GIVEN THE pervasive stereotypes it has bred about itself - dreaming spires, lost causes, undergraduates out of Evelyn Waugh and dons out of Anthony Powell - it's easy to cast current arguments about the management of Oxford University in similar terms: academic port-sippers waging a vain last-ditch attempt to hold back the 21st century.
But it's not so simple. Running a university is tricky. Unlike the NHS, British universities have not had an injection of funds to help square the circle of dramatically boosting output with no fall-off in academic standards. In addition they are full of clever, opinionated people whose job it is to disagree with each other.
At Oxbridge, these starting conditions are vastly compounded by two more: the division between the university and the colleges, to whom most dons owe primary allegiance and a centuries-long history of being unique. New Zealander John Hood, Oxford's controversial vice-chancellor, is the first outsider to head the university in 900 years.
Other universities have dealt with the management issue by brutal centralisation. They are no longer administered by academics but by highly paid managers as likely to be consultants as professors. They have bulldozed through sweeping changes, using government research and teaching assessments to control academic staff, and funding procedures to dictate academic and other priorities.
The Observer, 12 November 2006
In government terms, this has been largely successful in getting academic institutions to do as they are told, even though the costs are high: war between managers and academics, unspeakable bureaucracy, and a haemorrhaging of young talent from a teaching profession where, for most, morale is as low as pay.
Oxford has never undergone this managerialist revolution, and that is what the current fuss is all about. So far, like Cambridge, Oxford has done wonders in competing in a world market for education with a fraction of the resources of its north American rivals. In international league tables, Oxford and Cambridge are consistently the only non-US entries in the global top 10 and even top 15. But Oxford is falling behind arch-rival Cambridge, and even the anti-reformers concede that change is necessary.
The university badly needs money - it loses pounds 5,000 a year for every undergraduate, and will post a deficit this year. More money requires tough decisions, but tough decisions is just what Oxford doesn't do: decisions are cloaked in opac ity and take too long there is no method of resolving contentious issues and there's a glaring lack of external input and expertise.
Supposedly 'self-governing', in practice, the university is 'the least democratic institution I know', says John Kay, who used to head the university's Said Business School. 'They don't realise it, but everyone you talk to speaks of the university as "them", not "we". They're wedded to an unworkable model.'
So what kind of change is it to be? How can the place be made more agile without destroying what makes it unique? The vice-chancellor, who put dons' backs up just eight months into office with a (defeated) attempt to introduce individual appraisals, is pushing proposals by an official working party which, while leaving formal primacy of Congregation (Oxford's 'parliament' of 3,700 lecturers and fellows) intact, would separate out academic affairs from finance and organisation. The latter would be the purview of a 15-strong council, on which external members would have a majority.
The proposals are fiercely resisted by critics who believe they are the first step towards centralised business-style management. They charge that the trappings of democracy are a sham, and that Congregation will be powerless to hold to account an executive that is determined to play down Oxford's traditional emphasis on teaching humanities to bright but low-paying undergraduates and play up the government's numbers game: recruiting higher-paid staff to university faculties rather than colleges, incentivising them to concentrate on funds-generating research, and switching the teaching emphasis to higher-paying postgraduate students from abroad.
They point to the hard-ball tactics used by Hood at a rancorous and inconclusive Congregation meeting last week as a portent: 'If you think Congregation will be able to hold back an aggressive and secretive management team, you're smoking dope,' says Peter Johnson, a management fellow from Exeter College. Johnson, in previous life a management consultant, argues that the proposed governance architecture is in any case more suitable to a machine bureaucracy than to communities of professionals - and past its sell-by date even in the commercial world.
Kay agrees that there should be an open debate about what the university aims (and can afford) to be before deciding on governance that has to choose between the centralised model or deliberately doing the opposite. Either way, the stakes at the next debate on the proposals, on 28 November, are high: if Oxford doesn't reform itself, there are dire hints (blackmail, say the antis) that the government may take a hand.