Oxford's future vision could upset colleges

May 7, 2004

Oxford University is on a collision course with its constituent colleges as it pushes forward a radical academic strategy designed to maintain its reputation as one of the world's leading universities.

Decision-making arrangements between the central administration and the largely autonomous colleges are being put to the test by ambitious proposals contained in a consultation paper that lays out Oxford's plans for the next 16 years.

Responses to the paper have signalled that Oxford policy-makers will need to tread carefully in pursuing the plans if they are to avoid a conflict with colleges determined to guard their autonomy.

Bill Macmillan, Oxford's academic pro vice-chancellor who has been collating responses, said: "The strategic directions that are developing are requiring us to look again at the university-college relationship. The questions raised are non-trivial."

The consultation paper acknowledges that its proposals, covering everything from growth in postgraduate numbers to the design of courses, amount to "more of a prescription" than previous plans and raise questions over "the authority that various bodies may or may not have to decide policy".

This, it adds, "presents thorny problems at the interface between the centre and the colleges", and amounts to "real difficulty... which must be answered if we are to make further progress in modernising our governance and management structures".

Oxford's need to change, the paper says, is partly driven by its efforts to maintain a world-class reputation in the face of growing global competition. "More needs to be done to maintain and develop our international position - a major strategic push is required," it says.

Dr Macmillan said the most contentious issues so far arose from a proposal to increase postgraduate student numbers by 1.9 per cent a year.

He said that while most respondents had "bought into the idea" that graduate studies should eventually become the core business of the university, there was less agreement over how quickly Oxford should expand and how the extra numbers should be accommodated.

He said the university's academic divisions had presented "clear and good" arguments for expansion, but "the colleges are saying there is only a certain rate at which we can grow without overstretching our human and physical resources".

The paper argues that "a collective will to see a particular rate of growth" is not necessarily inconsistent with an individual college's wishes not to expand.

Meanwhile, Oxford's ancient archrival Cambridge has gained draft planning permission for up to three new colleges to be built as part of its development plan.

The colleges could be built on 57 hectares of land to the northwest of Cambridge over the next 25 years to accommodate increasing student numbers and to house expanding departments.

The university is to begin work on a masterplan for development in the autumn. A spokesman said that the "option to develop" was necessary to preserve the university's world-class status. He said that the plan was at an early stage but was likely to include proposals for "one or more new colleges".

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