Can Oxford decide how best to decide?

by Stephen Tall on November 13, 2006

I don’t often write about my day job. Partly that’s because politics, and this blog, is a refuge from my work. Partly because it wouldn’t often be appropriate. Mainly because it would be dull for you to read, and for me to type. (All or some of which may apply to this post, too.)

I work as development director for St Anne’s College in the University of Oxford, responsible for fundraising, alumni relations and communications. I’m not an academic – I know my limits – but, as a fellow of the College who serves on its governing body, I am a member of the University’s Congregation, the ‘parliament of dons’ as it is usually referred to in the press. It’s not that exclusive a club – over 3,000 members – and I’ve never yet had cause to attend one of its meetings, as Congregation is a democratic ‘back-stop’, with most decisions delegated to the University’s Council.

But tomorrow afternoon I will be there, along with hundreds of other members of Congregation – many bussed in from the medical research facilities in and around my Council ward of Headington – to vote on proposed reforms to the University’s governance. To which your response might very well be, ‘So what?’

If so, I’d sympathise with you. I’m not sure quite why the internal rumblings of Oxford are of national interest. But if you read the papers today, and over the week-end, you’d be forgiven for thinking there is no bigger issue in higher education today. (And it can’t all be put down to the usual Oxbridge stranglehold on the media. Cambridge doesn’t score anything like the column inches Oxford does when it comes to negative publicity.)

The Financial Times carried no fewer than three articles today, analysing the issues at stake: here, here and here. The Times a mere two; though The Sunday Times also covered the story. And The Sunday Telegraph and Economist couldn’t resist tossing in gobbets of their own.

Why the fuss? Well, partly it’s an old-fashioned bust-up, and I guess everyone loves one of those no matter what the institution. That it’s an ancient university like Oxford allows journalists to indulge their love of stories laced with plummy vocab like ‘cloisters’, ‘dreaming spires’ and ‘Sheldonian’.

On the one side you have the Vice-Chancellor, John Hood – a tough, taciturn outsider, who has taken the University by the scruff of its neck, and told a few home truths – and on the other side you have traditionalists pithily characterised by one of my colleagues (a proper academic) as ‘joylessly conservative’. Which side of the debate am I on? Go figure.

The dispute – and let no-one kid you it’s been anything other than a daggers-drawn, deeply personalised duel – centres on whether the University’s Council should comprise a bare majority of external lay members.

To the ‘Hoodies’ – as those of us who support the Vice-Chancellor are casually referred – this is, in part, about the public accountability of a private institution in receipt of public funding, and now accountable to the Charity Commission. Oxford has to demonstrate, unabashedly and transparently, that it is acting in the public interest. Ensuring there are lay members with ‘disinterested’ objectivity able to vouch for this is important to the University’s confidence in itself, as well as to public confidence.

More importantly, it is about ensuring the University has the appropriate skills to govern itself. Oxford has an annual turnover of £500m and an endowment of £3bn, employing 15,000 staff, and with 25,000 students. It is a complex and international institution. The idea that academics – who devote their lives to teaching and research – have the time, inclination or expertise to master the intricacies of (for example) its investments, risk management or IT strategies is unrealistic. Yet the University needs to ensure it can call on the advice of highly competent people who do understand these issues, and who are able to hold to account the Vice-Chancellor and his executive team.

For those ‘joyless conservatives’ worried this smacks of a takeover by outsiders insensitive to Oxford or to academia there are two very deliberate safeguards in place.

First, the external lay members of Council will be alumni of the University, some of them distinguished academics from other institutions. They will be elected by, and accountable to, Congregation, and their role will be to act as ‘critical friends’.

Secondly, Council cannot itself initiate any proposals – it can only respond to proposals made by the Academic Board, which is entirely comprised of internal members, 35 of them, representing the various parts of the University: the colleges, academic faculties, and university administrators. This body will be the key to the success (or not) of these reforms.

The central tension at Oxford is exemplified by tutorial fellows who are employed by both their college and their department, and often find themselves pulled, simultaneously, in different directions. The Academic Board is the place where a truly Collegiate University must come together to determine its academic strategy and priorities. That such a body doesnt already exist can be seen either as an amusing quirk of history, or a gaping void in the University’s structures.

I should declare, of course, that there is a fundraising angle to this: donors will not give to an institution they do not believe is well run. I think the governance reforms set out how the University can be better run, and therefore will spend its scarce resources more wisely. That makes my job, of soliciting gifts from St Anne’s alumni and friends, a little bit easier.

Oxford is, in domestic terms, a wealthy university; internationally it is dwarfed by Harvard, which commands a £13bn endowment. And as in Premiership football, so in premiership academia: the talent follows the money.

Oxford, like any other university which wants to succeed in the international market-place of higher education, needs to generate more cash in order to offer bursaries to the best students regardless of background; to be able to recruit and retain the best staff from all over the world; and to provide all who work here with first-class facilities. Anything less is failure.

Oxford is not a business, nor should it be run like one. But it needs to be business-like in its attitude. And that means knowing when to make its bloody mind up. Tomorrow would be a start.

PS: for the record, wearing academic gowns to Congregation is voluntary, and I shan’t be wearing mine. Though not on this occasion because of quibbles that it re-inforces a ‘them and us’ symbolism – all members are entitled to wear an academic gown, after all. It’s just that it’s pretty uncomfortable, gets caught in doors, and looks damn silly when riding a bike.