Stalled reforms are not cause for celebration

February 21, 2003

Efforts to reform Cambridge show that if dons won't fight their corner, others will muscle in, says Gordon Johnson

Normally, Cambridge University has a good press, which is appropriate for an institution that is responsible for 18,500 students, has an excellent record in teaching and research and an annual turnover of nearly half a billion. But occasionally we touch some raw nerve and the opportunity is seized to attack us and to demean the contribution Cambridge makes to our society.

The defeat of the latest constitutional reform was greeted with squeals of delight from those who oppose all change here, and was followed by sinister reporting in the broadsheets, encouraged by shadowy figures in the government, suggesting that Cambridge was now done for.

Cambridge is larger, more successful and far more complex than most organisations. It needs a constitution and management that will ensure its continued effectiveness. The reforms put forward by the university council last year went some way to achieving that, for they took account of the changing environment in which the university finds itself: the strains of rapid growth, the pressure on resources, the increasingly strident political, social and economic demands made on it. Much useful change was carried - notably the creation of more pro vice-chancellors to extend academic leadership and to spread the workload. Those parts of the proposals that were lost sought to make explicit the authority and responsibilities that a vice-chancellor must have to discharge the duties of the office faithfully, and to put on our council three members from outside the local academic community.

These proposals were wilfully misconstrued as giving the vice-chancellor untrammelled powers and of delivering feeble academics into the hands of government and business interests.

This is no sterile academic debate in the Fens. What has happened in Cambridge has implications for higher education as a whole. All of us have our own ideas of what a university is for. But we are very bad at being passionate advocates for our cause. The result is that others muscle in and try to shape our destiny. Universities are places of teaching and research.

They thrive when there is opportunity for intense face-to-face discussion, between colleagues, between teachers and students, and across disciplines - in other words, when they exhibit a high degree of collegiality and freedom of exploration. These characteristics are international in reach, for the free play of ideas and their critical and effective communication recognise neither national nor cultural boundaries. The university is socially responsible too and must concern itself with the proper use of information and the useful deployment of the benefits of education. To allow this to happen - for universities to be places not just of knowledge but also of wisdom - they need recognition and resources adequate for the difficult tasks before them. While being accountable, they must also be freed from too much external regulation and pressure.

We must look to the health of universities, and see that we pass them on in good shape to future generations. We must appreciate our calling and see that our institutions respond to change and sensibly combine self-government, leadership and good management. To acknowledge the necessary authority of the vice-chancellor is a step in the right direction, while it also makes sense for us to take advantage of advice from outside the academic community by including - as do all other universities in the country - external members on our council.

Barely a quarter of those entitled to vote in Cambridge did so: a mark perhaps of irresponsibility and irresolution. Yet voices have already been raised that we should now enter a period of reflection, certainly doing nothing until Alison Richard, our new vice-chancellor, takes office in October. Perhaps then we might set up another committee, to report in due course, or even hope that a royal or parliamentary commission will be put in charge of us to pronounce on our future by our 800th anniversary in 2009.

Universities are on the brink of dramatic change. Cambridge has another chance to escape a long period of inactivity at this critical time with a discussion on the state of play due next month.

That occasion should be the platform from which to ask that we be given an early opportunity to reconsider the defeated proposals and, perhaps, to put them forward in simpler, more radical form. I hope our council, with its newly elected members and with guidance from our vice-chancellor, will face up to its responsibility of setting and managing the agenda for university business. Otherwise we risk forfeiting public respect, and politicians will be encouraged to think they can bend universities to their will.

Gordon Johnson is president of Wolfson College, Cambridge.

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