Chapter 1 - Introduction

1.1 In Hilary Term 1994, the University's Hebdomadal Council agreed to establish a Commission of Inquiry, to be chaired by the then Vice-Chancellor (Dr P.M. North) to review a wide range of issues concerning the operation and structure of the University of Oxford, and its decision-making machinery. Having completed our work, we submit this report to Council, the General Board and Congregation. We are also, in a supplementary volume to this report, publishing various studies which we commissioned as part of our work, summaries of the results of consultations we undertook, and some other working papers. This supplementary volume is being distributed to colleges and departments and is available on request from the University Offices.

I: Background to the establishment of the Commission

1.2 The decision to establish the Commission arose out of recognition that many important issues being considered by different bodies within Oxford were closely related, but that there was no obvious way of ensuring that their consideration was brought together and coordinated. Such issues included the determination of the proper balance between teaching, research and administration, both for individuals and in the work of Oxford as a whole; the future of the present joint appointments system (whereby most of Oxford's university lecturers are jointly employed by the University and a college); and concern over the continuing inequalities in the level of resources available to different colleges (and the consequent inequalities in the remuneration of their academic staff). In addition, it was perceived that there were other substantial matters which were being addressed only in part or even not at all, including the University's planning and decision-making machinery, and Oxford's long term structure, size and shape.

1.3 The Hebdomadal Council appointed a small group to consider whether there was a case for a wider review, and if so what its terms of reference and membership should be. The group was chaired by Dr North as Vice-Chancellor, and its other members were the then Chairman of the General Board (Dr J.V. Peach), the Master of St Peter's College as Chairman of the Conference of Colleges, and the Provost of Worcester College as Chairman of the College Contributions Committee and of the Colleges' Fees Committee.

1.4 This group met during Hilary Term 1994. It recommended that, because of the difficulties of achieving a coordinated approach to considering many of the matters mentioned above, a wider review of these questions - and of the University's machinery for considering them - was required. This would enable proper account to be taken of the inter-locking nature of the issues themselves, and would also provide an opportunity to take stock of the implications of changes within Oxford in the last thirty years, and of the impact of developing government and funding council policies. The proposal was for a Commission of Inquiry which could review these issues; this would have been difficult for existing bodies to do, given their day to day preoccupations and the divisions of responsibility between them.

1.5 This proposal to establish a Commission was approved by Council at its meeting on 14 March 1994, and, after the Commission's membership had been settled, an announcement was made in the University Gazette of 14 July 1994.[1] The Commission's terms of reference and membership are given at the beginning of this report. Subsequently, a general resolution endorsing the establishment of the Commission was discussed and approved at a meeting of Congregation held on 1 November 1994.[2]

II: The Commission's working methods

Timetable and organisation of work

1.6 We met for the first time in October 1994. Our original intention was to produce a final report within 18 months of starting work, but for several reasons it has proved necessary to operate on a longer timescale. The task of gathering information and undertaking consultation has proved more time consuming than expected, as has subsequent analysis of this information. In addition, while we were working the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (the Dearing Committee) was established, and was required to report by the summer of 1997, which it did on 23 July.[3] We concluded that it would be sensible to delay the completion of our own report so that we could take at least some account of the Dearing Committee's report. This revision to our timetable was announced in the Gazette of 15 May 1997.[4]

1.7 We met as a full Commission a total of 47 times. 13 of these meetings took place over two days on a residential basis. In addition, we established three sub-groups to take forward particular parts of our agenda. One considered teaching and learning, the second research, and the third financial matters. This last sub-group included representatives of the Estates Bursars' Committee and we are grateful for their contribution.

1.8 Our secretariat comprised two members of the University's central administration, Mr M.D. Sibly (Secretary) and Mrs S.E. Samuelson (Assistant Secretary). The Registrar of the University, Dr A.J. Dorey, also attended all our plenary meetings.

Evidence and consultation

1.9 We began our work by preparing a 'Framework Document' which was issued in January 1995 and sent to all 3,000 or so members of Congregation, as well as to other staff, to bodies representing non-academic staff and junior members of the University, and to a number of bodies outside Oxford. This document set out the background to the Commission's work, and described the main issues which we intended to address and our reasons for doing so, inviting comments on our agenda. In response we received 83 letters and submissions, including seven from college governing bodies, over 50 from individuals, and 23 from various university bodies and representatives of external organisations.[5]

1.10 The responses suggested that there were two topics to which more explicit emphasis should be given in our agenda, namely the possibility of greater delegation of responsibility for resource allocation within the University, and the organisation of faculties and departments under the General Board. Otherwise, the suggestions for additional agenda items were, we felt, already implicit in the Framework Document's outline of issues to be covered. We took all the points raised carefully into account.

1.11 As our work progressed, we undertook a wide range of further consultation. In February 1996 we issued a consultative paper on Oxford's future objectives, structure, size and shape, which also raised a number of questions about the joint appointments system and the role of the colleges in Oxford. We received 108 responses to this paper, which are reflected throughout our report and in particular in Chapters 3 and 7.[6]

1.12 In April 1995, after competitive tendering, we appointed the consultants Coopers and Lybrand to undertake a study of the University's arrangements for governance, and to prepare a report to be used as a basis for consultation.[7] This report was published in March 1996, and was widely circulated within Oxford and elsewhere; in addition a summary of the report (which is reproduced in the supplementary volume to this report) was sent to all members of Congregation. In response to an invitation to comment on it we received submissions from over 100 individuals and bodies within Oxford and elsewhere. Later, at the end of 1996, we discussed our own draft proposals on governance with Council, the General Board, the Committee of Heads of Science Departments, the Chairmen of Humanities and Social Science Faculty Boards, and the Conference of Colleges.

1.13 During Hilary Term 1996 we conducted three extensive surveys of staff and students in Oxford, seeking both factual information and opinion. These surveys took the form of postal questionnaires, which asked a large number of specific questions, and also gave those responding the opportunity to make comments on any subject they wished. Sample copies of the questionnaires are contained in the supplementary volume to this report. The first questionnaire was addressed to over 3,000 staff employed by the University and the colleges to undertake teaching and/or research; the second to a sample of one in five graduate students (a total of about 1,000); and the third to a sample of one in four undergraduate students (a total of about 2,000). The technical aspects of these surveys were handled for us by staff of the Computing Unit at the University's Social Studies Faculty Centre, who both assisted in the design of the questionnaires, and piloted them on a small sample of staff and students. They also organised the selection of the samples of students for the main surveys and the initial data analysis. Five graduate students of the University (Richard O'Leary, George Speight, Lucy Eyre, Philip Barton and Jonathan Palmer) conducted initial analyses of the surveys for us (including comparisons with data from the Franks Commission's surveys)[8], while Dr Francis Marriott of the Department of Statistics prepared a report on the surveys which is contained in the supplementary volume to our report. We are grateful to them and to others who assisted with this major consultative exercise.

1.14 The response rates to the survey questionnaires were generally high: 75.4 per cent in the case of the staff survey, 68.7 per cent for the undergraduate survey, and 73.3 per cent for the graduate survey. In addition, almost 1,000 of the respondents to the staff survey (nearly one third) made written comments in response to the general invitation to do so, as did some 400 undergraduate and 300 graduate students. These replies have produced a mass of data, both quantitative and qualitative, about teaching and learning in Oxford in 1996. As well as being summarised in the supplementary volume to this report, the data has been referred to at various points throughout this main report.

1.15 We consulted within Oxford and more widely on a range of other issues. Invitations to comment on matters relating to research were issued to faculty boards, departments and colleges, as well as to representatives of external organisations which sponsor research in Oxford (research councils, charities, and industrial and commercial interests). We surveyed colleges about the nature and extent of the support which they provide for research: the results, which underline the scale of this support, are reflected in particular in Chapter 11. Colleges were also consulted about several other questions, including the effects of differences in the levels of resources available to them, and whether the current arrangements for their collective representation should be changed.

1.16 Summaries of the outcome of all the consultation which we undertook are provided in the supplementary volume to this report.

1.17 As well as consulting widely, we set in hand a number of other studies and gathered a range of further information relevant to our agenda. We commissioned from an independent consultant, Dr Harry Atkinson, detailed studies on the governance of Oxford and five other UK universities, and we are grateful to the other institutions which were the subject of these studies for their cooperation.[9] We also obtained information about the governance of certain higher education institutions in North America. These studies are reproduced in the supplementary volume.

1.18 The consultants KPMG, working initially with the accountants Clark Whitehill, were commissioned to prepare a report on financial modelling, which has informed our discussion of a number of important issues; the results are reflected in particular in Chapters 3 and 6. A report by KPMG arising from this work is reproduced in the supplementary volume to this report. Representatives of the Committee of Estates Bursars provided advice on aspects of this work, and have also supplied other information.

1.19 Finally, we have received a large number (over 200) of other submissions from individuals within and outside Oxford (a number of the latter being graduates of the University), as well as from various bodies and representative groups within Oxford and elsewhere. These have all been helpful in informing our thinking.

The cost of our work

1.20 The total cost of our work was approximately £280k. This figure comprises the following principal elements:

(i) £190k consultancy fees;

(ii) £30k in travel and subsistence costs for members of the Commission (including the costs of weekend residential meetings);

(iii) £22k for the cost of printing and distributing the report and the supplementary volume;

(iv) some £40k for the costs of printing and distributing consultative papers and associated material.

Other costs - and in particular those of providing a secretariat to the Commission - were absorbed within the budget of the University's central administration.

The relationship between the Commission's work and that of other bodies in Oxford

1.21 We were concerned from the outset that the establishment of the Commission should not delay work already in progress elsewhere in Oxford, even where it might overlap with our own agenda. To that end we have kept under review the work of other bodies within the University which has been relevant to the issues which we have considered. We have noted, for example, the initiatives taken in 1996-7 by Council and the General Board's joint Resources Committee in developing the University's capacity for strategic planning and have noted that the General Board is seeking from faculty boards the submission of longer term plans.[10] On questions concerning joint appointments, we have taken into account the work of the General Board's and Senior Tutors' Committee's joint Working Party on the 'common contract'.[11] Similarly, we have been kept informed of the thinking of the Review Committee on the Management of the Clinical School, of the Technology Transfer Arrangements Review Committee, and of the Working Party on University Sites, each of which submitted reports to Council or the General Board whilst we have been at work. We have also considered the report of the College Contributions Committee submitted to Council in 1995, which reviewed the scheme whereby wealthier colleges contribute to a fund to support the less well-endowed colleges.[12]

1.22 We have welcomed the progress made in all these areas, and have taken it into account in formulating our own proposals, many of which are designed to build on such work. On the other hand, there are areas of our work which have, as far as we know, not been the subject of any detailed or structured consideration by the University's central bodies in recent years. These include in particular issues concerning governance which we discuss in Chapters 4, 5 and 6 undergraduate teaching (discussed in Chapter 9), and the organisation and support of research (discussed in Chapter 11).

1.23 Given that certain aspects of our work have overlapped with those of other bodies in Oxford, we should make clear at the outset that we are not providing detailed answers to all the varied questions which have been raised with us. We have addressed many of them, but our prime intention has been to propose a framework within which more detailed answers can be worked out. We have also been concerned that the Commission should not take on the role of a standing body, nor should it act as a substitute for other bodies which already exist. Our approach has been that where there are, or we have proposed that there should be, bodies with a clear remit to consider issues which have been raised with us - however important - then they should be considered by those bodies rather than taken up in this report.

Relationship between our work and that of previous reviews

1.24 Looking back over the last two centuries, it is clear that systematic reviews of Oxford have rarely been undertaken by the University itself. Fundamental changes in Oxford's structure and objectives have more often been imposed from outside, usually by the state, rather than generated from within. External intervention was particularly apparent in the Royal Commissions of 1850-52, 1877-82, and the Asquith Commission of 1919-22, each of which prompted important reforms.[13] The last major review of the University's structure, size and shape was however an internal one, conducted by the Franks Commission in 1964-6.[14] Even so, the establishment of that Commission of Inquiry was very much prompted by external criticisms of what were described as 'Oxford's obscure administrative structures' in the Report of the Robbins Committee, published in 1963,[15] which was the last major national review of higher education before that of the Dearing Committee this year.

1.25 We have been conscious throughout our work of the example of the Franks Report. There are many who still regard it as the bench mark against which to measure any review of Oxford and its activities, and we shall refer to its recommendations at various points. However, we also note that many of the Report's most important recommendations were not implemented. In particular, many of the proposals on governance, and some of the fundamental recommendations about teaching, were not accepted. We give further examples of this sort in Chapters 2 and 4; and an analysis of which of the recommendations of the Franks Report were implemented and which were not is provided in the supplementary volume to this report. As will become clear, we believe that there remains considerable force in the reasoning behind a number of the recommendations of the Franks Report which were not adopted, although their particular form may need reconsideration in the light of developments over the intervening thirty years.

1.26 The present Commission of Inquiry was established in rather different circumstances from that of Franks. Whilst it was in part prompted by broader developments in the higher education system in the UK, such as changes in the size and composition of the student population, changes in course structures, and the changing funding position (all of which are considered more fully in Chapter 2), the decision to establish the Commission came from within Oxford itself. It reflected a recognition that there were broad strategic issues which Oxford needed to address, and which the existing machinery of governance appeared unable to tackle effectively. Since then the scale of change in UK higher education, and the challenges facing it, have led to the Dearing Report. The University's anticipation of the need for a major review of its structure and purpose is a good indication that Oxford fully recognises the importance of keeping these matters under active consideration, rather than allowing them to rest until some external inquiry prompts action. It is important that Oxford should demonstrate clearly its capacity to do this successfully.


1.27 We provide in Appendix B a glossary of abbreviations used in this report. We also draw attention here to two sets of terms which it may be helpful to clarify. First, we have adopted the practice of the Franks Commission[16] and used the word 'Oxford' to refer to the whole university, covering both the University in the narrow sense, and the colleges. We have used 'University' to refer to the University in contrast to the colleges, and 'colleges' to denote the colleges of Oxford in contrast to the University.

1.28 Secondly, we have used several terms to describe those staff employed by the University to undertake teaching and research. Thirty years ago those engaged in teaching and research in Oxford were a relatively homogeneous group. Now there is much greater variety, and at least three broad groups may be distinguished:

  • There are some 1,300 established academic staff - university and CUF[17] lecturers, readers and professors; most hold joint appointments and all are entitled to college fellowships; all hold their appointments under academic contracts. We describe this group as 'academic staff'.
  • There is a large group of academic staff employed solely by the colleges. No systematic information exists about these staff, but our own survey in Hilary Term 1996 suggests that they number about 1,250. They appear to be a disparate group, most of whom are employed to teach; they include stipendiary lecturers who receive regular salaries, but also many others who are employed on a piece rate basis including graduate students. Few appear to have a contractual duty to undertake research, but many do so. They are described in this report as 'college teaching staff'.
  • There are some 2,000 research staff employed by the University on academic-related contracts, a group larger than either of the other two. We describe this group as 'academic-related research staff'. Some of them hold very senior positions (equivalent to readerships or professorships); some (about 250) hold established (i.e. permanent) posts, but the majority are on fixed-term contracts. Many such research staff (about 500) were submitted as research-active staff in the University's return to the 1996 Research Assessment Exercise, and evidence from our 1996 survey suggests that about 500 of them also teach.

1.29 We should add that we have used these various terms for clarification only: they are not intended to make or imply any judgements about the position of the three groups of staff.


1.30 Throughout this report we refer to statistical data on students, staff, and financial matters. It will become apparent that the range and quality of the data available is variable, especially when attempts are being made to show changes over a number of years using long time series. Particular problems are created by changes in definitions used in compiling data, or where some data have only begun to be collected recently. These problems affect both data on national developments (some examples of which are given in the Dearing Report), and Oxford data.

1.31 In compiling data, we have sought to adopt a common basis for comparing changes over time, usually seeking to use 1965-6 and 1995-6 as the years for comparison. (It might have been desirable to use 1996-7 data instead of that for 1995-6, but whilst the former is sometimes available it is often not, and for the sake of consistency we have not in general used it.) Where information for 1965-6 or 1995-6 is not available we have used the best data which we have been able to obtain.