Oxford given lesson by business boffins

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Oxford is under threat from management consultants, who have recommended sweeping changes to modernise the university and bring it up to date with its competitors.

Consultants from Coopers and Lybrand say that its reputation for research is under threat, that the curriculum is in danger of becoming outdated and that dons have lost touch with the way Oxford works.

The report has been presented to a commission of inquiry for the university which will draw up its own conclusions before the end of the year. If it takes up the recommendations, it will be the first challenge in three decades to the way in which Oxford is run.

The report says: "A system that requires a disproportionate amount of time to understand and can then be manipulated by the few who have the time to make the effort can hardly be described as democratic and it certainly does not serve to produce much sense of accountability." The consultants, Quentin Thompson and Clare Matterson, whose report has been circulated among senior academics, interviewed 200 university members and a number of outsiders over a year.

The consultants say the present system holds back development in teaching and research. They recommend a stronger central administration for the university, which functions on the collegiate system, and more power for specialists who divide their time between the colleges. Any threat to the existing system is likely to be resisted by dons, many of whom are fiercely protective of the college set-up. They say that without it, students would lose out on one-to-one tuition , which is the basis of the university's teaching reputation.

Robert Stevens, the Master of Pembroke College, said: "Many of the ideas are very sensible, but my worry is that we could end up with the worst of both worlds, destroying the teaching structure which makes the university what it is, without getting into the first division for research."

If the recommendations are taken up, the Congregation, the dons' parliament, would be replaced as the supreme body of power in the university by a streamlined general council which would include college heads, elected dons and up to three outsiders.

A number of colleges would also specialise in a limited number of subjects, rather than trying to teach everything; the university would set up a central unit to prevent wasteful internal competition for research grants; and Oxford would take a more prominent role in developing ideas and policy on higher education.

Among those disappointed with the report was Sir Walter Bodmer, the scientist who will take over as head of Hertford College in September. He said: "I am amazed they say they want more democracy. I would have thought that one of Oxford's problems is that it's absolutely riddled with democracy and cannot take decisions."