| Patten: Hopes dashed
London, Nov. 29: Controversial plans to “modernise” the business side of how Oxford is run by bringing in outside experts from the world of business were defeated by 730 votes to 456 at a meeting yesterday of the university’s congregation.
The proposals are being pushed by Oxford’s New Zealand-born Vice-Chancellor Dr John Hood, who has provoked a storm of opposition from academics with his plan to appoint lay members from outside the university on to its governing council.
The vote took place in the historic 17th century Sheldonian Theatre, where degrees are usually conferred. Not all of the university’s 3,770 congregation can get into the Christophen Wren-designed circular building at the same time.
The university loses £5,000 a year for every undergraduate it teaches and this year, faces a budget deficit of £8m.
One of Hood’s supporters, Andrew Dilcot, principal of St Hugh’s College, said he was disappointed with the result.
He said: “We have been at this for two years now. It’s a long process, it’s a democratic process and today is an important part of it. I am disappointed with the number of people who turned up and I am disappointed with the outcome. We need to reflect on how we should go forward.”
The problem is that the dons who run Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world stretching back 900 years, do not want to relinquish power to business figures, politicians and individuals from outside.
Almost a quarter of its students, spread among 39 colleges, now come from abroad with more than 130 nationalities represented among its 18,000 students. The university would like more from India.
The plans advocated by Hood were comprehensively defeated at a meeting of the congregation but the final decision may go to a postal ballot of 3,770 academic, library and administrative staff members.
In the plans outlined in a “White Paper”, the 26-member council with four lay members would have been replaced by a 15-place council with eight outside members including the chairman, who would be Lord Patten, the current Chancellor, for the first five years.
The council would deal with the £800m-a-year business but an academic board would remain in charge of academic matters. The congregation, the “dons’ parliament”, would retain veto power but opponents of change feared its influence would be severely undermined.
The proposed plan is being backed by Patten, who did not attend yesterday’s debate but he apparently fears that unless Oxford and Cambridge reform themselves, the government will impose changes on the two ancient seats of learning to bring them in line with the way other universities are governed.
He believes that without reforms, it will be harder to raise private money that the university will need to support students from poorer backgrounds.
It is possible that the supporters of change will now go for a postal vote in an effort to overturn yesterday’s result.
Hood said: “We are engaged in a lengthy and complex democratic process which has clearly reached an important stage. That process permits a postal vote, and a decision about that will have to be taken in the next few days. It is for council or 50 members of the congregation to take that decision, which is entirely in keeping with the university’s democratic process.”
But there are other dons who would like Hood’s head on a platter.
The traditionalists would like to retain the collegiate character of Oxford life. Recently, there have been suggestions that the university as a whole should decide which candidates should be offered coveted places at Oxford. But admission tutors from individual colleges say they should retain the right to decide who goes to which college.