that the college would become Harris College.

Dr Waller said that the college was grateful to the Harris family for their "continuing support". He said the family had "increased the college's endowment" as well as funding building works and research activities.

In 1998, five members of the governing body clashed with Dr Waller and brought a number of serious governance concerns to the college's visitor, Professor Sir Tony Wrigley In February 1999, Professor Wrigley, then master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, concluded: "I cannot stress too strongly the importance of reaching agreement on disputed issues if the college is to fulfil its potential. This is likely to be best achieved by both parties agreeing in advance to accept the findings of an arbitrator. His or her findings are unlikely to be entirely welcome to either party. There may be no 'winner' but there will certainly be two losers if the present breach remains unhealed."

The arbitrator was not called. in, but Dr Waller said: "We are absolutely satisfied that the governing body has always taken decisions and acted with the utmost probity."

Full story, pages 8-9

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