Critics of the Oxbridge system have "hijacked" and misinterpreted the controversy over the ousting of Sir Stephen Tumim as head of Oxford's St Edmund Hall to pursue a separate reforming agenda, angry academics from both institutions claimed this week, writes Phil Baty.
Both institutions have rejected calls for a royal commission to reform Oxbridge, defending their ability to modernise internally, without damaging the unique academic autonomy enshrined in the ancient college structures.
Critics have called for a comprehensive review of the system following the Tumim affair, which saw a highly popular principal pushed out after a vote by the fellows.
They have stressed the inhibiting ambiguity over the role of college heads. Others have called for an examination of the complicated and often painfully bureaucratic relationship between the central administration and the colleges.
Paul Flather, director of external relations at Oxford, this week dismissed calls for an external review. "Oxford is an open and democratic institution," he said. "It is always seeking new ways and new ideas to develop and improve."
He said the university was working on the recommendations of the internal inquiry by former vice-chancellor Peter North, which include plans to reform governance, access, appointments and financial arrangements.
One Oxford don said the call for a royal commission was like "using a tale of one marital breakdown as an excuse to attack the institution of marriage". He said the college system was in tune with the most modern business and government thinking, as it is extremely democratic, and power is widely devolved to stakeholders.
Tim Meade, registrar at Cambridge, said that he was "mystified" his institution had been dragged into a localised row at one of 42 Oxford colleges. "We are surprised it is now an issue, given that we have just come to the end of a year of talks with the government about how we can preserve the excellence of the collegiate structure," he said.
Like Oxford's North report, Cambridge is modernising after its own inquiry, the Wass Syndicate.
But the Wass Syndicate reported in 1989, and, as Mr Meade conceded, Cambridge is "still seeing through those changes". The inefficient progress, attacked by critics, was highlighted this week in a report by Cambridge's board of scrutiny. The board complained the impression at Cambridge was one of "mills grinding very slowly indeed". It said new laws governing its own remit, first proposed in 1996, had still not been approved.
The board also said it was "dismayed little effective progress has been made" in implementing a new accounting system.
Similarly, progress with Oxford's North report, criticised for skirting the college issue, is expected to be slow. The university said "the fruits" of discussions "are expected over the next year". But they will be subject to scrutiny by Congregation.
* Leader, page 13