Oxford dons reject plan to hand powers to 'oligarchy' of outsiders

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The Independent Online

Oxford dons have rejected plans to hand over control of the 900-year-old university to business and political leaders.

The bitter row, which has rumbled on for much of the past year, split academics into opposing camps while allegations of dirty tricks and acrimony have shattered the peace of the famous cloisters.

But a majority of members of Oxford's Congregation - the so-called parliament of Dons - rejected the proposals in a postal ballot that has undermined the authority of the scheme's architect, the vice-chancellor, John Hood. His backers claimed reform was necessary to drag the institution into the 21st century and compete with the Ivy League colleges of the United States in an increasingly competitive global market for research and higher education. Those who opposed him said Oxford's historic independence was being lost and centuries-old democratic traditions were being flung away in favour of "oligarchy".

Dr Hood, a New Zealander and former businessman, is the first outsider to hold the vice-chancellorship. He insisted yesterday that he would not stand down. "I shall continue to work unstintingly as the servant of a university with a great past and a great future," he said in a statement.

Calling for unity, he said: "In all the challenges we face as a university, we shall fare best if we are able to work collegially on the basis of mutual trust and respect."

Nicholas Bamforth, a fellow of Queen's College who led the opposition to the plans during a three-hour debate last month inSir Christopher Wren's Sheldonian Theatre, called for both camps to work together now. "Clearly people don't want disruption but I am sure that there are all sorts of useful things that could be taken forward."

He said the dispute had never been about personalities and did not expect Dr Hood to stand down. "We're thoroughly in favour of outside advice but we are not in favour of outside control," he said.

The proposals were sent out to 4,000 members of the Oxford Congregation after the vice-chancellor narrowly lost the Sheldonian meeting. Of the 1,540 postal votes cast, opponents again won, this time by a majority of 543. Under the proposals, which would have had a profound impact on British higher education, Dr Hood wanted to introduce more expert lay members on a new university council. These he claimed would bring objectivity and business expertise to the way Oxford is run.

Modernisers point out that Oxford is in danger of falling behind rivals such as Harvard, which has four times the endowment and can command twice the tuition fees. However, opponents said the reforms ignored the difference in culture between academia and the business world, and neutered the power of the academics.

Speaking after the announcement, Dr Hood said: "I think Oxford is an argumentative place. I think it's a very, very good thing. This university... prides itself on its democratic, self-governance traditions, it prides itself on its academic freedom and, throughout its history, it has achieved outcomes that have proven to be in the best interests of the university through intense debate. All we have really seen in the last period of time is a continuation of that great tradition."