Privatise Oxford? It's 'not on my horizon'

October 15, 2004

Oxford University's new vice-chancellor, John Hood, insisted this week that a move towards privatisation of the ancient university was "not on my horizon".

In an interview with The Times Higher , he sought to rein in the persistent threats from senior Oxford figures - most recently Trinity College president Michael Beloff - that the university is ready to give up hundreds of millions in funding to escape increasing state intervention in its affairs and to raise cash instead through charging massive tuition fees.

The weekend's papers went to town on Mr Beloff's angry plea for the Government to "get its tanks off Oxford's lawn" over the university's record in widening access to non-traditional students, and his prediction that Oxford would go private within 20 years.

"That is not on my horizon," Dr Hood stated. The reason is that Oxford already faces enough of a challenge gearing up its income-generating capacity to a level that will enable it to maintain its status as a world-class institution.

Dr Hood, who took on the New Zealand Government over state intervention during his five-year vice-chancellorship of Auckland University, shares Mr Beloff's frustration over the growing number of government-imposed regulatory hoops through which institutions must jump to secure dwindling amounts of state funding.

He said that as "the proportion of state funding has fallen, the level of compliance has risen". But it did not mean Oxford should be trying to shake off the shackles by aiming for total financial independence.

He said: "You have to ask, what does financial independence mean? Any transition towards that will be gradual, and it is not one I am contemplating.

"If you were to ask me if I thought compliance demands compromised institutional autonomy, I would say that there was a risk that it did. But to talk about seismic shifts in how money comes into the institution is not to get to grips with the challenges we face."

How, then, does he intend to address these challenges? One course of action is to enter discussions with the Government on how to tackle underfunding for teaching and also to consider future fee levels.

He said: "The question of the future of fees is not a simple one. It's a question of fees and access - you cannot talk about one without the other.

This is an issue that needs to be handled carefully."

Access issues, always a political hot potato for Oxford, are already being picked over as the university negotiates the terms of the contract it will sign with the Office for Fair Access. The fact that the colleges, rather than the university, control undergraduate admissions does not make Dr Hood feel wary of signing the contract.

He said: "Certainly, the university must sign an access agreement, and I feel very comfortable with that." Oxford's relationship with its colleges is dynamic and characterised by a creative "constant tension", he added.

"One of the keys to our continued success is how well we continue to manage that set of relationships. Naturally, there will be disagreements. Our challenge is to use that to reach better outcomes."

Although he was the first Oxford vice-chancellor to be appointed from outside the university's academic body, Dr Hood seemed undaunted by the task or the prospect of weaving positive outcomes out of Oxford's matrix-like collegiate system.

To succeed in his aims, he said he intended to draw on the lessons he learnt at Auckland and in an 18-year business career that preceded his return to academia. The first lesson is that any organisation is "in essence, its people", whose aspirations must be understood if goals are to be achieved.

The next perhaps helps explain why Dr Hood landed Oxford's top job. He said: "I think I have learnt that the decisions one takes in complex organisational settings might appear simple, but never are. And yet obtaining quality of information on the one hand and handling competing arguments on the other are a very important business and require patience and judgement."


I GRADUATED FROM Auckland University

MY FIRST JOB WAS working on a major construction project in Christchurch, New Zealand, during a civil engineering cadetship with a construction firm

MY MAIN CHALLENGE is working with colleagues to fulfil the university's mission to the best of our abilities

WHAT I HATE MOST dishonesty and laziness

IN TEN YEARS' TIME... I have always taken the view that one should enjoy the present and the future will take care of itself. Had you asked me ten years ago, I would have thought there was not one in a million chance I would be vice-chancellor of Oxford.

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