Chapter 4 -The Current governance of the University

I: Introduction

4.1 In this chapter we consider the University's present arrangements for governance. Drawing on the evidence and consultation described in Chapter 1, we review the main features of these arrangements and identify where improvements need to be made. In particular, we argue that:

  • it should be clearer who is making decisions, on what basis, and to whom the decision-makers are accountable.
  • where possible, decision-making should be delegated so that faculties, departments, and those working within them have more involvement in making decisions which affect them, as well as more responsibility for their consequences.
  • Oxford as a whole needs to improve its capacity to think about its longer term direction, and to enable strategic matters to be addressed.
  • Academic planning should be more closely linked to decisions on resource allocation.

4.2 The bulk of our analysis was undertaken before the publication of the Dearing Report in July 1997, which considers institutional governance and makes various recommendations which have a bearing on the material in this chapter and the next.[57] While many of the objectives of the changes which we shall propose are shared by the Dearing Report, our specific proposals are different, above all because Oxford (like Cambridge) has a constitutional structure which differs fundamentally from that of almost all other universities. We argue more fully in Chapter 5 that our proposals do, nonetheless, meet the essential requirements which have been set out in the Dearing Report, particularly in terms of achieving clarity of responsibility in decision-making.

II: General themes

4.3 A number of general themes underlie much of the discussion which follows. One is that Oxford's structures of governance must be robust enough to enable the University to respond to the need for change while remaining in control of its own future. This is especially important given the accelerating pace of change in higher education, and in society and the economy more widely. There has for some time, for example, been great uncertainty about the long term funding of higher education, and about the development of its future shape and structure. These uncertainties will not be resolved until the full implications of the Dearing Report and the government's response to it are known. Whatever the outcome, Oxford needs to be better at thinking about the broad direction it wishes to take, rather than allowing such direction to emerge through an accumulation of individual decisions, which may not necessarily be consistent with each other and whose overall impact may not have been fully thought out. If this can be done, then changes which occur are also more likely to be ones which the University has clearly chosen for itself rather than those which have been imposed on it.

4.4 Secondly, Oxford has changed significantly in both size and shape since the days of the Franks Report of the mid-1960s. As we noted in Chapter 2, Oxford is now a much larger, more complex and more diverse university than it was thirty years ago. This has important implications for governance. One of them is that the sheer volume of business facing the University, and the effort required to administer it, are now much greater. The University's methods of governance need to be able to handle this greater volume of complex business effectively, and to do so in a way which is clear to the world outside Oxford, whilst ensuring that members of the University are kept informed of what is happening and have the opportunity to take part in major decisions. This is not an easy balance to strike.

4.5 Thirdly, and far more so than in the past, the issues facing those working in some subject areas differ markedly from issues facing those in other subject areas. These differences include variations in their main sources of funding, their relationships with external bodies, their organisation of undergraduate teaching and graduate work, and the nature of developments in research. This point becomes very clear if one considers the different patterns of activity in clinical medicine, the sciences and the humanities and social sciences.[58] If Oxford is to remain viable as a single university, its structures of governance must be both flexible enough to accommodate this diversity, and strong enough to hold a large and complex organisation together effectively. We have concluded that the present central bodies (Council and the General Board) do not exercise a sufficient unifying influence. In consequence they are widely perceived as remote and their roles are little understood in Oxford at large. We must address this problem.

4.6 Fourthly, Oxford's distinctive characteristics as a self-governing collegiate university need to be taken into account in considering the structures of governance most appropriate to it. These features of Oxford would make it difficult simply to import structures which exist in most other UK universities, even though Oxford must ensure that its own systems are as effective and efficient as those elsewhere. This point has become particularly important following the publication of the Dearing Report, which as we noted above makes a number of recommendations about institutional governance. As we described in Chapter 1 (paragraph 1.17), we have studied practice at other universities in some detail, and this has been helpful in illustrating a range of useful principles and guidelines; but we do not believe that practice elsewhere provides all the answers.

4.7 Finally, we should add that, in examining issues of governance we have not found it helpful to oversimplify the issues as a quest for 'efficiency' or 'effectiveness'. Nobody wants an inefficient or ineffective system: the real question is how to achieve a satisfactory balance between efficiency and other requirements, such as openness and accountability in decision-making, and hence legitimacy. As the Franks Report commented, juxtaposing concepts such as 'efficiency' and 'democracy' is not particularly helpful.[59] Oxford's governance should encourage both efficiency and democracy, as well as other qualities.

III: Oxford's present system of governance

Convocation and Congregation

4.8 As we have noted, the main feature which distinguishes Oxford's governance from that of all other UK universities except Cambridge is that sovereign power is vested in bodies comprising academic, and senior academic-related,[60] staff. This reflects Oxford's position as a self-governing community of scholars. In contrast, the 'governing body' of other universities is usually much smaller, and does not comprise all the members of the academic community; in some cases it is dominated by those with little first hand experience of research or teaching.

4.9 Oxford in fact has two large sovereign bodies or assemblies, Convocation and Congregation. Convocation is by far the larger, comprising all those holding the MA, D.Phil. or comparable degrees. In the later 17th and the 18th centuries, Convocation became much the more powerful of the University's two assemblies,[61] but since then its powers and functions have dwindled. The role of Convocation was last reviewed by the Franks Commission in 1966,[62] and following its report almost all of Convocation's powers which then remained were removed from it. Convocation now retains just two significant functions. The first is to elect the Chancellor, normally a lifetime appointment, and the second is to elect the Professor of Poetry, who holds office for five years.

4.10 The smaller of Oxford's two general assemblies, Congregation, developed during the later 19th and the 20th centuries as the University's effective sovereign body. It comprises all academic, and some senior academic-related, staff and currently has just over 3,000 members. Congregation's powers include those of considering and approving statutes promoted by Hebdomadal Council (the principal executive body), consideration of general and special resolutions promoted by Council, initiation of general resolutions instructing Council and the General Board to take a particular course of action, and approving decrees, regulations and motions promoted by Council and by other bodies. Members of Congregation may also ask formal questions of Council, and they make elections to many university bodies, in particular to Council and the General Board.[63] Some of these powers are described more fully in Chapter 5.

4.11 Overall responsibility for the day to day running of the University rests with two principal central bodies, the majority of whose members are directly elected by Congregation, namely Hebdomadal Council and the General Board of the Faculties.

Hebdomadal Council

4.12 Council, which is formally chaired by the Chancellor but which in practice is chaired by the Vice-Chancellor, is the University's principal executive and policy-making body, charged with ultimate responsibility for the administration of the University and for the management of its finances and property. The present Hebdomadal Council developed from the Hebdomadal Board originally established under the Laudian statutes of 1636.[64] It comprises 25 members, 18 of whom are directly elected by Congregation; the remainder (including the two Proctors and the Assessor) belong ex officio . It currently meets at fortnightly intervals during term, and at certain other times.

The General Board

4.13 Under Council, the General Board of the Faculties is responsible for overseeing the academic work of the University, for approving all but the most senior academic appointments, and for allocating recurrent general funding to faculty boards and academic departments. These responsibilities have developed in particular during the last forty years: the General Board was originally established in 1913, but until the 1950s enjoyed little power or prestige. Its growing importance from then on was associated with its administration of an increasingly large volume of university (as opposed to college) spending, much of it supported from public funds. It now comprises 23 members, eight of whom are elected by Congregation from the humanities and social science faculties, and eight from the science and medicine faculties. There are several ex officio members, again including the Proctors and the Assessor. Formally speaking, the Vice-Chancellor is also a member, but in practice does not usually attend meetings. The Board is chaired by a full-time Chairman, elected by the Board, and usually holding office for two years. This arrangement is relatively recent: the first full-time chairman was not appointed until 1969, and until 1990 he was 'Vice-Chairman' because until then the Vice-Chancellor was formally the chairman of the Board.

Other central committees

4.14 A joint Committee of Council and the General Board, the Resources Committee, advises on the formulation of the University's annual budget and on a range of related matters. This committee has also (in 1996) established a Planning and Resources Sub-committee to advise in the first instance on the establishment of priorities between different objectives for fund raising. Other joint committees of Council and the General Board include the Buildings Committee (responsible for all matters concerning estates administration), the Information Technology Committee, and the (non-academic) Staff Committee.

4.15 Council and the General Board each also have their own sub-committee structures. Under Council these include the Curators of the University Chest, the Committee on Health and Safety, the Audit Committee, and the Committee for the Allocation of Professorships and the Appointment of Electors. The General Board's sub-committees include Planning and Development, Finance and General Purposes, Appointments, Research and Equipment, a Joint Committee with the Senior Tutors' Committee for the Regulation of Joint Appointments, and Graduate and Undergraduate Studies Committees.

Faculty boards, inter-faculty committees and departments

4.16 Beneath the General Board there are currently 16 faculty boards elected by and from the members of the University's 16 faculties. The faculty boards are responsible to the General Board for the structure and content of undergraduate and graduate courses and examinations under their aegis, for admitting and supervising graduate students, for making recommendations of most academic and other appointments, and for other matters of policy and administration affecting the faculty concerned. The faculties vary considerably in terms of the numbers of academic staff within them: Figure 4.1 illustrates this.

Figure 4.1 : Academic staff by faculty board 1996-7

Faculty board
No. of professorships
(Statutory and Ad Hominem)

Other academic posts
 Anthropology and Geography  7  38
 Biological Sciences  20  54
 Clinical Medicine  21  73
 English  13  59
 Law  13  62
 Literae Humaniores  12  55
 Mathematical Sciences  13  94
 Medieval and Modern Languages  13  75
 Modern History  16  79
 Music  1  13
 Oriental Studies  8  46
 Physical Sciences  32  198
 Physiological Sciences  7  39
 Psychological Sciences  3  14
 Social Studies  16  105
 Theology  8  11
 Totals:  203  995

Source: University Calendar 1996-7[65]

4.17 In addition to faculty boards, there are also committees with responsibilities for particular subject areas not covered by the main faculties, such as Management Studies, Educational Studies, and Continuing Education. To a considerable extent they have the same powers as faculty boards. There is also a group of inter-faculty committees, notably in area studies, which have some of the powers of faculty boards.

4.18 Academic work in some faculties (mainly in clinical medicine and the physical and biological sciences) is departmentally organised, and the departments form the base for much teaching and most research. They often employ large numbers of academic-related research staff and other support staff, and provide computing, library and social facilities. Other subjects (principally the humanities and some social science subjects) are in general not organised on a departmental basis. Most have faculty centres and libraries, or faculty offices; however, the colleges provide the physical location and resources for much of the work in these subjects.

The Vice-Chancellor and other officers

4.19 The University's principal executive officer is the Vice-Chancellor, who at present must be a member of Congregation at the time of his or her election, and who serves full-time for four years. The Vice-Chancellor is nominated by a small appointing committee, the nomination requiring formal approval by Congregation. As noted above in paragraph 4.13, there is also a full-time Chairman of the General Board, elected by the Board from its own membership, usually serving for two years: the Chairman is in effect a 'deputy vice-chancellor for academic affairs'. A further half-time academic 'officer' is the President of the Development Programme who carries responsibility under the Vice-Chancellor for the work of the Development Office.

4.20 The Vice-Chancellor, the Chairman of the General Board and the President of the Development Programme are supported by the University's central administrative services. The chief officer is the Registrar who heads a unitary administration in which the Secretary of the Chest (Finance Division), the Secretary of Faculties (Academic Division), the Deputy Registrar (Administration) (General Administrative Division), and the Surveyor (Buildings Division) all report to the Registrar. In total there are some 190 academic-related administrative staff in the central administration.

IV: The Franks Report

4.21 The government and the administration of Oxford were last reviewed in detail by the Franks Commission,[66] whose report in 1966 made a substantial number of detailed recommendations for change.[67] Some of Franks' recommendations were adopted. These included the recommendation that the Vice-Chancellor should be appointed full-time for four years; that the chairmanship of the General Board should be a full-time salaried post; and that the Registrar should head the University's administration. However, as we noted in Chapter 1, many of the more significant recommendations of the Franks Report were either not implemented at all or were adopted only in part. These included the recommendation that there should be a Council of Colleges under Hebdomadal Council, able to represent the colleges collectively, and whose decisions would be binding on colleges individually; that Oxford's academic activities should be divided into five new faculties; and that Council should have the absolute power to make decrees, rather than that members of Congregation should have the power to object to them through a general resolution before they come fully into effect. We provide in the supplementary volume to this report a full analysis of the extent to which the Franks Report's recommendations were implemented.

4.22 Many of the principles underlying the Franks proposals remain as relevant today as they were in the 1960s. These include the desirability of having a structure of governance in which the responsibilities of different bodies are clearly defined; in which there is an appropriate degree of delegation both to subordinate bodies and to individuals; and in which the senior bodies of the University are freed from as much routine business as possible in order to enable them to consider policy and review developments from a broad perspective. However, it is perhaps inevitable that, after an interval of some thirty years since they were formulated, the detailed prescriptions advanced by the Franks Report are no longer adequate. In particular, this is because (as we set out in Chapter 2 above) the size and structure of Oxford, and the sources of its income, have changed in ways which were largely unforeseen in the 1960s.

V: The case for change

Delegation and centralisation

4.23 Oxford's present system of governance represents a combination of considerable centralisation in some areas, and considerable delegation in others. For example, those matters which are required to be the subject of legislation in the form of statutes or decrees must be considered by Hebdomadal Council, which has to promote the necessary legislation. This does not mean that all business which is the subject of such legislation is of equal importance, or that all important business is the subject of legislation. All changes in examination decrees, however minor, require Council's formal approval, but it is possible for other major developments to proceed a long way before any of the central bodies becomes directly involved. This can occur for example in cases where external funding is being sought for a new initiative or where funding may have been obtained before the academic case for the development in question has been fully considered.

4.24 The General Board exercises detailed control over decisions on whether to fill most (but not all) academic appointments, but otherwise it provides a block grant to faculties and departments to meet expenditure on non-academic staff and on most non-staff items. In terms of academic policy, the Board and its committees can exercise a relatively high degree of centralised control, for example through scrutiny of the legislation which governs examinations and the establishment or amendment of degree courses, through control of academic appointments, and by other means. Although many other decisions on relatively minor matters are also taken by committees at the centre, it is not obvious that the patterns of central control of decision-making are consistent. For example, some faculties choose to embody the detail of the structure and content of degree courses in decrees and regulations, with the consequence that they must have such material closely monitored by the General Board or its committees, with legislation promulgated by Council for the approval of Congregation. Other faculties choose to embody only general material in such legislation, and then determine the detail on their own authority.

4.25 At the other extreme there are large areas of the University's life and work which receive little direct or regular attention from the central bodies. For example, the only central involvement in decisions governing applications for external research grants and contracts (funding from which is now the single largest item in the University's income)[68] is essentially administrative; and the broad policy issues arising from the rapid increase of such activity are not overseen or monitored by any committee.

4.26 We therefore believe that a first objective of change should be to introduce a clearer rationale for deciding what is and what is not considered by central bodies and, where possible, that there should be a greater and more consistent pattern of delegation in Oxford's decision-making processes.

Planning and resource allocation

Planning in the University: current practice

4.27 There is a range of bodies within the University responsible for particular aspects of academic planning and for planning other related activity (such as the development of libraries, IT, buildings etc.). At the centre, these bodies include the Resources Committee, the General Board itself, and the Buildings Committee, while the Joint Committee of the General Board and the Senior Tutors' Committee is also involved in considering matters of joint college/University concern in administering the system of joint appointments. The General Board also undertakes a regular cycle of reviews of individual subject areas which inform their future plans and the allocation of resources to them.

4.28 Individual faculty boards and departments can also play an important role in defining their own objectives, and there are recent examples of where they have developed clearly articulated plans covering particular subjects or areas of activity within them. This is often done in the context of fundraising, when it is necessary to set out for the benefit of potential donors a faculty's or department's broad objectives. Examples include recent initiatives in respect of Management Studies and Law. Departments and faculties also have the opportunity to consider their longer term objectives in response to the ten year cycle of reviews conducted by the General Board. More generally, all subject areas have recently produced research plans to meet the requirements of the 1996 Research Assessment Exercise, where each unit of assessment was required to set out its plans for the development of research over the following five years.

4.29 Significant though they may be, these examples paradoxically reveal some of the weaknesses in Oxford's present approach to strategic planning. Most of these plans have been developed only in response to a specific and immediate need; they have not been developed as part of the regular business of the faculty or department concerned, and usually it has been only in response to some external stimulus or pressure that the opportunity has been taken to think through and set out longer term objectives. The initiative for the development of such plans has not regularly come from any of the central bodies described above which are charged under present arrangements with responsibility for the oversight of university business. Furthermore, when these central bodies have in fact considered such plans, they have done so largely in isolation from other business. There has been no systematic attempt to relate plans developed by different subject areas to each other and to consider whether such proposals overlap or complement each other, or indeed whether they might be inconsistent, or to consider their relative claims for funding.

4.30 There might be thought to be a clear example of annual strategic planning in Oxford, given that, like other universities, Oxford is required each year to submit an updated 'Strategic Plan' to HEFCE. However this is more apparent than real. In part perhaps because until now HEFCE has itself done little with the plans once submitted,[69] the Oxford document has in the past been prepared without any direct consultation with faculties and departments, and has rarely been considered by the central bodies. Instead, it has been developed as a conflation of plans and objectives from different bodies (especially those of the General Board), but its compilation has been seen largely as an administrative task, necessary only to satisfy the funding council, and once submitted this composite plan has not been used for any other purpose. Neither Council nor the General Board has reviewed or coordinated the University's overall plans for development in any other context, nor do they consider the overall pattern of resource allocation or systematically assess the use to which all resources are being put.

4.31 Council and the General Board have recently come to recognise some of these problems and have taken steps to address them. For example, as noted above, the Resources Committee has established a Planning and Resources Sub-committee, whose initial task has been to assess the priority to be given to the wide range of projects for which members of the University wish to raise funds. In a separate initiative, the General Board has asked all faculty boards to draw up long-term plans for the development of their subject areas over the next ten years. Whilst these measures are welcome, they are likely to be limited in their impact, especially because they are not directly linked to resource allocation decisions.

4.32 Our conclusion is that, whilst faculty board A or department B may have developed its own plans, it is not clear whether these plans can be regarded as having the University's sanction, approval or support, nor is it clear precisely which central bodies need to give such sanction, approval or support. It is also difficult for the University as a whole to know whether it has achieved what it has set out to do, because there is no easy or standard way of monitoring performance against objectives. More serious, perhaps, is the danger that, if it has not established a clear view of its priorities, then the University cannot be sure that it is devoting its resources and energies to those activities it most wants to develop. In the absence of a clear and coherent statement of those priorities, it is likely that effort will be dissipated, that resources may not be used to best effect, and that developments will occur which are not properly supported and may even be inconsistent with one another.

Resource allocation: current practice

4.33 We have considered Oxford's present methods for resource allocation, and believe that a weakness of the current approach is the absence of any sufficiently clear and systematic relationship between the development of plans for academic work and support services on the one hand, and the allocation of resources to faculties and departments by the central bodies on the other. This can be illustrated by examining the way in which the University's annual budget is prepared.

4.34 The budget is considered each spring by the Resources Committee, which makes recommendations to Council and the General Board. This exercise does not, however, encourage an overall assessment of how resources are being used. A first problem is that at no point in the budget exercise is an overall view taken of the University's plans for total income and spending: this emerges only after the end of the financial year when the annual Financial Statements are being prepared in conjunction with the University's external auditors. The annual budget exercise relates solely to expenditure from the General Fund - that is from resources (largely composed of the HEFCE block grant and fees) which are not received for specific purposes, and which comprise under half of the University's total income. As we have seen, the single most important source of income coming in to the University is now that from research grants and contracts, amounting to over £100 million in 1995-6 out of a total income of £260 million, but this is not considered at all in the annual budget exercise, and has been growing without any reference to the University's overall strategic direction, or to any clear analysis of costs and benefits. As we argued in Chapter 3, it is essential that the University should consider the effects of growth in this source of income on Oxford's overall size and shape. From the point of view of the annual budget, we have noted that most external research grant income covers only a proportion of the total costs of the activities it supports. The University should take such income fully into account in its financial planning, and the budget process should give explicit attention to the sources of the remainder of the funding.

4.35 A second problem is that the assumption is usually made that the first call on the budget each year is the continuation, as far as possible, of existing commitments, with suitable adjustments being made for pay and non-pay inflation factors. Some general retrenchment is often required, and in recent years this has sometimes been significant. In such circumstances, retrenchment is usually achieved by applying a common percentage cut in all budgets, across the board. The overall outcome of this process is that the bulk of spending (the 'spending base') rarely gets reassessed, in times either of plenty or of scarcity. If additional funds are available, these are allocated in response to bids for extra spending, and the key decisions relate largely to how far such bids for marginal additions to spending can be met. Given that the resources available to the University for general expenditure are under ever increasing pressure, these marginal decisions usually concern only a small proportion of the available funds. The scope for decisions is further restricted because the largest part of the General Fund income - some £90 million out of approximately £110 million - is allocated as a block grant to the General Board, so that many key spending decisions are taken by the Board, not by Council or the Resources Committee.

Planning and resource allocation: the objectives of change

4.36 We believe that a substantial improvement in the arrangements for planning and resource allocation described above could be made by introducing a closer relationship between the annual resource allocation exercise and the development of plans for the University's academic activities and the services needed to support them. This would encourage more rigorous and longer term thinking about the use of all the resources available to the main spending sectors, clearer assessment of the total costs of particular proposals, and would also make the basis on which budgetary decisions were taken clearer and relate them to declared priorities.

4.37 In a well developed planning cycle, there would be regular opportunity for considering the plans of the constituent parts of the University together, so that a more coherent and consistent view would be taken of the priority to be attached to each element. Provided that the development of such a view is carried out openly and commands respect, then the consequent decisions on how to allocate resources between competing priorities should also command respect, even if not everyone agrees with the particular decisions taken. The integration of decisions on resource allocation with academic priorities is often difficult to achieve under the present structures of governance since no single body has the appropriate powers or responsibility: as noted above, the current division of responsibility between the Resources Committee and the General Board means that the former is largely confined to allocating most of the resources available to it as a block grant to the latter. Priorities between different areas therefore tend to be established on a more piecemeal basis, with decisions on such priorities taken in reaction to particular circumstances rather than as part of a regular planning cycle.

4.38 As well as making the University's policies and priorities clearer to its own members, improved planning and resource allocation methods should aim to meet at least one other important objectives. They need to foster more effective working relationships with external funding agencies. Those agencies, both public and private, on whom the University depends for much of its income are placing increasingly demanding requirements on the University to account for the way in which resources are used. If Oxford is to be able to deal effectively with the outside bodies and institutions from which it gains its income, and with potential benefactors, it must be able to state clearly and confidently what its aims and policies are. In an increasingly competitive funding environment this is a necessity not a luxury, and is essential if Oxford is to continue to obtain the resources to pursue the developments it wants to undertake.

4.39 Thus, there should be a closer link between establishing academic priorities and allocating resources. Unless academic priorities are established reasonably clearly, decisions about the allocation of resources cannot properly be informed by them. Since decisions on resource allocation must be taken one way or another, the absence of agreed priorities means that such decisions are likely to be made on a piecemeal basis, and their overall impact will be unclear and may not turn out to be what is desired. It is better, in our view, if such decisions are taken consciously and advisedly on the basis of agreed plans.

Clarity of responsibility and accountability

4.40 We have also considered how far Oxford's present system of governance provides clarity of responsibility and encourages proper accountability for decision-making. This has been an important element in our thinking, and we have also noted that achieving clarity of responsibility in decision-making is a principal objective of the code of practice for institutional governance proposed in the Dearing Report.[70]

4.41 At present, and especially for most of those not closely involved in the University's governance, it can be unclear how and why decisions are made, who is making them, and at what point they have actually been taken. The present system also tends to lead to what a previous Vice-Chancellor characterised as 'delegation upwards', with problematic issues being referred ever further up the committee hierarchy until they reach the highest body. This in turn can result in the business of the University's most senior bodies becoming heavily dominated by issues which could more appropriately have been resolved at a lower level, whether by committees or individuals.

4.42 In addition, it is often difficult for bodies or individuals, both within the University and outside, to know whom to approach directly when they seek a clear view of the University's policy on a particular matter. The difficulty of identifying who can speak authoritatively for the University has been highlighted in a number of recent reviews, including that of the organisation of the Clinical Medical School, and that of the University's policy for technology transfer and intellectual property, as well as in some of the regular reviews of humanities and social science faculties conducted by the General Board.

4.43 We have therefore concluded that there should be two further objectives for change: one is to establish a clear mechanism for agreeing priorities and policies, and the second is to delegate responsibility in a way which enables appropriate office holders to speak for the University within a framework of defined responsibilities and agreed plans.

4.44 The counterpart to responsibility is accountability: if it is not wholly clear who or which body has taken responsibility for a decision, it is difficult to know who can be held accountable for it, and for ensuring that it is implemented. Clarifying where responsibility lies improves accountability. An example of where such clarity is at present sometimes lacking is when a particular body takes a decision 'on the understanding that' certain conditions will be adhered to - for example when approval for a new course is given subject to assurances that the resources can be found or that no new resources are required. If subsequently it becomes clear that resources were not available or were required, who is accountable for the initial error of judgement? We believe that greater clarity is required in order to improve accountability.

Democracy and self-government in Oxford

4.45 One of Oxford's most distinctive characteristics, much valued by many, is that it remains a self-governing community of scholars, whose members, in theory at least, enjoy the opportunity for a high degree of direct involvement in its governance. Thus, as we noted above, the University's ultimate sovereign body is Congregation, essentially comprising its resident senior members. Congregation elects representatives to fill the majority of places on Hebdomadal Council and the General Board; and through its powers as a legislature its explicit approval is required for changes in the legislative framework governing the University's life. Direct involvement in governance is also fostered through the faculty structure, with members of faculties and sub-faculties meeting to consider matters concerning teaching and examining in their subject areas, and electing the faculty boards which carry out a wide range of business on their behalf. The collegiate system also embodies important democratic principles, with the life of each college overseen by its governing body, comprising all, or virtually all, of the fellowship.

4.46 As we argued in Chapter 3, we believe that Oxford should remain a self-governing academic community, and we believe that Congregation should remain the University's sovereign body, since its authority is a prime expression of Oxford's identity as a self-governing academic community. However, there are also aspects of its present structure which could be improved, and we are concerned that unless they are then the rationale for self-government will be undermined. In particular, if Congregation is to remain a large body of over 3,000 members, its responsibilities must be appropriate to a body of such a size, and the procedures through which it discharges them must be effective.

Congregation's current composition and procedures

4.47 Many of Congregation's current procedures and functions were established at a time when it was a much smaller body than it has now become. In 1934 it comprised 740 members; by 1954 this had risen to 1,161, by 1964 to 1,620, by 1974 to 2,043, and by July 1997 to 3,185. There may also (as we argue in Chapter 5) be a case for extending membership further, to embrace more fully those with a direct involvement in the University's academic work. Whatever the case, Congregation's present size is such that it cannot be expected to operate as a 'working parliament', which is the model upon which many of its procedures are based. It is very unlikely, for example, that a formal debate will ever attract more than a minority of members. This point can be illustrated by considering the debates during the academic year 1996-7 over the siting of, and terms of the benefaction for, the new Business School. This was clearly a contentious issue, yet the first debate in November 1996 attracted only 476 people who voted in person, and the second attracted 397. Many detailed issues also require a considerable amount of background knowledge if they are to be discussed effectively, but it may be impracticable or unreasonably expensive to provide all the relevant information to enable a fully informed debate to take place. There is also the question of confidentiality of sensitive matters, when it may not be prudent to reveal to the University at large all the details of an issue because negotiations are in train which are commercially or personally sensitive. Whilst some might argue that this University should not enter into discussions or negotiations that require confidentiality, a moment's reflection will reveal that this is neither satisfactory nor practical. To adopt such an approach would put Oxford at a grave disadvantage.

4.48 We believe that Congregation's procedures need re-examining so that it can discharge its functions more effectively. In analysing these functions we have found it helpful to distinguish:

  • its role as a forum for debate and discussion, whereby the University's central bodies can test the opinion of the academic community;
  • its role as a legislature, whereby Oxford's self-government is given expression;
  • its role as an electorate, enabling the principal executive bodies to be representative of, and accountable to, the wider academic community.

4.49 At present, the procedures governing the first two functions are largely based on the assumption that there will be formal meetings of Congregation attended by members in person (even though in fact there is no assembly place in Oxford large enough to accommodate more than about one third of its total membership). Our first concern is that it is increasingly unrealistic to expect Congregation regularly to operate on this basis, as though it were a working parliament. Current practice bears out this concern. For example, 'stated' meetings of Congregation are scheduled to take place six times a term (and the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor have power to call meetings at any other time, although in recent years at least they have not had occasion to do so). In practice, however, most of the stated meetings of Congregation are cancelled; of 72 stated meetings in the four years 1992-96, 12 were held for debate, and a further 6 were held for 'technical' reasons; however 41 were cancelled because all the business was straightforward and unopposed, and for the remaining 13 there was no business.

4.50 We have also noted that the vast bulk of legislation taken before Congregation in the form of statutes and decrees proposed by Hebdomadal Council is unopposed. For example, in the two years 1994-5 and 1995-6, 46 statutes were formally enacted by Congregation, but only 1 was opposed. Whilst this might arguably be because the other 45 commanded general assent, it is more likely to reflect the fact that ordinary members of Congregation do not have the time, the interest or the background knowledge to become involved in the largely routine or uncontentious matters which were the subject of most of the legislation - legislation which had in many cases been initiated in faculties or departments and which in all cases had already been scrutinised by elected bodies. Congregation's size is such that it cannot be expected to scrutinise legislation as in a 'parliamentary' model. Where it does have a valuable role, and one which we believe should be encouraged, is in acting as ultimate arbiter of contentious issues, and in being a forum through which the central executive bodies can be called to account.

4.51 We are also concerned that Congregation's procedures do not encourage the general discussion of broad policy matters. Debates focus on the proposing of a motion or resolution, or on the formal promulgation of a piece of legislation. This inevitably tends to foster a confrontational approach to business, requiring opposition to or support for a proposal, rather than examination and discussion of a broad issue before final proposals are formulated by the central university bodies.

4.52 There are also, of course, procedures to enable postal votes to take place on any item of business which has been the subject of debate or which is the subject of legislation, either at the initiative of Council, or if a sufficient number of members of Congregation request a postal vote. Such votes can provide a valuable way of testing opinion within the University and of securing a decisive view on a difficult matter. They are however rare, and even when they take place only a minority of those eligible usually vote. For example, in the last 10 years such votes have been held on only seven occasions. The highest response rate was 48 per cent (in the vote in 1997 on the question of the siting of the new Business School), the lowest 19.5 per cent. Nor, of course, do postal votes allow the exchange of ideas or discussion of options which are a valuable feature of a debate; nor are they without cost.

4.53 Congregation's third function is that of an electorate. Under present arrangements, Congregation directly elects 18 of the 25 members of the Hebdomadal Council, and 16 of the 23 members of the General Board. It is also responsible for electing some or all of the members of 14 other varied university bodies, such as the Committee for the Scientific Collections in the University Museum, the Curators of the Sheldonian Theatre and of the University Parks, and the Select Committee for the Nomination of University Preachers.

4.54 We are concerned at what appears to be a general lack of interest in many of these elections. In the last two years, Congregation has been required to make elections on 27 occasions. In nine cases elections were contested; while eight others were uncontested. In 10 cases no nominations at all were received, so that the Vice-Chancellor and Proctors were required to make appointments to fill the relevant vacancies. In recent years this appointing procedure has had to be followed in respect of vacancies on what might be regarded as significant bodies, including Council, the General Board, the Visitatorial Board, and the Nominating Committee for the Vice-Chancellorship. In the one third of elections which were contested the contests were limited, and the number of candidates was usually only slightly in excess of the number of vacancies to be filled.

4.55 The number of those voting in those elections which were contested was usually also low. The highest turnout has been in elections to Council: three out of the last four of these have been contested, with 1,006 voting in 1996, 1,029 in 1995, and 984 in 1993, that is approximately one third of the eligible electorate. Elections to the General Board appear to have generated less interest: in the case of elections of members from the humanities and social science faculties only one of the last four elections was contested, with 602 members of Congregation voting. In the case of elections of members from the science and medicine faculties, three out of the last four elections have been contested, with about 600 votes cast in each case. Whilst these figures for General Board elections could be explained in part by the fact that those standing for election were drawn from one section or another of the University community, it still remains the case that the turnout was little more than 20 per cent.

4.56 It is thus comparatively rare for elections by Congregation to be contested and, in those cases where they are, many members of Congregation seem to have found it difficult to decide for whom to vote because they knew little about the candidates, and no information has in the past been provided to them. Whilst 30 or 40 years ago Congregation (and the University) were of a size where it might have been expected that most people would have known most others, the University is now such a large, diverse and complex organisation that it is no longer possible to rely on informal channels to inform voters.

Congregation's future business: objectives of change

4.57 Our review of the way in which Congregation is operating has led us to the following conclusions. First, too much routine and uncontentious business has to pass through it in the form of legislation of one kind or another. All of this legislation has previously been initiated and scrutinised by elected bodies, and we do not think that the additional costs and time involved in its formal passage by Congregation are always justified by the requirements of accountability or self-government. We therefore believe that an objective of change should be to reduce the volume of material which is embodied in formal legislation which requires Congregation's approval. Secondly, we believe that a way should be found of making Congregation a more effective forum for discussion, through which the University's central elected bodies can test opinion and sound out views before having to make formal proposals. Thirdly, we believe that ways should be found of encouraging wider participation in elections and in postal voting.

Communication and openness

4.58 We have considered how far the University's central bodies are regarded as effective in communicating their decisions and the reasons for them to the University as a whole. A criticism that there was 'a high level of obscurity and opaqueness' in the University's decision-making and governmental structures was developed in Chapter 5 of the Coopers and Lybrand report.[71] This complaint also featured in many of the written responses to the questionnaires in which we sought the views of staff in Hilary Term 1996.

4.59 The University's central bodies generally rely on formal, traditional methods to communicate decisions. These usually involve the publication of a decision (mainly in the form of proposed legislation) in the University Gazette, and the communication of that decision to another formal body. But neither of these routes is really effective in informing most members of Congregation: the official part of the University Gazette, it is often observed, uses a style which does not encourage readers. Similarly, unless someone is a member of a particular committee or body which is formally told of a decision by one of the central bodies, there is no general way of finding out what has happened or even that a matter has been considered. This problem is linked to the fact that many decisions are taken both centrally and at a high level.

4.60 Attempts are made to communicate more widely, particularly through the publication of the Vice-Chancellor's and the Senior Proctor's annual Orations, the reports of bodies such as the Delegates of the Press or the Visitors of the Ashmolean, departmental reports, and the University's Annual Report. However, these appear to have had only limited success, not least because much of this material is itself published with the Gazette. At times, it appears that Oxford Today (which is designed to sustain links between the University and Oxonians in this country and abroad) provides an equally important communication function for those in Oxford.

4.61 Improving internal communication in so large and diverse a university as Oxford is by no means simple, and in practice there will always be a limit to how far senior members of the University have the time or inclination to interest themselves in matters which are not of direct concern to them. Nevertheless, if Oxford's constitution is to function more effectively, and if decisions reached by the central bodies are to command respect, then an objective of change must be to improve communication within the University. 

The use of academic staff time

4.62 The close involvement of senior members of the University in its governance inevitably makes substantial calls upon their time. This arises not only because of the University's structure of committees, but also from the demands of college administration and in particular of holding college offices. The results of our survey of academic staff in Hilary Term 1996 show that, in general, administration was taking up between 15 per cent and 25 per cent of the working week. One of the loudest and most commonly voiced complaints made by the almost 1,000 respondents to the staff survey who offered individual comments was that the combined demands of university, faculty/departmental and college administration were too great. Many were frustrated by the substantial demands on their time which the University's methods of governing require. Thus, while Oxford's structures are democratic in the sense that 'ordinary' dons can influence decision-making and become involved in it, they also require an enormous investment of time.

4.63 We are not the only body to have identified this problem. Concerns over the question of the best and most effective use of staff time have been one of the main factors lying behind the General Board's discussions over the possibility of introducing a common contract to govern joint appointments, a development discussed more fully in Chapter 7. We are clear, however, that any change in Oxford's system of governance should aim to reduce the time academic staff have to give to administrative matters, and to ensure that, when staff are giving time to university administration, it is time spent effectively on dealing with issues which genuinely require their input, rather than on matters which can more appropriately be dealt with in other ways.

Hebdomadal Council and the General Board

4.64 We have also looked specifically at the current operation of both Hebdomadal Council and the General Board. We have concerns about both.

Hebdomadal Council

4.65 We are clear that Council is not functioning as the Franks Report envisaged that it should. Franks wished Council to be 'the chief administrative body of the University...that is, a body in which policy is decided and from which the execution of that policy is controlled. Council must be the centre at which ideas about the general structure and intention of the University are discussed and settled. It must execute such decisions or cause them to be executed...it must commit the whole body when it decides and speaks...and has ultimate responsibility for the whole of Oxford...[this means] the whole community, colleges as well as University'.[72]

4.66 In practice this is not happening. Instead, Council remains largely reactive. A considerable amount of business passes through it, much of it uncontentious, but because of the sheer volume of this business and the demands that are made on the University's administrative machine in its preparation, Council does not often have the opportunity to consider broader strategic issues, or to initiate policy. A further problem stems from the current division of responsibility between Council and the General Board. Since the General Board has prime responsibility for academic matters, Council generally has little opportunity to engage in serious discussion of matters which should be central and fundamental to the University - namely the development of its academic work. Present structures discourage the kind of strategic thinking which would bring together consideration of academic matters with other broader questions, and they foster the somewhat fragmented approach to planning and resource allocation which we discussed earlier.

The General Board

4.67 The evidence submitted to us suggests that the General Board is regarded as more effective and is better understood than is Council, responsible as it is for the academic administration of the University, for making appointments to established non-statutory academic posts, and for controlling a budget of over £90 million a year. However, we believe that there are significant disadvantages in the way in which the General Board currently has to operate.

4.68 The first difficulty stems from the sheer volume and range of business which now falls to the General Board. This means that the Board has rarely found time to take the initiative in developing policy on the organisation and support of teaching, on examination methods, or the development of policies in support of research. As a result, teaching and research develop within the University largely on the basis of individual decisions taken in individual cases, without clear reference to an overall policy. Furthermore, Oxford's undergraduate degree courses have no common structure, but this appears to be as much by accident of individual decisions as by overall design. For example, in the last twenty years the use of the viva in undergraduate examinations has almost vanished, but it is not clear whether this has been the result of any conscious overall policy, nor is it clear that any general assessment has been made of the impact of such a change. The Board's Graduate and Undergraduate Studies Committees have been largely reactive in considering issues such as the structure of courses, examination practice, methods of assuring and assessing quality, the setting of standards, and related matters.[73] The workload of General Board committees clearly illustrates the damaging effects of upward delegation, where some faculties (but not others) send upward for approval very fine details of syllabus changes: the result is clutter, and a very unbalanced scrutiny of what is going on below. The consequence is that there is no one committee or body within the University which can be readily identified as having an explicit concern with the development of overall educational policy in Oxford, and which is able to demonstrate Oxford's mechanisms for monitoring quality to students and to outside bodies.

4.69 In the case of research, there is a similar absence of consideration of broader policy issues arising from developments either within the University or outside. The General Board's own Research and Equipment Committee is charged with considering 'long-term trends in research which should influence University policy ... changes in research council policy and other matters likely to have a significant effect on outside support for research ... and changes in the overall balance between teaching and research in the University', but the committee itself reported to the Board in its 1995 annual report that it was unable to discharge any of these functions. The reasons appear to relate partly to what the committee regards as a 'lack of information' about such issues, and partly to preoccupation with a weight of detailed matters; but it may also in part be due to the fact that, even if the committee were to monitor factors affecting the long term development of research, it is not clear what the purpose of this monitoring would be within the present structure of governance. We discuss this point in more detail in Chapter 11.

4.70 A further problem affecting the operation of the General Board stems from changes over the last twenty years in the ways in which the University is funded. In 1974-5, the General Board's income represented some 65 per cent of total university income, and was three times the income from research grants and contracts (which represented only 21 per cent of the university total). By 1995-6 the position had changed radically. The General Board's income represented only 30 per cent of total university income, whereas income from research grants and contracts exceeded that of the General Board by £13 million, and represented 36 per cent of total university income. The proportion of the University's budget administered by the General Board has thus declined substantially, while income from research grants and contracts (which the General Board does not administer) now substantially exceeds the Board's own budget. Yet it is the General Board which has had to deal with the consequences of the shift of a proportion of public funds for research from HEFCE to the research councils (the 'dual support shift'),[74] even though it has no immediate influence over or responsibility for external research funding or relationships with the research councils. The real problem is that no other university body does either.

4.71 Finally, the General Board's position has also been affected by the growth of the University since the time of the Franks Report. There are now several distinct subject groupings within the University, the balance of whose income from different sources varies markedly, and for whom current issues concerning the organisation and support of both teaching and research are quite distinct. For example, for clinical medicine, dominant policy questions revolve around the growth of outside grant income, relationships with medical charities, and the interface with the NHS; for departmentally organised subjects in the sciences some of the questions facing medicine are also important, but with particular emphasis on issues arising from the policies of government and of the research councils. However, in the humanities and social sciences teaching and research are organised and (in the case of research) funded on a different basis: research is often library or archive based, colleges provide much support for it, and relationships with external funders of research, though not unimportant, do not play such a crucial role as in the natural sciences and in medicine. Further differences between subjects arise from the absence of departmental organisation in most humanities and some social science subjects. It also became very clear to us in the course of our discussion of graduate education that patterns of provision - and current issues of concern - in that area were very different in humanities and social science subjects as compared with those in the sciences and medicine (see also paragraph 10.20).

4.72 The General Board has found it increasingly difficult and time-consuming to deal effectively with each of these three distinct subject areas. It has not proved easy for a single body to command the expertise necessary to cover such a range of business in the detail currently expected of the Board. Indeed, these pressures have already led to some significant changes in the way in which the General Board operates, and in its relationships with some of the faculties beneath it. This is particularly so in the case of clinical medicine. The General Board is now responsible only for a small fraction of the total budget of the clinical medical departments. The major part of their income comprises external research funding, and most posts in the clinical medical departments - both academic and non-academic - are no longer supported by the General Board's budget. Moreover, whereas in the case of other faculties the General Board retains control over the number of academic posts and makes decisions on whether they can be filled, it has now delegated this responsibility to the faculty board of Clinical Medicine. As a result, the remaining policy issues affecting clinical medicine which come to the General Board tend to cover a disparate range of questions. Because of this division of responsibility, both the General Board and the clinical medicine board find it difficult to provide an overall strategic direction for the subject. The General Board's position has not been helped in this area by the fact that in 1996-7 its membership included only one member of the clinical medicine faculty.

4.73 The clinical medicine board thus already enjoys a considerable degree of independence, achieved within a structure which was not designed to accommodate such independence. There are strong and understandable pressures to adopt a parallel approach in other areas. We believe that these pressures should be recognised, and, in our view, this can best be done through adopting wider changes.

The colleges and Oxford's governance

4.74 It is important that the interests of colleges are effectively represented in the University's planning and decision-making machinery. At present the colleges exercise a considerable, if informal, influence on university decision-making. Virtually every member of a university committee is also a fellow of a college, and currently 11 of the 25 members of Council are heads of colleges. Colleges do not in general have formal representation on university bodies, but this does occur in some cases: one example is the Joint Committee of the General Board and the Senior Tutors' Committee on Joint Appointments, where there is a specific joint task to be performed. The Proctors and Assessor, having been elected to their posts by the fellows of their colleges, are also well placed to represent college views on university bodies.

4.75 Given that the University and the colleges are jointly engaged on the common tasks of teaching and research, an effective working partnership between them is essential. This points to a need for close involvement of colleges in the work of the main academic planning and resource allocation bodies at the centre of the University's machinery, and for cooperation with colleges in planning facilities such as libraries and information technology. The central bodies - and the Vice-Chancellor - should be regarded as being representative of college interests as much as of those of the University in the narrow sense.

4.76 We recognise that achieving this objective is complicated by the fact that the relationship between university departments and faculties on the one hand, and colleges on the other, varies between different subject areas, as does the balance of responsibility for teaching and research exercised by the various partners involved. But the objective is important in all subject areas.

4.77 In the mid-1960s the Franks Report argued that effective representation of the colleges could best be achieved through a single body to represent colleges (the proposed 'Council of Colleges'), which would, under Hebdomadal Council, represent college interests in the affairs of Oxford as a whole.[75] We do not ourselves favour this approach. We believe that, rather than view the colleges as a distinct and separate 'estate' within the University's machinery of governance, we should seek a more integrated approach whereby college interests and concerns are represented in the affairs of all the principal decision-making bodies. The proposals we make in the next chapter reflect this approach.

4.78 The precise relationship between the University and the colleges will depend greatly on the future mode of financing college fees, which at the time of writing this report is under discussion. If some or all of the funds currently received directly by the colleges were in future channelled through the University, then the relationship would need to adapt to accommodate this different balance of funding. We are aware that this issue might need to be re-examined after our report is published, and our aim has been to propose mechanisms which would enable shifts in the balance of resources between the University and the colleges to be handled effectively.  

The office of Vice-Chancellor

4.79 As we have noted, the present arrangements governing the office of Vice-Chancellor were introduced in the late 1960s, following the Franks Report. The Vice-Chancellor is appointed for a period of four years. A new Vice-Chancellor is nominated at least two years before the end of the existing Vice-Chancellor's term of office by a special Nominating Committee, whose recommendation falls to be approved by Congregation. Any member of Congregation is eligible for nomination as Vice-Chancellor, but (although the requirement that a Vice-Chancellor should be a head of House was dropped after the Franks report) all but one Vice-Chancellor elected since then has been a Head of House. Eligibility is subject to an age limit, in that a Vice-Chancellor cannot be over the age of 61 at the time when he or she will enter office. When these provisions were introduced, the arguments in their favour stemmed from clear recognition of the ever increasing burdens on the office of Vice-Chancellor, and the need for a full-time occupant of the post who would, in Franks' words, be 'the key figure...as administrator, planner, and spokesman...[of the University].'[76]

4.80 In the thirty years since the present arrangements were introduced, the burdens on the office have continued to increase. In part these burdens reflect the changes in the structure and size of Oxford which were described in Chapter 2; in part they reflect the far greater demands now placed on the University by external funding bodies - such as the funding councils, the research councils, charities and others. They also reflect the fact that the Vice-Chancellor is now expected to undertake new roles which have developed greatly over the last decade or so. In particular, he or she must devote a significant proportion of time to fund-raising, to the development of relationships with potential donors, to travel abroad and to the representation of the University to the wider world.

4.81 We believe that some further changes to the provisions governing the office of Vice-Chancellor are needed to take account of the changes in Oxford which have occurred since the time of Franks. 

VI: The need for structural change

4.82 We have concluded that meeting the various objectives set out above will require structural changes in Oxford's governance, and in particular in the present division of responsibilities between Council and the General Board. As we have noted, the University's most senior body under the present structure (Hebdomadal Council) has no general involvement in academic planning and associated decisions on resource allocation; and its highest academic body (the General Board) is ill-placed to bring together decisions on resource allocation and strategic academic planning. How far Council becomes involved in any given matter usually depends on whether it has to pass a decree, which reflects the University's legislative procedures rather than the intrinsic importance of the issues concerned. The result is that it is very difficult for Council, or the General Board, or the two bodies taken together, to exercise effective strategic oversight of the University's academic work. We believe that Oxford needs a principal executive body which combines responsibility for oversight of academic work with responsibility for allocating resources, so bringing together responsibilities currently divided between Council and the General Board.

4.83 A second element in the case for structural change concerns the position of the General Board itself. At present the Board exercises substantial responsibilities for much of the detailed administration of the University's academic work, and is expected to combine these with responsibility for strategic oversight of that work and the allocation of resources to support it. But the Board is hampered in the exercise of these functions. As we have argued, the present combination of responsibilities for both detailed matters and for strategic oversight is too large a burden for a single body to undertake effectively; and the Board has no responsibility for managing external research grant and contract income, giving it only partial control over the resources supporting academic work. We believe that the way forward is to pass upwards from the General Board to a new Council the broad strategic oversight of the University's academic work; to abolish the General Board; and then to devolve responsibility for all other matters (including much of the business currently undertaken by the Board) to a lower level.

4.84 We have considered whether alternative approaches to the one we advocate in the next chapter might provide effective solutions to these problems. One might be to abolish the present General Board and to delegate most of its responsibilities to the existing bodies below the General Board. However, these bodies are not in general appropriately organised so as to exercise any substantial devolved responsibilities. Faculty boards and departments are too numerous (16 faculty boards and, depending on the criterion used to count them, well over 50 departments) and contain too many units for any satisfactory delegation. Arguments about the division of resources between them would be so detailed that effective decision-making would inevitably remain at the centre, whilst the disparity in their size and composition would make any consistent strategic thinking very difficult. Larger bodies, with a more coherent academic identity, and a more consistent structure, are required.

4.85 The aim of delegating responsibility from the Board might alternatively be met by the approach proposed thirty years ago in the Franks Report, which advocated the creation of five new 'super faculty boards' beneath the General Board, under which existing faculty boards would be grouped.[77] However there were good reasons behind the University's decision not to pursue this proposal. As well as creating an additional layer of administration, it would have involved too many bodies in the second layer, beneath the central bodies, while the division of responsibility between the General Board and the 'super-boards', and between the General Board and Council, would have remained unclear. Our view is that a more satisfactory solution, which does not involve creating an extra tier in the administrative structure, is needed. The proposal is laid out in the next chapter.

4.86 Our clear conclusion is thus that structural change is essential if the objectives set out in this chapter are to be met. While it is difficult to prove or disprove this contention, we believe that it would be much easier to make the necessary changes in process if there were corresponding changes in structure, and that such changes would have a much greater chance of success within a new structure. We thus prefer to go to the heart of the matter, rather than to tinker with or to add further complexities to the present structure.

VII: Conclusion

4.87 We believe that there is a clear need for change in Oxford's structures of governance. Our general objectives in recommending change may be summarised as follows:

  • Oxford's structures of governance must be robust enough to enable the University to respond to the need for change but at the same time to remain in control of its own future;
  • Oxford must take account of the substantial changes in its size and shape since the days of the Franks Report;
  • account needs to be taken of the way in which current policy issues facing those working in some subject areas often differ markedly from issues facing those working in other areas;
  • Oxford's distinctive characteristics as a self-governing collegiate University should be reflected in its central structures of governance.

4.88 We have also argued that proposals for change should reflect the following more specific objectives:

  • there should be a clearer rationale for deciding what is and what is not to be considered by central bodies and, where possible, a greater and more consistent degree of delegation of decision-making;
  • there should be a closer relationship between the annual resource allocation exercise and the development of long-term strategic plans;
  • improved arrangements for academic planning should aim to foster effective working relationships with external funding agencies;
  • the structure of governance should enable appropriate office holders to speak for the University;
  • there should be a reduction in the volume of material embodied in formal legislation requiring Congregation's approval;
  • Congregation should be made a more effective forum for discussion;
  • wider participation by members of Congregation in elections and in postal voting should be encouraged;
  • better understanding of Oxford's governance, and wider communication of the issues being considered by the University's central bodies, should be sought;
  • the time contributed by academic staff to administrative matters should be reduced and their contribution rendered more effective;
  • changes in the University's structures of governance should aim to make the central bodies more effective in exercising strategic oversight of the University's business and in initiating discussion of policy matters, and they should aim to reduce the amount of detailed work which the principal bodies undertake by fostering more systematic delegation;
  • there should be effective representation of college interests in the affairs of the principal decision-making bodies;
  • the Vice-Chancellor's responsibilities should be reviewed, and support for the office improved.

4.89 The discussion in this chapter has drawn attention to ways in which we believe that the present structure of governance requires improvement. The tone of the discussion may sometimes seem unduly negative, because we have (quite appropriately) focused on what we believe to be difficulties in the way the structure of governance is currently working. This is not to detract from the immense and continuing achievements of the University, nor should it imply that Oxford's governance faces any sort of crisis. Oxford is a highly successful university and there are many positive features to its system of governance; but we believe that improvements are possible and that they are needed.