Oxford dons humiliate vice-chancellor and reject his reform plans
By Sarah Cassidy, Education Correspondent
Published: 29 November 2006
Oxford dons inflicted a humiliating defeat on their vice-chancellor last night when they rejected his plans to overturn 900 years of tradition and hand control of the university to outsiders from the worlds of business and politics.
The poll of Oxford‘s "parliament of dons" rejected the proposals from John Hood by 730 votes to 456, prompting speculation that he could be forced to resign.
Dr Hood, a New Zealander, former captain of industry and the first outsider to run Oxford, has been unpopular with dons for attempting to push through a raft of reforms, including performance-related pay, since joining the university in 2004.
Academics rejected his controversial plans to have a majority of lay members on the proposed new University Council – in effect a board of governors which would oversee the running of Oxford. The proposals sparked a storm of protest from academics who feared that the uniquely democratic nature of Oxford would be lost.
They argued that the reforms would place too much power in the hands of business people and politicians with little understanding of Oxford who would merely follow the orders of the vice-chancellor.
The issue had led to a bitter battle. But yesterday’s victory for the rebels is not necessarily the end of the dispute – although it is a clear indication of the overwhelming opposition to the proposals. A postal ballot of all 3,700 members of Congregation – the university’s parliament of academics – is now likely to be held to enable all those who could not attend the debate to have their say.
Nearly 1,200 members of the Congregation packed into Oxford‘s Sheldonian Theatre to debate Dr Hood’s governance "white paper" before voting to reject the controversial plans. Dr Hood’s proposals had been supported by many senior Oxford figures including the university chancellor, Lord Patten.
The former governor of Hong Kong had warned that without the reforms it would be much harder to raise the private money the university will need to support more students from poor backgrounds.
But the rebel dons, who had called for the plans to be thrown out, argued that the reforms would undermine the university’s standing and called for Oxford insiders to retain control of the council.
Nicholas Bamforth, a law fellow at The Queen’s College, told yesterday’s meeting that Dr Hood’s proposals would not solve any of Oxford‘s problems and would actually do more harm than good.
"The proposed statute will also leave us worse off," he said. "Oxford thrives as it does precisely because it is a diverse, decentralised academic community. There are plenty of things that are wrong with the university’s present administrative processes. But these are best resolved by administrative reform – not by the wholesale ripping up of our present constitution."
Donald Fraser, a professor of earth sciences and Fellow of Worcester College, spoke against the plans in the debate. "A university is not a corporate enterprise where we are all disposable units of production in an integrated academic factory," he said. "The success of the present governance of Oxford and Cambridge is that both allow freedom, pluralism and democracy."
At present Oxford‘s council has 26 members, of whom only four are lay members.