Cambridge University is set to modernise its professorial promotions system in an effort to curb the age-old abuse of academic patronage. Campaigners are viewing it as the first step in a long-running campaign to introduce Oxford-style reforms which could double the number of Cambridge professors by the end of the century.
According to palaeography professor David Dumville, some heads of department act like "regional barons" and perfectly eligible candidates are denied professorships because of "faculty folklore".
But new reforms expected to come into force in 1998 will make it more difficult to establish networks of patronage. Individuals will be able to apply for professorships rather than wait for nomination and, if they are unsuccessful, they will be able to lodge an appeal and to receive detailed feedback.
Those choosing professors will not be able to sit on both the key committees (the faculty and the general board) and they will have to justify their choice before two high-powered non-Cambridge academics.
Gill Evans, a history don who has advocated reform, was delighted by the changes. "In the past, brilliant academics have been blocked for no other reason than that they didn't get on with Professor Fred Bloggs. Now Professor Bloggs won't have that kind of influence."
She added that the changes will boost the campaign to reform the promotions system along Oxford lines. Cambridge currently has 226 professors.
By contrast, Oxford has 344 after last month's mass promotion of 145 leading academics to professorships.