Oxford dons seek withdrawal of new promotion system

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The Independent Online
DONS at Oxford want to sweep out the competitive ethos which has crept into their lives and to return to the egalitarian 'republic of letters' which existed there for hundreds of years.

Almost 2,500 academic and administrative staff at the university are to vote in a postal ballot on moves which could put an end to their promotion prospects.

Surprisingly, many of them want to halt recent increases in the number of professorships and readerships, which they say have been divisive and demoralising for those who have been passed over.

Under pressure from the Government to reward excellence, the university has created more than 50 new professors in the past five years, plus at least 20 readers, who rank in between lecturers and professors.

Last year, a row blew up because female academics complained that not enough women were being promoted. Now some staff are saying it would be better not to have any promotions at all.

The university's general board has drawn up a paper listing three options, which has been sent to all members of the academic staff. It will be debated early next year at a meeting in the Sheldonian Theatre and a postal ballot will almost certainly be held.

The first two options are to continue the current trend, or to have an even more dramatic increase in the number of promoted posts. The third is a return to the system which existed before the modern world was allowed to impinge upon the groves of academe.

Between 1965 and 1985, the paper says, just four promotions a year were granted to staff with exceptional records. The number of professorial chairs was so small that few even aspired to one. A fourth option of turning all staff into professors, contained in an earlier version of the paper, has now been dropped.

The Association of University Teachers at the university has declared itself in favour of more widespread promotion in recognition of achievement in research, teaching and administration. However, not all staff agree.

Dr Edward Gill, acting head of pharmacology, said the title of professor was in danger of being debased. He suggested that changes had been forced on the university by the Conservatives in retaliation for the dons' refusal to award an honorary degree to Margaret Thatcher.

'It seems to me that Mrs Thatcher got her revenge and it did a good deal of damage. This system has achieved nothing - it has wasted a great deal of time and generated ill-will.

'This was a jolly agreeable place to work and the rules of the game were that you didn't spend your life looking over your shoulder,' he said.

Dr John Peach, chairman of the general board, said he did not fully subscribe to the view that the university should be 'a republic of letters where everyone is equal'. Most of those in favour of this idea were in the arts, he said, while the scientists tended to be against.

'The scientists say young people now expect a normal system of promotion. It is still thought that there are people here with very considerable qualities, and that it is a pity we can't honour them.

'There is some evidence that some of our people are leaving for other universities because they don't see any prospect of internal promotion,' he said.