Both critics and supporters of Oxford University's reform are doomed to disappointmentby Alan Ryan / July 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
University governance is a subject for insomniacs. It is uninteresting in itself, and irrelevant to the everyday lives of even academics and students. It appeals to New Labour because of a characteristic delusion that if you can establish the right system of accountability, efficiency will follow—to which one reply is: “Enron.” There was nothing wrong with the corporate structure of Enron; it just happened to be run by crooks.
Universities aren’t run by crooks; to the extent that there have been scandals in post-secondary education, they have occurred in colleges directly under the control of local government. So why has Oxford spent the past two years quarrelling about governance? For a very silly reason. In the course of the 2003 Lambert report on relations between universities and business, there were a couple of paragraphs—apparently inserted by the treasury rather than the author—asserting that Oxford and Cambridge needed to modernise their governance to prevent their collegiate structure holding up progress. Since the report also said that both Oxford and Cambridge were doing very well in co-operating with business, it wasn’t clear what the problem was, other than the chancellor’s prejudices against Oxbridge. If there was a problem caused by college sluggishness—as distinct from a shortage of time and money or the divided aims natural to institutions pursuing everything from astrophysics to Assyrology—no evidence was presented to back it up.
So, Oxford now has a white paper on governance, the central aim of which is to appease Gordon Brown; a lesser aim is to gratify the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), since it is a major funder and doesn’t like the fact that Oxbridge doesn’t look like everyone else. For all that, the white paper is elegant. It has tried to square the circle, and it has come close to doing so. Non-Oxbridge universities have a familiar structure: a senate or its equivalent supervises internal operations and answers to a council, which—following the recommendations of the 1997 Dearing report—has a majority of lay members on it. Oxbridge has a parliament of academics—Congregation in Oxford, Regent House in Cambridge—which is sovereign. Oxford and Cambridge are self-owned and self-governing; the ex-polytechnics are owned by their councils; the pre-1992 institutions are chartered corporations or—as is the LSE—limited companies. In all cases, their councils are, legally, sovereign.
Sticking a council of the sort that Hefce finds comfortable atop a sovereign body such as…