City of spires and unequal aspirations

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WALK UP St Aldates, round the throng of bicycles in front of Christchurch College, turn right into Blue Boar Street, and you can't miss them. You know they're there because Oxford City Council has put up an embossed metal sign proclaiming their presence. TOILETS, it says. In front, a helpful soul has inserted the word LADIES in white paint. The shaky lettering is hand-written and clearly new, as if the female of the species had just stepped off the tour bus.

Ha] So Oxford really is the male chauvinist place everyone says it is. Clever me to have found you. The accusation has grown ever louder this week, since the news that the General Board of Faculties was planning to use pounds 100,000 of its discretionary funds to create 15 new professors, and that probably none of them - though no one admitted it - would be a woman.

If ever there was an issue to signal that Oxford's female academics were united in leaning out of the windows, mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, this was it. No longer would women's rights be an inconvenient afterthought. Or so I thought. But perfect metaphors don't grow on trees, still more rarely on hand-painted signboards. The issues are not so simple.

The board's original proposal, which most academics agree was probably a cock-up rather than a genuine conspiracy, has caused a terrible row. 'It seems to have been made with blatant disregard for all equal opportunities considerations,' says Jennifer Hornsby, a philosophy tutor at Corpus Christi College, and a leading light in the successful 1987 campaign to establish equal opportunities at Oxford.

Dr Hornsby and others have put forward a counter-proposal, a resolution signed by 79 tutors, who want the money used to create new readers (the stage between lecturers and professors). There are more women lecturers to promote to readerships, they argue, than there are women readers to make professors. So creating new readerships would be fairer.

The authorities have fought back with an amendment. Why not have professorships this year, and readerships next year, and a review of the whole business at the same time? The Congregation, or university parliament, will decide on Tuesday.

Three days before the ballot, very few know how they should cast their vote. 'It's exasperating,' says one lecturer. 'One of the other signatories asked me this morning, 'Are we for the resolution, or for the amendment, or for the resolution and against the amendment? I'm confused.' '

So is everyone else. Farther down the road, beyond Oriel Square, nestles tiny Corpus Christi, a gem of perfect medieval intimacy. The college specialises in classics, though you might not know it from the noticeboard that is swamped by a poster advertising the college ball: all the gin you can drink, and the Ministry of Sound for pounds 40 a single ticket. Will the proposal be rescinded on Tuesday, I ask a passing oarsman in a blue sweatshirt. 'God knows,' he answers. 'I'm looking for my cox.'

If many students are unconcerned, lecturers are downright frightened. This is not just about gender - it is another example of the age-old clash between the protected traditions of academe and the realities of competition. Tricky questions are being asked about whether the promotion system was right in the first place. It's not something Oxford dons ever bothered their heads about - or so they say - and it's making them very uncomfortable.

'This isn't just about women's rights,' explains Stephen Harrison. 'It's about the whole business of promotion by merit,' a concept that is new and still viewed with suspicion by those raised on Oxford's higher principles.

A 32-year-old Latin tutor and a specialist of Virgil's poetry, Mr Harrison is still too young to be considered for a readership, but that does not stop him promoting the women's cause. 'It's simply a question of natural justice.'

He glances out of the window at a cascade of summer flowers. 'Before all this started, Oxford had no jockeying for promotion because only 10 per cent of lecturers ever got promoted,' he says. The vast majority knew that all they would get between the ages of 25 and 45 was the standard pay increase given to everyone. 'Then merit awards were introduced; performance pay; a career structure . . . and that is really divisive.'

Yet envy arising from simple worldly competitiveness is not the only problem. Candidates are selected for promotion on the basis of their academic research. But everyone knows Oxford lecturers spend most of their time on teaching and administration. 'There's a contradiction between this way of conducting promotions and the sort of work that forms the basis of an Oxford career,' Mr Harrison adds. 'You can be an excellent teacher and yet not be promoted because you've spent your time looking after students rather than writing up papers.'

And there's a further issue: one of the key perks of promotion is a reduced work load. A university lecturer teaches 12 hours a week, a reader eight hours, and a professor only six hours. Cutting back on teaching is what all lecturers are after. 'The main benefit of these promotions is not financial,' Dr Hornsby points out. 'It's the extra time - with which you can do more research. So there's an element of 'Unto everyone that hath shall be given'.'

Meanwhile, what about the quality of the teaching? 'Under this system, it's not just that lecturers are prepared to neglect their students because of their work; they're actually paid to neglect their students,' claims one lecturer.

It is uncertain who will carry the vote on Tuesday. As the sun goes down over the spires, Corpus lecturers hurry to dinner. If they stopped at the chapel, they would see the Bible was open at the Book of Revelations. Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him and he with me.

Sandra Barwick writes this week on page 29.

(Photograph omitted)