Oxford to press on with reform

June 2, 2006

Oxford is to push ahead with historic reforms that will see external members make up the majority of its governing council for the first time, leaked documents to The Times Higher reveal.

The long-awaited white paper on governance published this week will go before congregation, the parliament of dons, in the autumn term. If academics accept the paper, it will mean the end of centuries of self-governance by Oxford academics. If they reject it, it could mean the end of controversial vice-chancellor John Hood.

Dr Hood originally proposed a board of trustees, composed of alumni with strong business links, to take over the running of the university. This was vehemently opposed by many in Oxford and changed in a subsequent governance paper to a 15-strong council, with seven external members, seven internal members and an external, or lay, chair. The final white paper retains this proposal.

It also retains plans for an academic board to oversee academic and scholarly activity.

In past debates Oxford academics have appeared divided on plans to split the 26-member council in this way.

In an important concession to critics of Dr Hood's governance reforms, many of whom had called for the establishment of a board of scrutiny along the lines of the one operating at Cambridge University, the new proposals contain provision for an audit and scrutiny committee to report to the council. The previous proposals simply mentioned audit. The current audit committee has started to make more of its deliberations available to academics on the web.

The failure to establish a fully fledged board of scrutiny - to exercise independent oversight on decisions taken by the university council and the executive officers of the university - could be a real sticking point.

Alan Ryan, head of New College, described such a board as a "political necessity" in the past.

But an alternative governance paper released simultaneously by a group of Oxford rebels abandons calls for board of scrutiny. Instead, the paper, whose authors include Susan Cooper, professor of physics, wants further clarity on how the audit committee will work. The paper strongly opposes plans to split the council and calls for an external advisory board to strengthen Oxford's external links.

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