Oxford needs to look outwards for help

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Among European universities, Oxford has the best of reputation. Yet, as the gap between the best European insitutions for higher education widens in relation to top American universities, it is worth asking whether Oxford is, under the current system of management, capable of reform.

The gap between the best American universities and the best in Europe has been widening. Before the second world war, three-quarters of Nobel Prizes in science went to Europe; today that proportion goes to the US. Many of Europe’s academic stars are found in America. Teaching quality is harder to assess, but where the best scholars go, the best tuition tends to follow.

Oxford has the most powerful brand name in education. But those who know and love it have been frustrated not just by the divergence between historic reputation and current reality but by the inability of the institution to address these concerns. The latter, at least, may be changing. It is important to the European economy to encourage these developments.

Oxford itself has a complex collegiate system. A local joke tells of the tourist who, standing among the historic buildings, asks: “But where is the university?” Much teaching takes place in autonomous institutions such as Christ Church and Balliol College. In sciences, departments provide lectures and laboratories. In humanities, teachers lecture as they choose and students attend as they choose, often choosing not to. Most students and many faculty feel primary loyalty to the college rather than the university. To outsiders, this seems the source of the governance problems.

But the real issue has been the inept management of the university’s central institutions – a morass of committees with ill-defined and overlapping responsibilities. If tourists asked: “Where is the university?” they would today be directed to the ugly building in Wellington Square where many of the committees meet. It is rarely clear who is responsible for a decision or even whether a decision has been made. The budgeting or resource planning that other institutions take for granted does not happen.

As a result, the ablest people have retreated to colleges and departments. Every professional service organisation suffers because its stars do not want to run the show. They prefer to criticise as they do “their own work”. In Oxford this has reached absurd dimensions. Five minutes in any college or department reveals strong hostility to “the university”, the interests of which are seen as different from those of its colleges and departments – and they have been different, like a body at war with its limbs.

Last year a new vice-chancellor arrived in Oxford – John Hood, a New Zealander, the first outsider to hold the post. He seeks to end this dichotomy by giving control over “the university” to an assembly of those responsible for colleges and departments. Some diehards, misunderstanding, see this plan as an attack on the autonomy of colleges. In a sense it is: in the same sense that the oarsmen in the sport for which Oxford is famous choose to give up autonomy because it is better for everyone to row in the same direction.

The plans also require the definition of lines of responsibility and accountability. If this does not seem that radical, I recall that when I asked during a previous round of “reform” which body would be responsible for decisions on a range of specific issues, the answer in almost every case was that this would emerge as committees proceeded with their work.

The new vice-chancellor’s most radical proposal is that oversight of management and finance should be handed to independent trustees on lines common among leading US universities. The roll call of Oxford graduates offers a slate of non-executives any company would lust for. Non-executives could not have tolerated Oxford’s poor financial discipline. External accountability is the answer to the belief that “this is how we do it in Oxford” justifies any practice. And my experience is that outsiders have a more meaningful commitment to academic excellence than insiders who pursue internal consensus by eschewing the choices and judgments that quality control requires.

Oxford’s alumni in business and government should make clear not only that they favour the change the vice-chancellor envisages but that their continued support requires it. Tony Blair, prime minister and himself an Oxford graduate, has given universities greater freedom through fees.

If institutional reform follows, there may be a glimmer of hope that Harvard and Stanford will again have competition to fear.

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