Oxford Is Selling Degrees To Pay For Bureaucrats

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.

Admission and other arrangements for postgraduate students are handled primarily through Wellington Square, in contrast with the collegiate arrangements operating for undergraduates. The steady increase in postgraduate numbers — to a total of about 5,000 by the end of the century, around half as many as the total number of undergraduates — meant a need for more central officials. So did rising requirements, and opportunities, for research grant applications, mainly in medicine and the physical sciences, together with prospects for commercial exploitation of scientific findings.

Equally significant, in the later 1980s Oxford established a Development and Alumni Office to raise money from private and overseas sources. The individual colleges did likewise, mainly vis-à-vis their own alumni, and a good deal more effectively than the central authorities. Given that until the mid-20th century Oxford had depended throughout its history on private and charitable funding, it is surprising how readily it was seduced after 1945 into reliance on government handouts, and how lamely it submits now to orders from Whitehall, when public funding has again become a small enough fraction of its total income to be readily discarded through constructive management. Moreover, not just Oxford itself and the small number of other universities that might join it in such an initiative but the British university system as a whole would benefit from a Declaration of Independence on Oxford’s part.

This failure of will and perspective has been associated with an internal decay of governance and corporate culture. And this was just when the expansion of the central administrative apparatus (its numbers had more than doubled by the end of the millennium, to some 650 persons) called for a strengthening of grassroots control to ensure that academic purposes were not submerged. 

The opposite happened. Reflecting an old Russian saying, the fish began to rot from the head downwards. It is now 20 years since Oxford had a vice-chancellor fit for purpose. The cause has been less the fallibility of individuals than a misconceived shift in the nature of the office. The vice-chancellor at Oxford needs to be a team captain, not a half-baked chief executive. The office customarily rotated through the heads of college, who held it in turn for two or three years. The early 1990s brought a Whitehall-inspired decision to lengthen the vice-chancellor’s tenure. An early incumbent under the new dispensation, Dr Peter North (1993-97), appointed himself head of a commission of fellow-academics, advised by Coopers and Lybrand, to propose changes in Oxford’s governance structures. The outcome was calamitous. Far from showing sensitivity to the merits of Oxford’s inherited decision-taking machinery, North proposed further enlargement of central bureaucracy, together with emasculation of grassroots governance, both through enhancement of the vice-chancellor’s role and entourage, including the University council, and fragmentation of the former General Board into several separate boards, subsequently renamed divisions. 

The renaming was apt. The new structure precisely divided the university against itself, has provoked a waste of effort and resources, and created threats to academic standards. Faculties were cut off at a stroke from sharing in strategic academic policy decisions. Division heads and pro-vice-chancellors were, and are, appointed top-down rather than by election from the grassroots — a clear recipe for installing the unsuitable, those relishing authority rather than agreeing to be of service. The only appropriate piece of divisional organisation was that of clinical medicine. Alone among the divisions this comprises just a single faculty. More important, it is semi-detached in every sense from the university at large, and is essentially a network of research institutes, accounting for two-thirds of the university’s proclaimed research income.

Initial implementation of the North proposals under his successor Colin Lucas (1997-2004) coincided with failures of new IT systems and of financial control, which furnished a pretext for employing scores of additional central administrators. When, however, those control failures were rectified under the abrasive Vice-Chancellor John Hood (2004-09) the number of central administrators continued its remorseless increase. Central administrative staff numbers rose between 1999-2000 and 2008-09 by approximately two-thirds, from 650 to 1,020, the entire increase being surplus to any intrinsic requirement. Since then, the total has continued to expand by about 1.5 per cent per annum on a like-for-like basis. In 2012 Wellington Square added a further 200 to its staff numbers by absorbing two computer services units from the academic establishment, on the grounds of overlap with central administrative functions and greater efficiency. But there has not been a single consequent redundancy. The extent of overstaffing is today at least 35 per cent, or 450 individuals, at an annual cost of around £25 million. Assuming a yield of 3 per cent, this corresponds to an endowment of £850 million, i.e. the whole of what the central Development Office (as opposed to the colleges) has raised under the current “Oxford Thinking” campaign. Is that what the campaign donors wanted? 

The astonishing thing is that Wellington Square tacitly admits its guilt, in two distinct ways. First, it obstructs external scrutiny of its own finances, and second, it masquerades as an academic body in its own right.

In principle, Wellington Square is constitutionally obliged to seek approval for its own budget from the sovereign academic assembly of Congregation. In practice, the obligation is simply disregarded, and Congregation has been lamentably incapable of asserting it. Wellington Square appropriates upfront whatever sums it finds convenient to spend on itself. Thereafter it has been content — until now — to order the rest of the university and colleges to make up any resultant faculty “deficits” by whatever means they can devise. 

Forcing separate parts of the academic community to be financially self-contained in this way runs counter to the fundamental idea of a university, and is a cheap substitute for serious collaborative thought about its structure and interrelationships. A prominent route to correcting some faculty “deficits” has been the proliferation of one-year postgraduate taught courses, for which neither fees nor student numbers are subject to Whitehall approval. Such courses account for much of the doubling — to around 10,000 — of the postgraduate student population since 2000. It is an open secret at Oxford that some of these additional students and the courses they take are sub-standard. Furthermore, the strategy is a distraction from any serious attempt to reach out to the disadvantaged and encourage social mobility. In effect, in order to maintain the central administration in comfort, Oxford nowadays offers to sell a Master’s degree in nine months, i.e. one academic year, without too much fuss about academic quality on either side. This cannot continue indefinitely without damaging Oxford’s academic standing. 

Belated recognition of the danger may underlie the recent apparent U-turn by the current vice-chancellor, Andrew Hamilton. No longer, it seems, can the balancing of academic budgets be palmed off onto separate faculties. Instead, in his oration marking the start of the academic year, he announced an impending £70 million deficit in something called the university’s overall teaching budget, a refreshing if incoherent new concept. Correction of this deficit, we were told, will require an increase in the standard undergraduate fee from £9,000 a year to £16,000.

The way to achieve this is not, however, to look plaintively for a nod from Whitehall. Rather, it is for Oxford’s academic community to resume control of its affairs, and to introduce a proper means-tested fee-structure, with the richest 10-15 per cent of undergraduates paying not £16,000 but at least £20,000 a year, and the least affluent paying nothing, as at present, with diminished reliance for revenue generation on one-year postgraduate courses.

The true financial gap is about one-third smaller than that claimed by the vice-chancellor, because the university is spending about £25 million a year more on its central administration than is justifiable. Part of this is overstaffing in essential areas, such as finance or IT. But other parts sustain activities which have no place in the central administration of a collegiate university. Bits of Wellington Square, such as the so-called Learning Institute, or the Equality and Diversity Unit, contrive public seminar programmes and vacuous newsletters to keep their staff occupied. Others, such as the Undergraduate Admissions Office or the Student Administration Division, busy themselves duplicating, or interfering with, college responsibilities. Yet others, such as the pompously named Public Affairs Directorate or the totally otiose divisional offices, act as cheerleaders and propagandists by announcing who has won prizes, or that Oxford humanities graduates matriculating between 1960 and 1989 had jolly good careers after leaving university. How surprising. Especially when in those days only about 10 per cent of Oxford finalists were awarded first-class degrees, and not 30 per cent as is the case today. 

In 1951 the medieval historian Austin Poole, then President of St John’s College, published his classic volume in the Oxford History of England, From Domesday Book to Magna Carta, 1087 to 1216. His preface began: “This book has occupied the leisure hours of some twenty years of my life, which has been principally engaged in teaching and administration.” We cannot turn the clock back 60 years. But if Oxford is to maintain over the next 60 years its place of special esteem in the firmament of higher education, it has to find a way to reintegrate academic values with     university management, and to rid itself of the distasteful bureaucratic opportunism which now threatens to suffocate it.

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