Oxford v-c to go but reform still on the agenda

November 23, 2007

Hefce continues to press for governance modernisation as John Hood reveals that he will not renew term after 2009. Melanie Newman reports. John Hood's decision to leave his post as Oxford University vice- chancellor at the end of his five-year term has avoided a damaging confrontation, academics say.

Dr Hood's attempts to end academic self-governance at the ancient university by appointing external business leaders to Oxford's governing council were thwarted by the university's Congregation of dons last year, who voted almost 1,540 to 997 against the proposals.

But the long and difficult process earned him many enemies. Opponents had made clear that any bid to extend his term beyond September 2009, as university regulations allow, would have been strongly contested.

Announcing his resignation, Dr Hood said: "I continue to believe that five years is the right period. That was the commitment I made on my appointment as vice-chancellor, and it remains my view today. That will be the appropriate time for me to hand on the immense privilege of leading this great university."

Had he decided otherwise and convinced the nominating committee to back him, under university regulations Congregation would have had to approve the re-appointment.

One don said: "There would have been a fight of such bitterness it would have made the governance arguments look very tame."

Sir Victor Blank, who had supported Dr Hood's reforms, stepped down from his post as an external member of council in September 2007 after dons threatened to block his re-appointment.

Another academic said Dr Hood had "acted in a very sensible and public- spirited way, which spares the university what would have been a damaging episode." He added: "We don't know whether he was pushed or decided to quit. It was widely known that he said at the time of his appointment that he was taking the job on for five years, so it would have been quite consistent for him to stick with that."

Dr Hood's plans to slim down the 26-member council to 15, while boosting the numbers of lay members from four to eight, were rejected by Congregation last December. But pressure remains from outside the university to modernise its centuries-old systems for managing its affairs.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England wrote to Dr Hood immediately after his proposal's defeat, reminding him that Hefce was the "biggest single investor" in the university and that a sound governance system was a condition of the millions of pounds in funding the university receives from the council.

In July this year Hefce's assurance service issued its final report on the university, following a visit in 2006, stating: "We do not feel at present that we can be satisfied the arrangements meet the requirements for a publicly funded higher education institution."

But Hefce said it would not insist that Oxford adopt a particular governance regime, pointing to the university's agreement to review its governance again.

Hefce later presented eight points to be addressed by the review. These included comparing the university's governance arrangements with the rest of the Russell Group and "overseas peer institutions" and explaining how procedures deviate from Committee of University Chairmen guidelines.

Gill Evans, professor of medieval history at Cambridge University and an expert on the ancient structures of Oxbridge, claimed that Hefce was seeking, via the review, to ensure that the university returned to Dr Hood's proposals on external council members.

"I find this chilling," she said. "There is no constitutional provision for a review of this kind, and Oxford's direct democracy will have to press assiduously to be allowed an insight into the way it is conducted."

The review will be conducted by Oxford's Audit and Scrutiny Committee, which has few members elected from Congregation, and will be chaired for the purpose by a lay member of council. It is expected to report within a year.

In the meantime, Dr Hood's opponents, such as Nicholas Bamforth, law fellow at Queen's College, Oxford, have been advancing a different reform agenda, based on smaller, incremental changes.

Dr Bamforth told The Times Higher : "The past three years have encouraged us to think clearly about what works in our system and what needs changing. We now have a positive programme of change under way."

Examples include new university regulations, published last week, for a new committee to nominate external members of council using published criteria. Council working parties are currently investigating financial processes and responding to a resolution passed by Congregation last month, which asks for new legislation covering matters such as limits on terms of office.

While most in Congregation believe that the university council does not need more than four external members, there appears to be agreement that those members could be used more fruitfully.

"We are not opposed to externals per se ," Dr Bamforth said.

"The real issue is how external talent can best be used. Our view is that it should be channelled into areas such as finance and fundraising."

melanie.newman@thes.co.uk

Hood and Hefce

- In December 2006, dons voted to reject Dr Hood's plans to end academic self-governance at Oxford by changing the membership of the governing council so that it had a majority of external, lay members.

- In January 2007, David Eastwood, the chief executive of Hefce, wrote to Dr Hood, making clear that oversight of Oxford's governance "needs to be largely external" and such a "sound system of governance" was a condition of grant.

- In March 2007, Dr Hood replied to Eastwood that "effective change in a democratic institution can come about only with the active consent of the institution's membership". He said the university would take "time for reflection and reconciliation".

- A Hefce audit report in spring 2007 said: "Even though the university is an independent body, we have the right to expect that our interests will be considered, given the large amounts of public money invested in the university over many years."

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