Oxford university is a great institution, yet unable to adapt to the modern worldby John Kay / December 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
In 1990, Congregation-the “parliament” of Oxford’s 3,000 dons-agreed that the university should establish a business school, a proposal first mooted, and rejected, 25 years before. In 1996, the university announced that after three years of discussions the Syrian-born businessman, Wafic Said, had agreed to donate ?20m to establish the Said Business School, and that John Kay had agreed to be its first director. Congregation then rejected a proposal to use a playing field once owned by Merton College as the site of the school. After a year-long battle, it was agreed that construction would begin opposite Oxford station on a building which should be completed in 2001. But soon after construction began, Kay resigned as director.
The university of Oxford is one of Britain’s great institutions. It commands affection and respect across the world. Yet today there is also a sense of malaise, both inside and outside the university: a belief that Oxford finds it difficult to adapt to changing educational and social needs, a fear that it can no longer maintain its pre-eminence. There is real cause for this disquiet. My object here is not to consider how Oxford needs to change to meet the challenges of the 21st century. It is to discuss, from my own experience, a prior issue: why the university seems unable even to address the question.
It is not easy to describe Oxford’s governance structure. This difficulty is not just my own. Management consultants Coopers & Lybrand, reporting on Oxford’s governance in 1996, noted that “in one of our meetings, the expression of bewilderment by one person was explained by others as being due to the fact that he had been in Oxford for only seven years.”
The university has no structures of authority, responsibility and accountability, and many of its officers and members have no concept of such structures. The system is a morass of committees with ill-defined and overlapping jurisdictions. I once sp…