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Westminster politics has nothing on Oxford’s battles

In defence of the beleaguered vice-chancellor

21 November 2007

12:00 AM

21 November 2007

12:00 AM

In the last month, another respected international survey placed Oxford and Cambridge joint second to Harvard in the league table of world-class universities. This confirms what others have suggested in recent years. Moreover, other British universities — most notably London’s Imperial College and University College — came out high on the list. There are, alas, too few areas of our national life — the armed forces, the City of London, our diplomatic service — where we do as well in global comparisons. And it matters.

There is quite a lot of clichéd nonsense talked about the knowledge economy. But there’s some truth in it as well. There really is a relationship between the quality of education and research and future economic wellbeing. Also, though it is not as often celebrated, there is a close connection between the sort of society we are and the sort of society we will become on the one hand, and the quality and health of our universities on the other. Less than a century ago many of the great research-based universities in America were based on the German model. Today — bad news for Europe with Asia breathing down our neck — there is not a single German university in the world’s top 50.

Running Oxford in today’s highly competitive circumstances is no pushover, as our present vice-chancellor, John Hood, and his predecessors like Colin Lucas and Peter North, would readily concede. How do you keep a British university at the top of the tree when your American competitors have so much more money to spend?

There are additional challenges at Oxbridge. Our two great universities are collegiate. There are immense advantages in this. It helps to sustain a unique learning experience and a real sense of corporate academic endeavour. But you cannot sit at the centre, pull levers and watch things jump into place. Drawing on my own experience in Hong Kong, I realise that the university authorities cannot deal with colleges — nor do they — like colonial dependencies. They are competing sovereignties. But the colleges have to recognise that without the university there would be no obvious role for them. A strong university requires strong and more prosperous colleges — and the reverse is also true.

A world-class university is both at the cutting-edge of change and a guardian of tradition. But all its members have to remember the wisdom of Tancredi in Lampedusa’s great novel The Leopard — ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’

John Hood was selected as vice-chancellor of Oxford in 2003 after a hugely successful period at the University of Auckland. He did not inherit parched terrain. He followed in the footsteps of others who had laboured mightily and not without success to move Oxford along and move Oxford up — to nudge things a bit at a time in the right direction. Like John Hood they had a tough time, and like him they found it hugely rewarding, though I would guess also pretty frustrating at times.

John Hood told me some time ago that five years in the job would be all that he wanted to do. I am not surprised. I have never done the same job myself for more than five years.

Hood already has a remarkable record to his credit. He has sorted out management and financial snarl-ups. He has recruited outstanding colleagues and put in place professional management of our endowment funds. He has presided over a big jump in our research budget — our new research contracts soared by 45 per cent last year. He has seen the opening of new centres and institutes — from the Oxford-Man Institute of Quantitative Finance to the Reuters Centre for the Study of Journalism. We have a new agreed academic strategy, an ambitious programme of capital projects, stronger relations with our alumni and an improved procedure for admissions. We will be launching a big fundraising campaign next year that will build on our recent success in raising well over £100 million, year in, year out. Our new financial appeal will, among other things, give us more cash for bigger bursaries for poorer students.

John Hood’s only frustration, as he puts in place further programmes and projects over the next two years, will be that we have still not sorted out the issue of governance, which has been passed from one set of university administrators to another. This is not an issue that will go away. No one is trying to turn Oxford into Wal-Mart. There is no threat to academic independence or collegial autonomy. The issue at stake is simply how we apply the best and most appropriate standards of accountability to Oxford and Cambridge in the 21st century. I hope that we can resolve this issue ourselves rather than have a solution imposed on us, as happened with Oxford’s governance in the distant past. The Charity Commission, the university funding body (HEFCE), the political parties at Westminster, our alumni and our benefactors are not going to let this issue go unresolved. We should not kid ourselves either in the Thames Valley or the Fens.

It is bad luck for John Hood that he found himself in the thick of what will, I suspect, be among the last stages of this long-running rumpus. As a former politician, observing university politics as a herbivore might watch carnivores, I recall Henry Kissinger’s remark when asked how he had managed to prepare himself for the Nixon White House, ‘It’s easy,’ he said. ‘I spent the previous 20 years at Harvard.’

Well, we will get there in the end, holding on, I am sure, to our worldwide status and renown thanks to all those teachers and researchers at Oxford who care so passionately about the university. And thanks as well to the brave leadership of men like John Hood, Colin Lucas and Peter North.

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