Oxford set to vote on ending self-governance

November 9, 2006

It is make or break time in the bid to reform the ancient university, and the outcome could also affect life at Cambridge. Claire Sanders reports.

The bitter battle over the future of Oxford University will come to a head next week when academics vote on plans to end almost 900 years of self-governance.

If John Hood, the vice-chancellor, gets his reforms through Congregation on Tuesday, the university will see external or lay members in a majority on its council for the first time.

Success for the reforms will immediately raise questions about the future of governance at Cambridge University, which has just two externals on its council - and no plans to reform.

A failure to push them through will raise questions about the future of Dr Hood.

By the beginning of this week, the university had received six amendments to the reforming statute, published this term. But the vice-chancellor, in consultation with the university proctors whose role it is to ensure that the university operates according to its statutes, has the right to reject amendments deemed "inconsistent with or irrelevant to the principal of the proposal". As a result of these deliberations, just four amendments are going forward to Congregation.

Two key rebel amendments, which would have put internals back in control of the council and made the council subservient to the academic board, have been rejected. But an amendment allowing a slight rebalancing of council in favour of internals in five years' time has been allowed.

It is understood that opponents of the reforms are now considering whether to withdraw all their amendments. This would mean that the vote next Tuesday would be more likely to be a simple yes or no decision on the original proposals. This is a high-risk strategy for both sides, reducing the opportunity to compromise.

A letter published in the Oxford Magazine last week and signed by 40 Cambridge academics, including a former college head and former chairman of the university's board of scrutiny, warns: "If Oxford gets a council dominated by external members, it will be significantly more difficult to resist the same in Cambridge. In this sense, the Oxford electors may be deciding for Cambridge as well as Oxford."

Emerging as a key issue is whether either university really needs to reform. Oxford took the unusual step of publishing an extract from a Higher Education Funding Council for England report on the university in its white paper on governance earlier this year.

In it, Hefce states: "The present governance arrangements still differ markedly from the sector norm (in part, because the university is self-governing), or (from) that which Hefce would consider good practice."

It goes on to say that the reforms will end the anomalies and will conform to good practice. It does not say what action it will take if the reforms are rejected.

A Hefce spokesman said this week: "It is not our practice to force change in these areas. We prefer to work alongside universities."

Susan Cooper, professor of physics and an opponent of the reforms who has been elected to Oxford's council, said: "My understanding of the Hefce position is comply - or explain. We should be explaining."

A spokesman for Cambridge said that it would be inappropriate for it to comment on Oxford governance, but added: "This university is on an entirely different cycle of governance compared with Oxford."

Oxford insisted this week that its reforms were driven primarily by is own internal governance priorities.

A spokesperson added: "But we do need to act with reference to the outside world and do seek to comply with best practice."

Oxford also maintains that it needs to change its governance as a result of forthcoming charities legislation, which makes Hefce, rather than the Charity Commission, principal regulator for universities.

Some academics fear that abandoning self-governance could spell the end of Congregation and Regent House - the two great democratic forums that make Oxbridge unique.

Oxford's reforming white paper makes it clear that Congregation is to be preserved and, if anything, strengthened.

But Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, noted that the powers vested in these forums did not comply with the Hefce best-practice model. "Is this intended as a thin end of the wedge so that it's a council today, no Congregation tomorrow?" he asked.

* Academics should take a more active role in the governance of their universities, a higher education expert said this week.

Michael Shattock, visiting professor at the Institute of Education, said that academics should take more responsibility for improving governance by, among other things, participating in faculty committees.

But the former registrar at Warwick University recognised that some university structures made it almost impossible for academics to get involved in the running of their institution.

He said: "If you look at the league tables, the universities at the top are those that encourage involvement from academics and collegiality. At the bottom are those where there is little chance for academics to participate in the running of the university."

Professor Shattock's book Managing Good Governance in Higher Education has just been published.

claire.sanders@thes.co.uk


WHAT COULD HAPPEN ON TUESDAY

John Hood's dream scenarios: Amendments go to Congregation, are debated and rejected. The original reforms are then voted on and passed. Expected to go to a postal vote.

John Hood's nightmare scenarios: Amendments go to Congregation, are debated and passed. The revised legislation is printed in the Gazette , allowing for further amendments. The legislation would then go back to Congregation and then to postal vote.

Or amendments are rejected, but so are the original reforms. There would then be a postal vote.

Then what?
By law, amendments to Oxford's statutes that effect major constitutional changes must be approved by the Privy Council. This could delay change until 2008.

WHO IS FOR AND WHO IS AGAINST?

For reforms

  • Colin Lucas, former vice-chancellor: "The examples from the US are encouraging - lay trustees do know what universities stand for and why they need supporting."
  • Andrew Graham, master of Balliol: "I find the new proposals a sophisticated and intelligent package."
  • Gillian Shephard, former Education Secretary: "A rejection would make it so much harder to do what we passionately want to do: help Oxford to thrive and prosper in the demanding world that beckons."
  • Peter Lampl, director of the Sutton Trust: "The white paper's proposals provide the sort of modern and dynamic structure that Lambert calls for, while ensuring academic values remain at the heart of the university."

Against

  • Donald Fraser, a new council member: "Congregation must have the courage to reject the proposals... (or it) risks undermining the energy, creativity and excellence in teaching and research."
  • Susan Cooper, a council member: "The structures we adopted in 2000 are more modern and streamlined than those proposed in the white paper."
  • Nicholas Bamforth, a council member: "The gap between the formal appearance of a sovereign Congregation and the political reality of an executive-dominated university would become radically wider than is presently the case."

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