Should a royal commission be set up?

June 26, 1998

Sian Griffiths asked people inside and outside Oxbridge whether they favour a royal commission. They hate the idea

"There is a need to change the place because the pressures on the people teaching here are becoming much greater. The combination of long periods of tutorial teaching and trying to come top in the research assessment exercise as well as doing all the administration the place needs to keep it going actually mean Oxbridge people tend to work too hard and the demands are too great.

Nonetheless, I do not think we want a royal commission to reform Oxford and Cambridge.

If we are to have one it ought to be for the whole university system. Oxford and Cambridge are 3 per cent of the university system - it is not worth making such a hysterical fuss about such a small part of the whole. But places like Oxbridge, University College London and Imperial are all operating under awful financial pressures. A royal commission ought to look at how to preserve certain sorts of intellectual excellence in a mass higher education system. It is quite likely part of the answer would be making Oxbridge cooperate with other universities; why not, for instance, with the London School of Economics on social sciences and Imperial on the physical sciences? Things like that would be useful in terms of getting a decent output for one's money."

Alan Ryan, warden, New College, Oxford.

"There have been too many nonsenses, frankly, of the sort that occurred over the Tumim affair and they do point to certain structural weaknesses that need to be looked at. But I am a defender of the college system. The warning for Oxford and Cambridge is that if they do not behave more sensibly someone will do it for them and that will be a great deal worse."

John Tusa, managing director of the Barbican Centre.

"It is difficult to see the point of a royal commission. Such a commission would be all too likely to replicate the lengthy deliberations of the Dearing committee, whose membership was so heavily weighted towards the business sector. It is curious for governments to believe businessmen can resolve the problems of the universities, when so few British companies enjoy the international respect attached to Oxford and Cambridge.

A royal commission would be all too likely to undermine the quasi-federal relationship between the university and the colleges, which is the key to Oxford's success. It would probably suggest Oxford and Cambridge should be provided with less money but more bureaucratic regulation. Not only would such an approach damage Oxford and Cambridge, but the whole of the university sector would suffer."

Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government, Oxford, and fellow, Brasenose College, Oxford.

"No (we do not need a royal commission). Oxford has just had, from its own North commission, a full dress report on its governance. North took evidence from management consultants, among others, and proposed new structures to simplify and speed up present ones. He explored the interface between the colleges and the university and the problems created for staff and students by differences of wealth between the colleges. Soon, when the present consultation period ends, we expect decisions.

The North report comes a generation after its predecessor, the Franks report, just as the Dearing report came a generation after the Robbins report. Either those calling for a royal commission are unaware of all this, or they have an unusual appetite for spending time and public money."

Marilyn Butler, rector, Exeter College, Oxford.

"I am against setting up a royal commission. If reform is needed it should come from within and not be imposed from outside. Reform from outside would be an unacceptable form of tyranny on collegiate institutions. If the universities do not recognise the need for reform they will remain prisoners of their own history; but a very successful history it has turned out to be."

Peter Knight, vice-chancellor, University of Central England.

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