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Heavy lies the Oxbridge crown

Written by: Rosa Ellis
Published on: 4 Feb 2022

Statues overlooking Bodleian Library

Source: Alamy montage

When Louise Richardson announced last November that she will step down as University of Oxford vice-chancellor at the end of this year, senior managers tempted by the hallowed cloisters of Oxbridge could have been forgiven for feeling a little giddy. Richardson’s announcement came just two months after University of Cambridge vice-chancellor Stephen Toope announced that he, too, will depart in September. Hence, in a rare alignment, both of the star jobs in UK academia are up for grabs at the same time.

Or are they? Is the opportunity to lead either of these world-leading institutions, first and equal fifth in Times Higher Education’s latest World University Rankings, really as alluring as it seems? With powerful collegiate systems and internal governance acting as a brake on institutional change, is the honour of Oxbridge leadership outweighed by the considerable difficulties of actually getting anything done in the job? And does the unparalleled media scrutiny that comes with heading institutions of such mystique make it an impossible job in such febrile times?

Richardson’s seven-year tenure as Oxford’s first female vice-chancellor arguably shows that the job can be done successfully. When the Irish-born political scientist flies to the US next January to become president of the Carnegie Corporation, a New York-based philanthropic association, she is likely to leave on a high thanks to Oxford’s Covid-19 vaccine development, in addition to significant achievements on charitable fundraising and student access.

Toope’s time at Cambridge has been less smooth in recent years, marked by rows over free speech and accusations of kowtowing to China. He will leave after only five years in the role (his past four predecessors each served seven), stating that pandemic-era restrictions on travel had made him “reassess my own years ahead from a personal perspective” and his need to be closer to family and friends.

Behind the scenes, the cogs are turning to replace both figures. Oxford’s search for Richardson’s successor is said to be “well advanced” and its nominating committee is expected to submit a sole candidate for approval by the academic-led Congregation in the summer term. Cambridge appointed its advisory committee for nominations last October, which includes a student and a postdoctoral researcher for the first time, alongside external members. It is expecting to submit a name to a vote of its academic assembly, the Regent House, by the end of September.

Given the power of such bodies, one question likely to preoccupy selection panels is whether recruiting someone more acquainted with Oxbridge practices might be a safer bet than reaching for a heavy-hitter from a big international university. Indeed, for centuries, the vice-chancellorships rotated between college heads every few years. That practice only ended at Cambridge in 1992, when external candidates became eligible to apply. At Oxford, the change didn’t occur until 2004.

In theory, outsiders bring a greater readiness to challenge institutional complacency and present new perspectives, but their arrival can be problematic, says Laurence Brockliss, who wrote the official history of the University of Oxford, published in 2014. “In the eyes of many dons, the externally appointed v-c is no longer one of us,” says Brockliss, emeritus fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford.

Before Oxford, Richardson spent nearly 30 years at Harvard University, rising to executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, before heading back across the Atlantic to become principal and vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews. Toope spent all of his previous career in his native Canada, having been president and vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia and then director of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, before becoming the first non-Briton to lead Cambridge. His appointment could be seen as part of a trend for importing seasoned international university leaders to top posts, but some observers sense that the tide may be turning: “There’s a bit of a sense in some of the higher echelons of UK higher education that if you’re a homegrown talent, it’s been very hard to get one of the very top jobs,” reflects Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

Whoever is appointed will need to be comfortable with levels of media scrutiny faced by no other university leader. Coverage of Oxford and Cambridge dwarfs that of all other universities combined in the UK national press. Dame Alison Richard, who led Cambridge from 2003 to 2010, tells Times Higher Education that she “could wake up in the morning and read the headlines and grimace”.

“Every time someone blows their nose in Cambridge, it’s headline news,” she says. But Oxford’s Richardson has not shied away from media controversy. For instance, in 2017 she hit back at “mendacious media and tawdry politicians” who criticised her £350,000 salary by arguing that her pay was a “very high salary compared to our academics”, but “compared to a footballer, it looks very different”. By contrast, Toope has been less voluble, with an anonymous source telling The Times that he was “very rattled by the reporting” of his clashes with academics – in particular, a skirmish over his introduction of software to allow students anonymously to accuse faculty members of “racism, discrimination and microaggressions”, which was swiftly dropped.

Toope also faced criticism in 2019 for backing a university decision to rescind a research fellowship to Jordan Peterson after the controversial University of Toronto psychology professor was pictured next to a man wearing an anti-Islam T-shirt on a speaking tour. That cancellation, dubbed a “disgraceful chapter in the history of this university” by one Cambridge academic, was widely condemned as signalling Cambridge’s unwillingness to defend scholars who hold contentious or politically incorrect opinions, pulling it centre-stage into the national debate on free speech.

Toope also faced national controversy when academics decried the implications for academic freedom of a proposal from the university council, which Toope chairs, to introduce guidelines requiring opinions to be “respectful” of others. Academics eventually voted, in a December 2020 Regent House meeting, to “tolerate” other views.

Indeed, several Oxbridge academics who spoke to THE about what they would like from a new vice-chancellor put commitment to academic freedom at the top of the list. Selina Todd, professor of modern history at Oxford, who was provided with security protection in 2020 after facing threats from transgender activists, says she hopes a new vice-chancellor will be “someone who’s really committed to democracy and academic freedom, freedom of debate, at all levels”.

This unflinching commitment to academic freedom would send an important message to the scholarly community, says Todd, who explains that she has been “frustrated” by the “panic and fear” among academics and university managers alike when she and others have intervened in the debate about sex and gender. “It’s not even that they disagree with me – it’s just that they absolutely panic about their public image, about what students will think instead of thinking...‘what are the principles that make us a world-class institution?’ or ‘what do we want to uphold here?’”

Source: Alamy

Another challenge for Oxford and Cambridge’s new vice-chancellors will be to maintain their global standing. Brexit, Covid-19 and the rapid rise of Chinese universities could see revenue from international students and funders diminish, while the ongoing freeze on domestic tuition fees is also damaging the universities’ attempts to build up endowments comparable to those of their US competitors. 

Indeed, rumours that the government might adopt the Augar review’s proposal to cut annual tuition fees to £7,500 may even push Oxford and Cambridge to sever ties with the student loans system altogether, some observers predict, allowing them to charge closer to the reported £18,000-a-head cost of undergraduate tuition at both institutions. Peter Mandler, professor of modern cultural history at Cambridge, suspects that the issue of both universities going private will rear its head again if the measure is adopted – though, in practice, going private would “not be as easy as it sounds”.

Access to domestic research funding could also be a problem. Although the UK has committed to near-doubling research spending to £20 billion a year by 2024, there are clear signals that extra cash may go outside the so-called golden triangle of Oxbridge and London into northern universities or research centres, as part of the government’s “levelling-up” agenda.

But Brexit is likely to present a far bigger problem, with roughly 10 per cent of Oxbridge’s combined annual £1.2 billion funding for research coming from the EU (Oxford took £62 million in EU-related funds in 2019-20, while the sum was £52 million for Cambridge in 2020-21). Even if the UK is allowed to join Horizon Europe, international academics have already distanced themselves from joint projects with UK scholars, while many universities have found it harder to recruit postdocs (Cambridge has more than 4,200) from Europe post-Brexit.

“Research projects done by people in more than one country are more influential and more impactful. But it’s now getting harder to do this because of Brexit,” says Hillman, who believes that any spanners thrown into those works by Brexit may damage Oxford and Cambridge’s ability to compete with Ivy League institutions. “Unless we’re very careful indeed, we could be at the start of a gradual decline,” he says.

However, the task that may tax any new Oxbridge vice-chancellor more than dealing with the government or the media is negotiating with their own academics. Indeed, Oxford’s job advert specifically calls for someone who can “bring judgement and sensitivity to the leadership of the university’s governance and decision-making structures”.

Oxbridge vice-chancellors are not the CEO-type figures found leading other universities in the UK and around the world. Instead, they are not only accountable to their respective congregations of scholars, who ultimately have a power of veto, but must also negotiate with the constituent colleges, which are independent and self-governing, with their own sources of income.

“The autonomy of the colleges means that it’s really difficult to exercise central, steering, strategic capacity,” one Oxford insider says. “You’ve got 30 or so colleges, each of which has some assets, have their own finances, have their own strategies, have their own alumni stakeholders, student body and governing bodies. It’s really difficult to steer that compared with other universities, where there is much more of a pyramidical structure,” he adds.

Arif Ahmed, a reader in philosophy at Gonville and Caius College who led the opposition to the university’s proposed “respect” guidelines, says that the next vice-chancellor should be someone who is prepared to give ground “because the vice-chancellor doesn’t run the university”. They must recognise that the Regent House is the “supreme” body, and “not treat that body as an inconvenience to be got out of the way, but rather as an essential and precious part of our governance”. Ahmed hopes for someone “who doesn’t mind a fight”: who is “willing to take on people on matters of principle and won’t take the path of least resistance”.

Respecting the college system will also be crucial, says David Abulafia, a professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge, who describes Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Toope’s predecessor, as “a remarkably successful v-c” because he “respected the opinions of the wider community and the place of the colleges within the structure of the university”.

That decentralised system can be frustrating for academics who want to get things done, says Oxford’s Mandler, who hopes for a leader “who’s very good at managing that essential tension – talking, consulting, sharing, but also providing some sense of direction”.

Keeping dons happy is, however, only part of the job. The global status of Oxford and Cambridge means that the role of leading them is more outward- than inward-facing. “Your job is to represent the institution and fundraising is unbelievably important,” according to one Oxbridge academic. “It’s not so much about managing an institution because the management is done really significantly at the college level.”

The difficulties of negotiating the decentralised system loomed large during Richard’s tenure at Cambridge, she admits. However, she still saw her role as keeping “everybody marching more or less under the same flag…reminding people of that from time to time, and keeping everybody feeling part of this larger endeavour. It’s a mighty task. There are layers of consultation and collaboration that are even more extensive than in a university that is without a collegiate system.” That said, she adds, “any university worth the name, in my view, is a place of deep anarchy.”

Gill Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at Cambridge, who also has close ties with Oxford, says many new vice-chancellors are not fully aware of the impact of the decentralised systems. “An awful lot of these highly famous, senior people who’ve been top of all sorts of things have found that they have no power – they don’t know how to run a democracy of argumentative people with strong opinions who can always vote them down,” she says.

Is there a case for governance reform, then? Several vice-chancellors have tried and been frustrated. Sir John Hood, the first appointed external candidate at Oxford, who served from 2004 to 2009, sought to introduce a board of directors with a majority of externally appointed members to approve the budget and oversee the running of the university. His proposals were defeated, however. Evans describes Hood’s tenure as an “absolute disaster”. Within weeks of taking up the role, the New Zealander was “demanding to reform the governance and was voted down after 18 months of fighting and debate and then left after five years”, she says.

Similarly, Alec Broers, in post at Cambridge from 1996 to 2003, tried to reform governance and was broadly defeated. Broers wanted the vice-chancellor to be Cambridge’s principal academic and administrative officer, responsible for the overall direction and management of the university and its finances, The Times reported in 2003. But the only reform he managed to push through was to increase the number of pro vice-chancellors at Cambridge from two to five.

Nevertheless, many at Cambridge and Oxford insist that non-academics have gained power over recent decades. Economist Peter Oppenheimer wrote in a recent issue of Oxford Magazine that reforms carried out in 1999 “unwittingly abolished the academic community’s control over the size and activities of the central administration”. The administration “responded by grossly over-expanding its own staff numbers and by proceeding largely to eliminate participation of the academic body in the university’s governance”, he claims.

For her part, Richard, who took office after Broers, describes her predecessor’s attempts at reform as “heroic”.  But reforming governance structures alone is not enough, she insists. “The truth of the matter is that the best governance arrangements don’t save you if you don’t have a group of people across the face of the university who are working and collaborating together,” she says, adding: “Good governance is not trivial or irrelevant, but it is far from the only key to being able to forge your way towards the future.”

Looking back, Richard described the job of leading Cambridge as “intensely interesting and wonderful, and intensely hard work”. It also requires a high level of physical resilience, she adds. “Being able to get off the plane in Hong Kong after a night on the plane and function intelligently after almost no sleep…these are things that require a certain robustness.”

No doubt there is no shortage of candidates to take over from Toope and Richardson. But it is equally clear that whoever ultimately get the academics’ nod is in for an eventful and gruelling few years.