Leading article: Oxford's plan makes sense

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The Independent Online

Oxford University last week announced it was to press ahead with controversial reforms of the way that it governs itself despite bitter opposition from some dons.

The proposals will give outsiders, for the first time, power to decide how the 800-year-old institution is run. The reforms are an attempt to harness the expertise of business leaders, politicians and others from outside Oxford. But academics fear the current democratic system of governance will be lost. Under the plans, seven outsiders and seven insiders will join the proposed new University Council, while the university's chancellor, currently Lord Patten, will chair the group and have the casting vote. Its council currently has 26 members, of whom only four are lay members. The council will oversee Oxford's financial and investment policy, legal issues and auditing, according to the university's "white paper" published last week.

Dr John Hood, Oxford's vice-chancellor, whose reforming zeal has angered some academics, insists the proposals are essential. "Putting the right governance arrangements in place is vital if we are to maintain the academic pre-eminence and global reputation of Oxford University," he says. However, the proposals represent a significant watering-down of last year's original plans. Oxford's bosses were taken aback by the opposition to these - which would have taken power from ordinary dons and given more clout to university leaders in decision making. The vice-chancellor has been forced into a major climbdown on some key parts. Under the revised proposals, the university's Congregation - the parliament of ordinary academics - will retain its powers to put a spanner in the works. Congregation will also now control the controversial nominations committee to select outsiders for membership of council.

Previously, ordinary dons would have been a minority on the committee. That sparked fears that university bosses would use it to fill the council with compliant supporters. The latest proposals are a good compromise. It is important for all universities to adapt to compete. Oxford faces increasing global competition and serious financial constraints. Reform is necessary but that should not mean losing much of the present democratic system. These scaled-back proposals strike a good balance. Whether the dons will agree this autumn is another matter.

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