Oxford inquiry promises sparks

November 4, 1994

Members of Oxford University's new commission of inquiry have begun their deliberations on the internal and external workings of England's oldest seat of learning with instructions to "be prepared to think the unthinkable".

Peter North, vice chancellor and chairman of the eight-member commission, is clear that nothing should be ruled off-limits in the biggest review of his university's academic and decision-making structure and its place in the higher education sector at home and abroad since the Franks report 30 years ago.

He will be seeking the views of all interested parties -- from academics to Government officials and from employers to students -- on issues to be set out in a "framework document" in the New Year.

Dr North said that it was important that the agenda was not "shuttered by the eight minds of the members of the commission", and so consultees will also be invited to suggest additional areas worthy of investigation or contest the significance of those already listed.

That could lead the commission to address some controversial questions, Dr North added.

"There may be some questions asked of a radical nature, and you may fairly quickly answer them and say you do not want to go down that route. But I think we owe it to the ultimate readers of our final report to tell them what we think about such issues," he said.

That report is unlikely to be completed before the end of 1996, with decisions on its recommendations expected to follow in the 1997/98 academic year. In the meantime, a full consultative paper will be assembled.

The university may even buy in advice on some of the bigger and more complex areas that the commission will need to tackle, such as the efficiency of its decision-making and the financial structures ruling the institution.

Management consultants may be invited to unravel the growing burden of administration which is hampering the work of university staff -- one of the problems which prompted Dr North to call for the commission to be set up.

With characteristic caution, Dr North adds: "We have to do this with the balanced view that what you get from organisations like this is an unbiased, unbaggage-laden view of what you are doing. That may be as useful as any conclusions they draw."

Other issues to be floated include the university's role nationally and internationally; the organisation of teaching and research; links with government; the size of the university; and the balance between public and private funding.

The latter may produce a lively debate, since Oxford commands perhaps the biggest private purse in the sector and claims the lowest proportion of income in direct public funds. Whether it will lead to calls for greater independence from an increasingly prescriptive state-led funding regime, Dr North is less certain.

While he sees independence as an issue "in the broadest sense", achieving it would be difficult, if not impossible in the circumstances. Nevertheless he is sure the issues covered by the review will interest other institutions.

"We may come to the conclusion that there ought to be a particular balance between teaching and research in a major university. That could influence other universities or Government thinking on what the split ought to be in other institutions," he said.

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