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All Souls College: The University is now corporate, not collegiate

Oxford is jeopardising its position near the top of world university league tables. The key reason is the mounting subversion of academic policymaking and governance by the university's central administration — often known as "Wellington Square", after its main office location. Administrative cancer is not unique to Oxford nor to the university sector nor to Britain. What makes it especially menacing at Oxford is that it is causing not merely a quantitative burden but a qualitative deterioration. Today's Oxford degrees are not always what they were and, unless something is done about it, the rest of the world will begin to notice. 

When did this come about, and why or how? The answer to the first question is: mainly in the past decade, but its roots go back at least a decade earlier to the mid-1990s. How and why? There are three dramatis personae. Basically, (1) the Oxford academic community lost its way in responding to (2) UK government policy on higher education, and allowed (3) the central administration at Oxford to take control and pervert the course of university management in pursuit of its own comfort and self-importance. One must add that the upper reaches of today's central administration include various tired or power-hungry academics who find pushing their colleagues around more attractive than teaching or research. 

It has been bi- (or tri-) partisan government policy in Britain since 1980 to dilute the unit of resource in higher education. In the 1980s under Mrs Thatcher aggregate spending on universities was cut. In the 1990s and early 2000s under Messrs Major and Blair (plus Brown) it was somewhat increased, but by much less than student numbers. Resulting cuts in per capita expenditure were facilitated by removing the distinction between universities and polytechnics, and substituting the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and its successors as a public funding allocation mechanism. This has encouraged a belittling of the education process and a gross overvaluation of academic research, especially in the social sciences and humanities, where almost the sole justification for research is as a stimulus to teaching and scholarly awareness.

Until the mid-1990s Oxford took these events in its stride, thanks largely to its corporate culture — democratic, participatory and decentralised. The 1980s budget cuts, approaching 10 per cent, were met with a freeze on academic appointments. As people retired or moved on, their posts were suspended for a period of years, the duration varying with faculty size and the capacity of the former post-holder's college (smaller or poorer colleges finding it harder) to make interim arrangements for the care of their students. Decisions on all individual cases were taken by the so-called General Board of the Faculties, a central committee of working academics, its members appointed by the various faculties so as to constitute a cross-section of the entire academic body.

There was no question of seeking to reduce the number of central administrators, because they constituted by common consent a lean and efficient body — no more than 300 or so persons at the outside — with indis-pensable functions — financial, secretarial, technical, legal, and the care of university buildings. Indeed, there was agreement on the need to expand central administration to seek new sources of funding and in the light of expansion of the university which the Thatcher cuts scarcely interrupted.

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November 7th, 2013
4:11 PM

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