Mutiny at Oxford?

Oxford's new Kiwi vice-chancellor wants to drag the ancient university into the modern age. But he'll have a fight on his hands with the traditionalists, writes Lucy Hodges
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The Independent Online

The oldest university in the English-speaking world is undergoing a revolution at the hands of a New Zealander - or it will if he has his way. Last week Dr John Hood, the new vice-chancellor of Oxford University and a dynamic former captain of industry, published his second Green Paper in two months. The first focuses on the course Oxford should be following - fewer home students, more postgraduates, more teaching done by PhD students; the second, and the more contentious, is about governance.

The oldest university in the English-speaking world is undergoing a revolution at the hands of a New Zealander - or it will if he has his way. Last week Dr John Hood, the new vice-chancellor of Oxford University and a dynamic former captain of industry, published his second Green Paper in two months. The first focuses on the course Oxford should be following - fewer home students, more postgraduates, more teaching done by PhD students; the second, and the more contentious, is about governance.

Oxford has never seen anything like it. A university that is notoriously slow-moving and conservative in the way it organises itself is suddenly being shaken up by the ultimate outsider, an antipodean and the first vice-chancellor not to have been an Oxford academic. His argument is simple: reform or become mediocre. If Oxford wants to remain a leading global university, it needs to streamline its cumbersome 800-year-old decision-making structures. He is proposing that the process whereby the university and the colleges consider their affairs in parallel be swept away. In its place would be a single 150-strong academic council drawn from faculties and all 39 colleges. "If we can bring everything together in one organisation we will have decisions taken by people with the same information set," Dr Hood says.

At present, business is debated twice by different groups of people, who often have differing information to hand. The criticism is that this slows things up and makes change difficult to effect. It was one reason why Professor John Kay, the first director of Saïd Business School, resigned. Oxford was "sinking in a morass of committees, inertia and muddle", he wrote at the time. It wasn't changing to meet the challenges of the 21st century and wasn't even able to address the question of how to change.

Dr Hood is seeing to that. He is also proposing a new entity, a board of trustees made up of 13 outsiders that will oversee the finances and investment policy of the university. Until now that job has been done by the governing council. But it is not considered to have been done well, which is why the university had trouble putting in place an effective financial management system.

Most universities in the UK and the US have a separate body for institutional governance, the Green Paper points out. And there is a need to draw on expertise that is not available within Oxford, it adds. The hope is that all these changes would lead not only to quicker and better decision making, but to greater understanding and trust.

The colleges, however, may not see it that way. Gillian Evans, a professor of medieval history at Cambridge and an expert on the Byzantine ways of the ancient universities, believes the proposals are dynamite. "The one thing that will get people upset is interference with the autonomy of colleges," she says. "Each college's governing body will have to agree to join their decision-making with the university - and they won't do that. I would expect there to be riots in the streets."

In fact, some Oxford academics see the proposals as amounting to the abolition of the college system. One college head, who refused to be named, said: "This will eat into the freedom of colleges in dramatic ways and seems to be the beginnings of a process through which the central university will try to take control of all aspects of college self-government, particularly to eliminate their financial freedom." Another Oxford man said it would destroy the character of Oxford and replace it with a strong central administration, turning the colleges into decorative halls of residence.

Dr Hood, however, denies that he is trying to break the colleges. This system is sacrosanct, he says. "The colleges have a very important role. They are responsible for teaching our undergraduate students. Their role is not affected."

The heads of Oxford's colleges are broadly supportive, he says. Lord Butler, Master of University College, agrees with Dr Hood that the proposals do not undermine colleges' autonomy. "The colleges are independent trusts," he says. "To that extent, this doesn't affect them at all. If they want to disagree with something they will be able to vote against it." But he is unable to say whether academics at University College would be for or against. "No one would have set up an institution in which all the parts are self-governing entities," he says. "These are historic proposals. Everyone will have to view them on their merits."

Such is the dons' depth of distrust of the university, it will be debatable whether they will view the proposals dispassionately. Moreover, Dr Hood has put up backs by moving at such breakneck speed. Stories have spread about his lack of schmoozing skill compared to his predecessor, Sir Colin Lucas, and some dons have poked fun at the Maori quotations in his inauguration speech. They also suspect that he finds Oxford's traditions ridiculous, particularly the proctors who are in charge of discipline and wear white bow ties and special gowns.

More seriously, there is concern at Dr Hood's removal of so many senior university officers. He has replaced Mike Smithson, the head of fund-raising, with Dr Jon Dellandrea, of the University of Toronto, and John Clements, the director of finance, with Giles Kerr, previously of Amersham International. Now it has been announced that the well-respected David Holmes, the registrar, will be retiring early, as will Anthony Weale, the academic registrar.

Rumour has it that Dr Hood has set himself five years in which to transform Oxford. Will there be a rebellion before he succeeds?

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

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