Oxford's new governance plan shifts power balance

September 30, 2005

Oxford University has dropped controversial plans for a new body of external representatives to oversee its affairs. But a compromise offered this week would still leave outsiders in a majority position.

Proposals to create an independent board of trustees that would hold Oxford's purse strings and make its corporate decisions have been dropped in a revised governance green paper published this week.

The university originally proposed a board of 13 external trustees - with the vice-chancellor and the chancellor attending meetings and with two members of academic council serving as observers.

The new consultation paper proposes a 15-member council with eight external representatives, including an external chairman, and seven internal members who will deal with funding and other corporate matters.

The council, which would initially be chaired by Oxford's chancellor Lord Patten, acting in a personal capacity, would be the principal policymaking body with "ultimate responsibility" below the present 3,500-member congregation, which will retain its position at the pinnacle of the university's ruling structure.

Academic issues, however, would be delegated to a 36-member academic board, made up of ten heads of subject divisions, ten members elected by colleges and ten elected by congregation. The board would be chaired by Oxford's vice-chancellor John Hood.

The chair of the Conference of Colleges, which represents the views of Oxford's college heads, could be one of the college members, the paper suggests.

The new plans represent a radical scaling down of original proposals published in February for a 150-member academic council, as well as a careful compromise in the face of strong opposition to the idea of an independent board of trustees.

But they have already caused ripples of unease across Oxford, with some academics expressing alarm that under the revised framework their jobs and the way they conduct their work could still be at the mercy of external forces.

Terry Hoad, honorary secretary of the Association of University Teachers at Oxford, said: "Replacing the idea of the board of trustees is a step in the right direction, but it still leaves us with the same situation where ultimate control is left in the hands of people outside the university."

College heads might also be unhappy with the prospect of having only ten representatives on a 36-member academic board, he suggested.

"They might be concerned that they could be easily outvoted and forced to go along with something they are unhappy about," he said.

The consultation paper says that the changes have been made to answer criticisms that a 150-member academic body would be too unwieldy to make decisions and concerns that outsiders would have too much influence on the running of the university.

"At the same time, they should ensure that Oxford complies with proposed changes to charities legislation and satisfies calls from funding chiefs and the Privy Council for the university to become more accountable and outward-facing.

Dr Hood said the discussion paper, which will be debated by congregation on November 1 before going to council for a decision on December 5, "puts forward revised proposals aimed at preserving what is best, while at the same time making the decision-making process less remote and more efficient".

Andrew Graham, master of Balliol College who criticised the original plans, said the new proposals offered some clever solutions to objections raised over the first green paper.

"It is a good design and shows there has been a lot of listening," he said.

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