Ryan quits as 'ill-paid' Oxford don

May 31, 2002

One of Oxford University's most senior academics confirmed his departure to join one of America's top institutions this week, arguing that "no rational person" would work in British higher education.

Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, who was tipped to be the university's next vice-chancellor, railed against the "incoherence and stupidity" of government policy and the "incessant interference by managers and officialdom", when he confirmed to The THES that he was leaving British academe to go to Stanford University.

He said he would return to Oxford after a year but only because of his unique affiliation to New College.

He told The THES : "I feel that no rational person would work in the British higher education system, and that anyone who enters it under present conditions is engaged in a self-destructive act; it is an ill-paid, overworked line of work, and has lost almost all of the old pleasures, particularly the freedom from incessant interference by managers and officialdom."

Dr Ryan, director of Oxford's Rothermere American Institute and former professor of politics at Princeton University, is going to Stanford's Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences. "I like New College too much to think of bailing out again and heading back to Princeton, but I can't think why anyone who doesn't have my peculiar reasons for doing this sort of job would stay here rather than go."

Dr Ryan sat his BA and MA at Oxford in the 1960s, and earned a DLitt at the university in 1993.

He is a vociferous supporter of a more market-driven approach to higher education, and believes universities should be freed from national funding formulae more in line with the private universities of America.

He launched a blistering attack on government higher education policy.

"Working against government policy of the degree of incoherence and stupidity as we currently do is simply not an activity for grown-up people," he said.

"It is just about imaginable that the government will eventually form a coherent view of what higher education is for, and how much they will pay for which bits, but the signs are not good."

Dr Ryan joins a lengthening list of senior Oxford academics who have left the university with stinging criticisms of the British system, raising concern that Oxford, and UK higher education in general, are losing their international stature.

In 1999, John Kay resigned as director of the Said Business School, arguing that Oxford was "sinking in a morass of committees, unable to take decisions that might enable it to compete with the world's best".

Robert Stevens, when he retired as master of Pembroke College last year, warned that "inward-looking complacency in the university, and mindless political opportunism in new Labour, may well be doing damage which will be impossible to repair".

The university also received a blow last September when Peter Williams, seen as a modernising saviour for the university, announced his resignation as master of St Catherine's College, 18 months after he took the post.

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