The battle for Oxford, part two

John Hood, the New Zealander running Oxford, had to rewrite his plans to reform the university after a humiliating defeat by the dons. Lucy Hodges looks at his chances of success second time round
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The Independent Online

The dons were incensed with his ideas to reform the way the university runs itself. They were also upset about proposals to revamp Oxford's libraries and to review academics' work. Hood's big argument was that he wanted Oxford to perform better. The dons did not disagree. But they were more inclined to think that the ancient university was performing all right and they disagreed about his priorities, which they interpreted as emphasiz-ing research at the expense of teaching. Because the anger was so intense the first two issues - governance and libraries - were put on hold while the dons voted on the third matter of assessing their work.

In the event, that vote in Congregation (the academic parliament) went against Hood. He was trounced unequivocally on plans to review dons' work. It was a humiliating defeat, after which it was rumoured that the vice-chancellor threatened to resign. But he was persuaded not to and the university administration went away to lick their wounds and to think again.

Four months on, the vice-chancellor has had a change of heart. The idea of reviewing academics' work has been dropped from Oxford's corporate plan. In place of proposals for a mandatory system of assessing each don's work "with scope to enhance financial rewards, rebalance academic duties and address under-performance" is a much vaguer paragraph which talks about the possibility of restructuring departments in case of sustained underperformance.

The university has produced detailed plans to upgrade the libraries, of which more later, and last week published another document on reform of Oxford's governance. The original proposals on governance had irritated academics and heads of colleges who complained that they compromised colleges' autonomy. They have effectively been torn up.

First time round, the plan was to have an overarching board of trustees, made up entirely of outsiders, to oversee matters such as finance, external relations and the shape and size of the university. In addition, a large academic council of 150 members of the university and colleges would have decided issues to do with teaching and research. The board of trustees' idea was unpopular because it didn't contain any insiders and the council was seen as much too big and unwieldy.

The new plan is to have an overarching body composed of half outsiders and half insiders, chaired by Lord Patten in a personal capacity for an interim period. And the organisation responsible for academic affairs has been shrunk to 36 members.

Professor David Womersley, a member of the group responsible for the original proposals - and the revised ones - expects more debate. "People will recognise that the working party has listened to and taken note of the submissions on the initial proposals and incorporated where they could the ideas put forward by the university as a whole," he says.

Some of the critics have already been won round. Dr Andrew Graham, master of Balliol College, and a critic of the original proposals, is pleased that the plan to have the overarching body made up entirely of outsiders has been dropped. "This was fundamentally different from the traditions of the university and not very workable," he says. "We now have a set of proposals that has a much better chance of getting through."

Professor Alan Ryan, warden of New College, and one of Hood's most outspoken critics in May, believes that the new ideas are much better. "There are a number things they have got right now," he says. "The governing council (the overarching body) can be elected and sacked by Congregation. That defuses the notion that this is a way of taking away power from Congregation. They have got that right and that is terribly important."

Second, putting Chris Patten in to chair the council for the first five years is a sensible use of a valuable political resource and a clever way of pacifying the critics. "I think it ought to work and ought to be the first step of really what is needed," says Ryan.

But not everyone is so sanguine. Because the new documents - on governance and libraries - were published during the vacation, at a time when many academics are still away, very few had had a chance to study them last week. Will all the librarians welcome the plans to upgrade the New Bodleian and the Radcliffe Science Libraries, create a new humanities library and build a new depository at Osney Mead?

On the face of it, they should, because Oxford's libraries are a mess, scattered around the city and housed in old and, in some cases, cramped premises. Most have run out of space. But there is a good deal of resistance to change. Upgrading the libraries will mean a big investment of up to £100m (the depository alone will cost £27m) and probably a lot of disruption.

One academic who did not want to be named said she was in favour the library plan. "I am quite pleased with what we're doing with the libraries," she said. "But I still think there is not a proper risk assessment."

She believed that the fact that the university administration had moved to address the concerns of critics might dispel a lot of the original discontent. "It's encouraging in that they noticed that there was dissent and that it was important to look again at the proposals in the light of what the ordinary workers were thinking and our experience of the place."

But Oxford's administration could still encounter problems, she believes. There are many academics who are opposed to the whole strategy of stabilising or reducing undergraduate numbers and increasing postgraduates. And there are others who were radicalised by the furore earlier this year when the vice-chancellor was voted down in Congregation. These people have been shown how to poke a spanner in the works of Oxford's administration - and more may now come out of the woodwork.

Professor Gillian Evans, the Cambridge medievalist who does much of her research in Oxford, says she is dissatisfied with the proposals for Oxford's libraries. She prefers to work in Oxford than Cambridge but fears that the revamp could spoil that. "A library of this calibre has to care about its readers. But I detect a lack of understanding about readers' needs."

Moreover there are no proper costings, she complains. Oxford is planning to put a new humanities library on the Radcliffe Infirmary site. But the NHS has not decided what to do with this site yet, she says. "This proposal is a sloppy piece of work. I object to the failure to cost the plans properly. If all this goes wrong, it could cost the university ten times what is projected."

Such criticisms may be unrepresentative. It will become clear how much continued resistance Hood faces at meetings of Congregation in November when the governance proposals and the new library depository are discussed.

In brief

Why have Oxford dons been rebelling?

Because they didn't like the plans of the new vice-chancellor, John Hood, to reform the way Oxford runs itself. They also objected to his idea for regular reviews of their work linked to pay.

What did they fear?

Being bullied and losing their jobs.

Who won the fight?

The dons won the first round when they voted down the idea to review academics' work. Hood has learnt his lesson; the proposals on governance have been radically rewritten to take into account the criticisms. The revised version has met with the approval of the master of Balliol and another critic, Professor Alan Ryan, believes they are more workable now.

Has sweetness and light broken out?

Hardly. These are Oxford dons. They thrive on argument and putting up two fingers to the authorities.

Won't the dons like the £100m plans to upgrade the libraries?

Some do. But there is always the potential to upset staff - both academics and librarians - in any big change.

Is this a battle between reactionaries and modernisers?

Well, yes, if you like, although many Oxford dons see Hood as a heavy-handed centraliser who was careless of how he imposed reform on a decentralised, federal institution.

How is the fight viewed by outsiders?

Many see it as a last-ditch attempt by academics to resist reforms that are considered essential if Oxford is to compete on the world stage.

Are they right?

Only time will tell.