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A battle for change at Oxford University

Hasan Suroor

In a controversial move, Oxford University has decided that academics will no longer have total control over decision-making but will share it with a group of outside experts drawn from the fields of business and management.

FOR 900 years, Oxford University has been governed in a way that has no parallel in the world. It has been hailed as the last bastion of unfettered academic autonomy (more autonomous than even its doughty rival Cambridge) — a show conceived, designed, choreographed, and presented by academics. A system so unique that even those who pay do not get to call the tune.

But on Tuesday, in a controversial move that critics described as a first step towards U.S.-style "corporatism," Oxford University decided that academics would no longer have total control over decision-making but would share it with a group of outside experts drawn from the fields of business and management.

Key governing council

Indeed, they were lucky they got to keep at least some control. Under the original plan, watered down after an all-mighty row that nearly shook the dreaming spires of Oxford, the hitherto all-powerful dons would have been reduced to playing second fiddle to external experts. The "outsiders" were slated to be given a majority on the restructured governing Council, the University's key governing body.

For centuries, all decisions — academic, administrative, and financial — have been taken by academics through a 26-member council composed entirely of "insiders." The original plan proposed by Oxford's controversially non-British Vice-Chancellor, John Hood, was to replace the council with a 15-member executive board comprising seven "insiders" and eight "outsiders" effectively handing over strategic control to people not directly connected to the University.

But faced with the prospect of a defeat that could have forced him to resign, Dr. Hood agreed to defer for five years his proposal to give a majority of places on the new board to outsiders. For now, both academics and outside experts would have equal representation.

The last-minute compromise helped him win the grudging support of the university's 3,000-strong Congregation — "the parliament of dons" — after a heated two-hour debate that, according to one newspaper report, saw some of the most senior academics "trade insults."

Even its diluted form, the change represents a historic break with Oxford's traditional way of running its affairs, and has divided not just Oxford's academic community but Britain's wider chattering class down the middle.

The vote on Tuesday was preceded by an acrimonious campaign marked by accusations of "betrayal" of Oxford's traditions, dire warnings about the university's future, and allegations of a "hidden" government-inspired agenda to destroy academic freedom.

The Old Oxbridge Boys' network in the national media went to town detailing every twist and turn in the "Great Battle" for the future of Oxford. Even the venerable magazine The Economist waded into the controversy, throwing its weight behind the "reformers" who argue that the proposed changes — aimed at opening up the university's "arcane" and "insular" governance by bringing in professionals from outside — are necessary if Oxford is to retain its status as a world-class university in an increasingly competitive environment.

The reforms are also meant to improve Oxford's finances by focussing financial decisions and academic programmes around what critics have called "money-spinning" schemes. Colleges might be encouraged to concentrate on research at the cost of undergraduate teaching because research attracts more funding, both from the government and private sources.

"The effect will be to shift some of the university's 490 million annual funding from the poorer colleges to the richer ones, rewarding research over undergraduate teaching," said a report in The Sunday Telegraph.

Indeed, at the heart of the Oxford debate is the financial crisis facing Britain's universities — a legacy of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who sharply reduced government spending on higher education. This is compounded by the British people's insistence on their "right" to free university education without having to pay extra taxes to fund universities. Oxford is said to be facing a budget deficit of 8 million this year as a result of the huge gap between what it spends on each undergraduate and what it gets per domestic student. It says that even after the recent increase in fee and the government subsidy, it is left with a shortfall of 5,000 a year per student.

More and more universities are turning to overseas students who are increasingly seen as "cash cows" because they pay full fee that is several times more than the pittance that domestic and EU students have to pay. In a desperate move to "sell" Oxford abroad, its Chancellor, Chris Patten, made an unprecedented trip to India earlier this year to woo Indian students.

Expressing concern that Britain was falling further behind the U.S. in attracting the best foreign students, Lord Patten said: "We have to fight very hard to keep our position in the world league table to stay up there with Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and MIT."

Effects of financial constraints

The debilitating effect of financial constraints on British universities is already beginning to show. As The Economist pointed out, leading British academics "earn around half of what their counterparts in America get... Their teaching loads are heavier and their administrative tasks more arduous." It was "astounding," it said, that Cambridge and Oxford were still ranked among the world's best universities — just behind Harvard, according to a Times Higher Education Supplement survey.

Low salaries, high workload, and shrinking career prospects are prompting British academics to look for greener pastures across the Atlantic.

There are also reports of more and more British students applying for places in major American universities such as Harvard and Princeton because they have more money to offer bursaries than Oxford or Cambridge.

The events at Oxford this week may not please academics but then who likes to give up power unless forced to?

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