Power and glory games

February 13, 1998

Can the North reforms be implemented without destroying Oxford's fundamental ethos, asks Vernon Bogdanor

OXFORD is an ancient university and yet it operates on strikingly modern principles. Its fundamental ethos, self-government and the dispersal of power, is one that politicians and managers are hurrying to absorb in an effort to overcome the alienation of those over whom they exert authority.

All institutions, however, benefit from periodic self-examination. More than 30 years ago there was a commission of inquiry chaired by the late Lord Franks. The Franks report was the product of a technocratic age in which size was viewed as crucial to efficiency. Its central proposal was for a council of colleges, with wide powers, able to bind individual colleges through majority vote. Such a council might, conceivably, have helped Oxford repel the governmental assault on the universities in the 1980s and 1990s. But it would have done so at an unacceptable cost in centralisation and uniformity. The university was probably wise to reject it.

The North report, by contrast, is the product of a more sceptical age. It notices "the endurance of underlying principles and structures" at Oxford, and seeks to reinforce those principles and structures rather than undermine them. In particular, the report aims to preserve the sovereignty of academics, of fellows of colleges, against the twin evils of administrative control and professorial despotism. The two central proposals of the North report are the reform of the governance of the university and supplementing written examinations by other forms of assessment.

The price that Oxford pays for its decentralised structure is that it is difficult for anyone in the university to exercise leadership. Power is divided rather uneasily between two bodies. Hebdomadal Council is the university's "cabinet", the principal executive and policy-making forum. Yet academic strategy is the responsibility of another body, the general board. It is difficult, therefore, for council to exert influence on academic matters. Moreover, the vice-chancellor, although an ex officio member of the general board, rarely attends its meetings. In addition, the vice-chancellor holds office for only four years, too short a time to provide long-term leadership.

The North commission proposes a unified executive for Oxford, a council combining administration and financial management with oversight of academic work. This council, merging the functions of Hebdomadal Council and the general board, would be headed by a revamped vice-chancellor who, following practice at Cambridge, would be appointed for five years, with the possibility of renewal for a further two. The vice-chancellor would be assisted by four deputies, appointed by council, three of whom would chair new academic boards.

Moreover, the vice-chancellor would no longer need on appointment to be a member of Congregation, the parliament of the dons. An outside appointment could bring a welcome breath of fresh air to the occasionally introverted air of modern Oxford. It is high time that Oxford played its proper part in the national debate on education and these reforms would help it to do so.

The proposal that has received most publicity is, however, that calling for new forms of assessment to complement Oxford's final examinations. This has been caricatured in the media as a "dumbing down" of standards. There is no reason why it need be anything of the sort.

Oxford remains one of the few universities in the country where all depends on the result of one examination. Yet a form of assessment that placed Nobel prize-winner Sir John Hicks and eminent philosopher Sir Peter Strawson in the second class is clearly in need of some revision.

There is, in addition, considerable evidence that the examination system is ill-suited to the assessment of women. No evidence has yet been presented that women are less able than men. If, therefore, women consistently perform less well than men in written examinations, it is likely that there is something wrong with the machinery of assessment. Examinations are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end, the assessment of ability.

The question that Oxford now faces is whether the North reforms can be implemented without destroying its fundamental ethos. The danger with a unified structure of governance, with its four appointed deputy vice-chancellors, is that it undermines Oxford's democracy and leads to the creation of a ruling caste, increasingly remote from the aspirations of both dons and students.

The danger with introducing new forms of assessment is that they undermine the tutorial relationship that depends, for its success, precisely on the fact that tutors do not examine the weekly essays of their pupils but use them as a basis for the joint investigation of problems.

These matters are now to be examined by the university. Sir Peter North and his colleagues have deserved well of Oxford, but so far there has been little debate on the issues that they have raised. This is largely because the North commission, unlike Franks, decided not to hear evidence in public. Thus, while Franks was a learning exercise for Oxford, the North report marks not the end of a debate but its beginning.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University.

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