May 19, 2005
All is not well in the city of dreaming spires:
Just eight months after being appointed vice-chancellor of Oxford University—the first outsider elected to lead the institution in its 900-year history—New Zealander John Hood is discovering that British academia can be brutal:
The vice-chancellor, who has hit Oxford like a tornado with his ideas for change since he arrived, has proposed a raft of reforms that have sorely provoked the academic staff, antagonising lecturers, professors and heads of colleges. “Seeing people wrecking Oxford is disagreeable,” says Professor Alan Ryan, warden of New College and a noted political theorist. “John Hood would be well advised to read Machiavelli’s The Prince, which contains a section on the difficulties of reducing free states to subservience. …You stick a businessman in charge of a university and it’s all a complete cock-up. He doesn’t know what the job is about and he doesn’t know what the place is for. His first act is always to get into a fight and piss everyone off.”
You can always rely on a philosopher to find the right words. (It’s also worth noting that New College got its name because it was founded quite recently, in 1379.)
At the heart of this firestorm is the new vice-chancellor’s proposal for regular, joint university-college reviews of academics’ work “with scope to enhance financial rewards, rebalance academic duties, and address underperformance.” Some academics who were considered to have been underperforming in medicine, the sciences and math have already received letters warning them that “In the event that your performance does not reach a satisfactory standard, there may be no option but for the situation to be considered under the university’s formal disciplinary procedures... which might lead to termination of your employment.”
If Hood expected Oxford dons to accept this kind of heresy, he was in for a shock. When the measure was put to the vote on Tuesday, the university’s 3,552-member Congregation (i.e., governing body) threw it out by 351 votes to 153. Unsurprisingly, Hood’s other plans—such as rationalizing the university’s revered but sprawling libraries, including the sacrosanct Bodleian—are now on hold too. One anti-Hood leaflet described his proposals as “an outmoded and neo-Luddite corporate mindset based on US-style managerialism.” Ouch.
But Oxford desperately needs dragging into the 21st century—in fact even the 19th would do. Hood’s plan to centralize decision-making for its 39 colleges would be a good start—the university’s complex system of governance makes it effectively unmanageable, which means it has been unable to get to grips with its many budget woes. But what Oxford really needs is independence. Right now it gets a government subsidy of around $100 million a year on the condition that it charges each student less than $12,000 annually for tuition—far less than top U.S. colleges charge.
Independence would rob Oxford of its subsidy, but paradoxically enable it to charge enough to wipe out its financial deficit (even if it continued to subsidize students who were unable to pay the full fees). Real-world fees would also help it win back some of the top academics it has lost to the U.S. in recent years—and rebuild an academic reputation that has in recent years been slipping down the global top ten.
Expect all this to take a few more centuries.
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