The rebels are at the gates

Cambridge is in the grip of a struggle over how it should be run. Two key meetings take place in the next week. Anne McHardy sets the scene
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Tomorrow, rebel dinosaurs of the University of Cambridge – so described by one of the most senior among them, Professor Anthony Edwards – will turn out for a meeting called by the university Council to discuss the job specification for the next vice-chancellor. That meeting, and another gathering on Tuesday, promise fireworks. Lobbying is under way and speeches are being written.

On Tuesday the rebels will gather for a Discussion, the formal way the university undertakes debates. This one has been called by a handful of the rebels. Top of the agenda are proposals to change the university's governance, the most controversial issue the new vice-chancellor, scheduled to take office 16 months from now, will have to grapple with.

The proposals were published in February in the Reporter, the official bulletin, and in a series of consultation meetings, but no Discussion was held last month. The nub of the argument is whether the power of the VC should be that of the chief executive of the university Council or, as the rebels contend, of the senior civil servant operating under the auspices of the real governing authority, Regent House.

The Council, elected every four years, currently puts suggestions for decision by Regent House, a 3,200-strong body of senior academics and administrators, best described as the university's trustees. The Council, described by the rebels as the university's civil service, is chaired by the VC.

The current VC, Sir Alec Broers, whose previous career included a high-flying role in industry with IBM and an academic role as head of Churchill College, Cambridge, is nearing the end of his seven-year term. The job advertisement will be published in May, but the Council appears to believe that power needs to be firmly vested in a "top down" authority, headed by the VC.

The row is akin, Professor Edwards suggests, to the struggle between the House of Commons and Downing Street about where real authority should lie. The reason that changes to governance and the VC's job advert are being linked is that the advert will have to contain the job specification, which it cannot unless the nature of its power is defined.

Even so, the time scale will make change difficult before the new incumbent is chosen. A Council-called Discussion is scheduled for June, followed by a report in July and a probable ballot in October or November. Ten Regent House signatures – the same number as are needed to call a Discussion – are needed to call a ballot.

Under the proposals the VC would almost certainly no longer be responsible to Regent House, but to the Council. The existing system, developed over the centuries, was reviewed by a Royal Commission in 1922 and enshrined in the Oxford and Cambridge Act of 1926.

Cambridge's debate is coloured by the fact that Oxford successfully changed its governance four years ago, after seven years of consultation. There is concern that the vice-chancellor won't be able to withstand pressure from the Government and the Higher Education Funding Council on issues such as the monitoring of academic standards and, most recently the linking of funding with quotas of students from state schools. A further concern is Cambridge's need to attract funding from industry, but to ensure that the cash does not subvert academic integrity.

Debate inevitably starts in a high tone but speedily descends to the bitterly personal, with people already snarling after decades at loggerheads. The proposed governance changes result from calls for reform after rows over Cambridge's new, computerised accounting system, known as Capsa. Capsa was introduced two years ago and an inquiry last November declared it to be riddled with faults and blamed mistakes in its introduction on the lack of clear executive authority at the university.

On Tuesday some of the concerns will undoubtedly be expressed by the rebel with the highest profile, Dr Gill Evans. She was described by one fellow rebel as a persistent "thorn in the flesh" of the university's administrators. Another said she was someone with whom he often agreed politically, but she could be counterproductive as many reacted against her, ignoring her common sense because of personal hostility. Having been instrumental in collecting the signatures for the 30 April Discussion, she is unlikely to stand quiet.

Dr Evans, who has served as an elected Council member, is not an opponent of all reform, but she is a harsh critic of Professor Broers. Governance, she believes, needs reform but not restructuring. It is, she said, ludicrously difficult to get any decision from Regent House, and entrenched interest groups within committees quash change. But that does not mean that executive authority should be with the VC.

The most controversial proposal, she said, was to change the number of signatures required to call a Discussion to 50. Anxious about promotion, people would be reluctant to sign. "That is causing the most fury, that is where we shall end up with blood in the streets. In the past 10 years I have done a lot of signature collection. Getting 10 brave souls is difficult enough."

Professor Edwards said that power is the root problem. "The Council absorbs authority, not leaving much for Regent House. Senior people in the Council see it as their purpose to run the university." What was needed was to make the current governance work. A serious current weakness, he said, was that the lack of coherence meant that the university did not react effectively to external threat. An example of this was when, in 1997, Baroness Blackstone radically changed the funding of colleges, thereby vesting more authority in the university Council, through which funds are now channelled.

The resulting diminution of colleges' autonomy is fuelling opposition within the colleges towards an increase in the executive powers of the VC, Professor Edwards says. "The way that the proposals are being pushed is unsavoury." Oxford's strength was the democratic way it consulted on change, allowing it to modernise without destroying internal democracy.

The university press spokesperson said that nobody from the Council was available last week to talk about the proposals, as the university was still on vacation. She said Professor Broers was not prepared to talk. "It would not be appropriate for the vice-chancellor to talk about his successor."