Oxford told to streamline

January 30, 1998

The North report on Oxford University recommends that it could learn from Cambridge. Harriet Swain and Phil Baty contrast Oxford with its great rival

It has taken nearly four years and has been overtaken by a new government, Dearing's inquiry into higher education and the threat of losing college fees.

So what took the North report so long?

When Sir Peter North started his inquiries in spring 1994, he said nothing should be ruled off-limits.

Radical ideas floated since then about privatising the university, turning colleges into mere halls of residence or subordinating them to faculties have been rejected.

And the report skates over relations between the university and colleges, leaving it to the Conference of Colleges to consider its future role in governance.

It merely suggests extending the current college contributions scheme by which wealthier colleges help those worse off and recommends that college accounts should be clearer.

It also recommends reforms to the joint appointments system for lecturers so that the university and colleges would negotiate allocation of teaching hours with reviews every five years.

Peter North said: "There is a very clear view in the commission that one of Oxford's strengths is the collegiate nature of the university, and we don't want to jeopardise that creative tension between the colleges and the university and between the colleges themselves."

Instead, the commission concentrated on tweaking the central university administration by setting up a 25-member council as the main executive and policy-making body.

This would be responsible for academic and non-academic matters, including those now overseen by the Curators of the Chest.

The General Board of the Faculties would be replaced by three academic boards covering clinical medicine, biological and physical sciences and humanities and social sciences, each chaired by a deputy vice-chancellor.

A fourth deputy would head academic support services.

The post of vice-chancellor would be extended to five years, with the possibility of renewal for two. It would also be open to non-members of the university.

The report stresses the importance of teaching, saying Oxford should imitate the Cambridge system of directors of studies for undergraduates and should assess tutors' teaching performance.

It wants undergraduates to take exams every year rather than just at the end of their degree and suggests increasing other forms of assessment, including helping undergraduates to develop "transferable skills".

It also wants more coordination between lectures, classes and tutorials and suggests increasing the amount of teaching given by graduate students.

Responding to criticism of Oxford's small state school intake, the commission has recommended a new joint standing committee on access to set five-yearly admissions targets.

The first in-depth examination of Oxford's structure since the Franks Report, the commission was expected to resolve issues about the proper balance between teaching, research and administration, the future of the joint appointments system and concern over differences in college cash levels.

The eight-member commission, consulted widely within the university, receiving more than 4,500 replies to questionnaires.

It also took advice from consultants Coopers and Lybrand, which reported in April 1995, saying that Oxford's antiquated system threatened its international standing.

Further reports were commissioned from KPMG and independent consultant Harry Atkinson, who produced studies on the governance of Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, Manchester, De Montfort and Warwick.


Founded: no clear date of foundation, but teaching existed in Oxford from 1096

Number of students: 15,641

Number of undergraduates (1996/97): 10,640

Number of postgraduates: 4,626

Number of additional students: 375

% state school entrants (1996): 41.6 per cent

% science undergraduates: 42 per cent

% science postgraduates: 41 per cent

% overseas students: 16 per cent

Number of academics: 3,100

Total income (1996/97): Pounds 284.9 million

Income from HEFCE:Pounds 82.5 million

Income from research grants and contracts: Pounds 107 million Endowment income and interest: Pounds 18.4 million

Recent major endowments: Pounds 20 million from Wafic Said for a new business school. Pounds 4 million from the Rhodes Trust for an American Studies Insitute. The Campaign for Oxford has raised Pounds 340 million from benefactors over the last six years.

Number of colleges: 39


Oxford is run by a Parliament of dons called Congregation, made up of about 3,000 full-time permanent teaching staff, senior administrators and library staff.

It can debate general resolutions put forward by members, but its main task is to consider statutes or resolutions put forward by Hebdomadal Council.

This is chaired by the vice-chancellor, who is elected for four years. The registrar serves as secretary. It is responsible for Oxford's overall policy and its relationships with the outside world.

The 24 members of the council are elected by Congregation, which usually rubber-stamps council decisions.

Recently, this smooth arrangement has wavered a few times. First Congregation rejected a proposal which would have allowed benefactor Wafic Said to build a Pounds 20 million business school on university playing fields at Mansfield Road. The business school will go to another site.

Next, a postal vote of Congregation overturned council plans to revise qualifications for membership of the body to exclude several categories of retired dons. Congregation also votes on the 21 members of the General Board of the Faculties, which elects a chairman every two years.

This is responsible, under Council, for the academic administration of the university and controls about three-quarters of its total budget, including research grants and contracts.

It communicates with colleges on academic matters through a senior tutors committee and demands annual reports from faculty boards.


Oxford has 16 faculties, some of which are divided into sub faculties. Each admits, supervises and examines all graduate students and appoints staff, subject to the approval of the general board. Many faculties include departments covering specific disciplines, such as the department of physics and the department of engineering science in the physical sciences faculty. Most arts subjects are not divided into departments. Some courses are not administered by faculties at all but by committees.


There are 39 fully independent colleges, which are self-governing charitable institutions, usually with their own charters approved by the Privy Council. They are governed by the heads and fellows, who elect other fellows or honorary fellows and choose their own students.

Colleges discuss matters of common interest in the Conference of Colleges, which meets once a term. Wealthier colleges contribute to those worse off through a College Contributions Fund.

Nearly all members of the university are also members of colleges and all members of colleges are members of the university. This is beginning to change as science becomes more important because colleges cannot cope with the cost of science equipment.


Oxford holds reserves of Pounds 94 million, most of which is held by departments or tied up in assets.

Its income from research grants and contracts increased by 2.5 per cent in the year ending July 1997, compared with a ten per cent increase the previous year. Finance officers blamed the comparatively low increase on a rise in the proportion of grants from charitable bodies, which do not pay overheads.

In contrast, benefactions and donations increased by 46.5 per cent, from Pounds 7.3 million to Pounds 10.7 million and income from endowments and investments also grew substantially.


Founded: 1209

Number of students: 15,911

Number of undergraduates: 11,311

Number of postgraduates: 4,600

% state school entrants (UK students only): 50.98 per cent

% science undergraduates: 51.6 per cent

% science postgraduates: 46.3 per cent

% overseas students: 14.16 per cent

Number of academics: 3,300

Total income (1996/97): Pounds 282.4 million

Income from HEFCE and TTA: Pounds 85 million

Income from research grants and contracts: Pounds 93.6 million

Endowment income and interest: Pounds 31 million

Significant gifts: In October last year, computer software giant Bill Gates made a $20 million donation to the university, used for the design and construction of a new computer laboratory. This week, Cambridge announced its intentions to set up the Margaret Thatcher Professorship of Enterprise Studies following a Pounds 2 million gift from the Margaret Thatcher Foundation.

Number of colleges: 31


In November 1987, the Wass Syndicate, which today is being described as Cambridge's version of the North Report, was set up to address complaints that "the lack of efficient procedures for policy making places the university at a disadvantage".

Like North, Sir Douglas Wass took rather a long time, two years, to report. But the Wass report eventually paved the way for greater executive powers at Cambridge, alongside measures to safeguard control by the ultimate governors of Cambridge - the staff.

The report has attracted criticism. "Wass was a hotch-potch," said Anthony Edwards, a Cambridge scholar who drafted the "memorial" that led to Wass. "It tried to make the university more managerial, and to delegate more power to the Council and the General Board, without understanding the nature of the university's constitution."

Key to the Wass report was the total remodelling of the office of vice-chancellor. Since 1587, the office had always been held by the head of a college, for two years, and was largely ceremonial.

From 1989, the vice-chancellor's office became a full-time post of five years, with a possible extension to seven. The vice chancellor is now full-time resident head of the university and its principal academic and administrative officer.

But the ultimate power at Cambridge, technically, still remains with its staff, represented by the Regent House. The Regent House consists of all the current teaching and administrative staff of both the university and the 31 colleges - about 3,000 members.

Much of its power, however, is delegated to smaller bodies.

Most executive work is done by the Council, a group of 19 elected representatives, including college heads, professors and readers, Regent House members and students, as well as the chancellor and vice chancellor.

The council presents policy to the Regent House for approval, in the form of a grace. It also makes reports to the Regent House, for debate before a grace.

Extensive delegated responsibilities rest with the General Board of the faculties, a non-elected group of 12 Regent House members. Principally an advisory body, the General Board has increasingly been able to bypass the legislative machinery of the Regent House.

But an important legacy of Wass, described by Professor Edwards as the "only important proposal to take root", is the Board of Scrutiny, which is designed to check the increasingly delegated powers enjoyed by the Council and General Board.


Unlike Oxford, Cambridge has five schools - an administrative grouping of related subjects. Each school covers a specified group of faculties and has an elected supervisory body - the Council of the School. Each Council of the School coordinates the provision for its group of faculties, filtering academic business before it goes to the General Board.

All teaching and research is organised by the faculties, which each have a Faculty Board. Faculty Boards cover the whole academic programme in the univeristy. The faculties are divided into departments.


There are 31 colleges, each with their own, variable, internal procedures and statues, and each entirely separate corporations.

Each college has full freedom over the the tuition of its students. Colleges have autonomy over student admissions, but they are subject to general university regulations. Each college has an elected head - usually Principal or Provost - and each has a Governing Body made up of Fellows - elected senior members of the college.

In contrast to Oxford, most teaching and research personnel at Cambridge are appointed and paid by the univeristy. At Oxford, the colleges have much more of a hand in academic appointments. At Cambridge, there are many professors and readers who have no college role. But there is no sharp division between the university and the colleges' teaching and research personnel, as most college teaching fellows hold university teaching appointments, and most university teachers are fellows of colleges.

Colleges maintain links with the university through the places reserved for college representatives on the University Council and the Finance Committee.


Cambridge's total income in 1996/97 was Pounds 282.4 million.

Cambridge leads the sector in attracting outside income research and consultancy. Cambridge's income from research grants and contracts climed by 9.2 per cent this year, while income from endowments and interest rose by 8.8 per cent.

Scientific initiatives have helped establish Cambridge as a leading centre for science and technology, attracting outside funders to the university and inward investment to the city at large.

In 1969 the Mott Report advocated the need to attract science-based industry to Cambridge, and the univeristy has never looked back. In 1970, Trinity College, Cambridge's richest college, set in train the creation of Cambridge as a "silicon fen" when it established the Cambridge Science Park, which today has over 75 companies on site, employing 4,000 people.

St John's college opened its Innovation Park in November 1987, and in 1992 Trinity built on this when it set up the Issac Newton Institute for maths.

It is currently estimated that ,000 people are employed in over 1,000 technology-based companies in the city, with one-third located at the Cambridge Science Park and St John's Innovation Centre.

Last year information technology software giant Microsoft established its European research base, headed by Cambridge pro-vice chancellor Roger Needham, at Cambridge.

* Leader, page 13

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