Science to kill college system

December 21, 2000

The growing ranks of scientists at Oxford University spell inevitable doom for its long cherished college system, a senior academic has warned.

Sir Keith Thomas, the eminent historian, said the rapid expansion of science at the university had outstripped the ability of the colleges to absorb the number of new researchers.

"We shall drift towards the Cambridge system, with colleges essentially becoming halls of residence for the young, and privileged clubs for some of their seniors, while the academic life of the university is organised on a faculty or departmental level," he said.

Sir Keith presented his views in an article in Oxford Magazine , which records a talk given to a group of science professors and heads of house in the Trinity term.

He noted that it had been calculated that Oxford had more than 2,000 academic-related research staff without any college association, the great majority of whom were scientists. Measures to reduce the proportion of lecturers without college fellowships had proved inadequate.

"At the end of the 20th century, the tensions between the demands of the science departments and the interests of the colleges are probably greater than they ever were," Sir Keith said.

In addition, he argued that those scientists who were fellows tended to have a weaker commitment to the college system.

He calculated that of 37 senior tutors of college in early 2000 only nine were scientists, mathematicians or medics, while just seven of 39 heads of colleges were scientists.

"We all know of science professors who seldom or never attend college governing body meetings, and of science tutors whose presence at college committees is desultory and who are unwilling to hold college office because doing so would get in the way of their research," he said.

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